New York

Manfred Pernice

Anton Kern Gallery / Storefront for Art and Architecture

In Berlin-based artist Manfred Pernice’s recent show, art disentangled itself from, and then remerged with, modular furniture: Dinged plywood benches each formed of three open cubes and positioned against a gallery wall led into more elaborate “banks” in the center of the space, some built of concrete with inset tiles, others of partially painted particleboard, scored or cut as though halfway to assembly. The show was called “Commerzbank,” after the advertisement from which Kurt Schwitters cut his famous word fragment “Merz”; meanwhile the artist calls the benches themselves “merzbanks,” punning on the German words for “bank” and “bench,” which are one and the same (die Bank). With these references, Pernice makes a move toward positioning Schwitters not as a romantic, Luddite ancestor but as a proponent of the kind of art practice that capitalizes on the alchemical transformation of objects—like benches—into art. Indeed, in a concurrent show at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, where models of Pernice’s sculptures and architectural propositions were displayed with documentation of their sites or formal precedents, a chocolate box becomes a habitable shipping container, and a group of model living units with scored and painted cardboard surfaces proposes the possibility that the handmade and the machine-modular can humorously coexist.

In bluntly appearing incomplete, Pernice’s objects (the large pieces at Kern in particular) solicit our involvement as aesthetic producers. To “complete the work,” we might select illustrated ceramic tiles for our own merzbanks—Pernice’s include miniature images of tigers, clouds, and wispy flowers—or fashion the (already decomposing) interconnecting prefab boards into improvisatory environments. But by providing us this array of kitschy or broken materials, Pernice intentionally forces the participatory aesthetic to trip over its commercially co-opted or simply nonfunctioning units. The call toward our participation—these structures’ vaunted “unfinishedness”—seems to have gone unanswered long enough for real decay to have set in. Are the tubs of bottles, cans, and concrete debris arranged among the benches simply raw materials awaiting magical transmutation into art? Or are they the dejected and unredeemable shards washed up from the previous banks of modular modernism?

Meanwhile, trumpeting the return of repressed figuration, a plaster foot rises from one of the benches; on another, a ceramic vessel that could be a beer stein has collided with a wavy, distorted de Kooningesque figure of a woman. As we transform the merzbanks back into furniture (i.e., sit on them) in order to watch a video positioned at the center of the installation, we hear its artisanal, Renaissance Faire sound track as a deluded dream about the triumph of individual creativity over the homogenizing forces of modern mechanization. The video’s sequence of still images (of studio space followed by views of an actual Commerzbank) hammers the point home. But does Pernice want to position these expressive excrescences as the ultimate implication of Schwitters’s project? As he ironically references the commodification both of assemble-it-yourself modularity and its would-be antidote, crafty auteur expressivism, the contours of Pernice’s dialogue with modernism remain undefined.

Lytle Shaw