New York

Gabriel Vormstein

In a startlingly literal attempt to connect his works and anchor them to their context, Gabriel Vormstein, in his recent New York debut at Casey Kaplan, went so far as to bind his delicate paintings together with wire and dot the gallery floor with rocks. With just a handful of exhibition appearances to his name, the young Berlin-based artist is sufficiently inexperienced that the gesture might have signaled a lack of confidence were it not consistent with a lyrical aesthetic informed by a web of cultural references, chief among them the material experiments of arte povera.

In giving this show the convoluted title “Seems to B: Soddisfaction, Incomplection, Putrefaction,” Vormstein alluded to a kind of creative posthistory in which the work of art marks not the conclusion but only the beginning. Just as arte povera rescued the spare and the perishable for art, Vormstein, too, revels in the inevitability of decay: He constructs awkward sculptures from tree branches and electrical tape and makes paintings on unprimed sheets of newspaper. (That the journal he favors, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is one of Germany’s most respected financial and cultural broadsheets, of course, does nothing to offset its ultimate dematerialization.)

The imagery in Vormstein’s paintings has clear roots in European Expressionism: The tangle of dried-up leaves and blossoms in You love the sun don’t you (all works 2004) suggests a reworking of Egon Schiele’s Sunflower, 1909–10, while a rendering of two entwined figures revisits the Viennese painter’s Two Girls Embracing Each Other, 1915. But there were other, less readily identifiable sources on display: The abstracted image of a starry sky was derived from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, while the elegant white loops of Bruised souls at zero might function as an homage to a number of abstractionist gurus from Robert Mangold to Ellsworth Kelly.

Yet if the contents of Vormstein’s art-history bookshelves are easy to deduce, his art amounts to more than either critical pilfering or respectful tribute. For example, in his image of a decorated box, there’s something about the combination of neat, rigid geometry and wrinkled, vulnerable surface that conjures a subtle emotional pull, a certain unasked-for sympathy. And there’s something curiously affecting in the way that in Failure has a fragrance, a floral collage partially obscures newspaper pages that carry both car ads and reproductions of canonical works by Goya and David. Strategic, perhaps, but with feeling.

In the show’s two sculptures, Fixuplooksharp and Untitled (nOo-gOo), Vormstein also manages to temper references of varying degrees of obscurity with a twinge of melancholia, reminding us that making, looking at, and thinking about art can still be—in spite of the market’s tendency toward ever-increasing spectacularization—a rather private, personal concern. Fixuplooksharp, a loose bundle of branches topped with a bulb of garlic, a small bell, and an onion, has a slightly shamanistic feel—like something Joseph Beuys might have brandished at a passing coyote. Untitled (nOo-gOo), a bough ringed with orange, purple, green, brown, white, and black tape, could be a maypole straight from Robin Hardy’s cult pastoral horror movie The Wicker Man (1973). Yet both works transcend these and other diverse points of departure, achieving an unforced, organic look and feel. Like Vormstein’s young oeuvre as a whole, they carry but aren’t burdened by a sense of genuine mystery.

Michael Wilson