Isa Genzken

When Isa Genzken concluded work on her roughly six-year series of concrete sculptures in 1992, her turn to glass and mirrors might have signaled greater rationalization of her practice. The heavy slablike structures mounted on metal stands, which had defined much of her work in the late ’80s, were unruly, their pockmarked walls often suggesting buildings on the verge of collapse. The hard-edged, smooth surfaces of glass implied more stable forms, a cleaning up of her act. This new survey of work from the past decade, with its focus on recent projects, revealed that her practice has continued to fluctuate wildly between the poles of restraint and caprice.

Cued by late Minimalism, Genzken has always explored the relations between sculpture and the social space of architecture, with references to everyday lived experience intruding on her formal experiments. But this happens in a surprising way in her new Empire/Vampire, Who Kills Death, 2002/2003, a roomful of twenty-two individual sculptures on tall pedestals. These teetering groupings of sundry materials (broken glassware, clothing, bread, oyster shells, and other debris), many covered in loosely poured paint, portray lilliputian worlds of apparently debased human behavior. Toy soldiers square off amid a red-painted landscape of rubber boots; fantasy action figures wallow at the bottom of an oversize brandy snifter; a traveler parks his camper in a bed of sunflower seeds. Though hardly Genzken’s first foray into humor, this is a significant move toward the slippery terrain of kitsch. The control that has always defined her work seems to have slackened considerably.

In the next room Genzken had installed a large structure, Science Fiction/Hier und jetzt zufrieden sein (Science fiction/To be contended here and now), 2001, a collaboration with Wolfgang Tillmans, where two mirror-covered rectangular boxes served as a corridor framing a view of Tillmans’s romantic photograph of rainwater falling on a pond. Her slick modernist mirrors contrasted with his rippled organic surface, the two sides coming together to offer a space for differing notions of self-reflection.

A somewhat more objective approach defined two other series, “New Buildings for Berlin,” 2001–2003, and “Soziale Fassaden” (Social facades), 2002–2003. “New Buildings,” some of which were shown at Documenta 11, reduce the architectural model to a few sheets of colored glass propped against one another, proposing a vertically oriented future Berlin. By contrast, the “Social Facades” are wall pieces that employ cheap metallic and patterned foil sheets to connote the bright, prismatic effect of light bouncing around a congested urban environment. In these planar objects something that approximates painting turns into a quasi-sculptural experience.

In the many Säulen (Columns) Genzken has produced since the early ’90s, the pedestal itself becomes the locus of experimentation; collaged printed imagery and paint clash in an extended play with assemblage in three dimensions. The sheer heterogeneity of their humble materials brings the exhibition full circle to the kitsch factor of Empire/Vampire, Who Kills Death, which no longer seems quite as far removed from Genzken’s long-term project.

Video and film works were shown in a side room. Among them, Meine Grosseltern im Bayrischen Wald (My grandparents in the Bavarian forest), 1992, imbued with the charm and wit of familiar encounters around the house, further illustrated the way Genzken is influenced by the poignancy of mundane activities. Genzken is eminently capable of upholding elements of modernist rationalism while allowing it to be partly sullied by the intrusion of the outside world. For her, these realms have never been far apart in the first place.

Gregory Williams