New York

Felix Schramm


German artist Felix Schramm’s New York solo debut comprised primarily a single gallery-filling sculpture. Comber, 2005, was an impressive feat of intentional disarray. Set into—and seemingly bursting forth from—a raised platform, a lowered ceiling, and a specially built wall that slightly constricted the dimensions of the main room, it featured a structural armature made from splintered two-by-fours mostly covered by ripped sheets of painted drywall. These walls, jutting out at sharp angles, formed seductive, visually balanced planes of blue, orange, and gray that nicely counterbalanced the violence of the mangled materials themselves. Resting on just a few points, the work seemed simultaneously colossal and delicate, as if one false move might bring the whole thing crashing down.

This was a site-specific sculpture that overwhelmed its site. One couldn’t fully move around, much less through, the rough-and-tumble construction, a restriction that undermined the complexity of one’s relationship to the work. Because the viewer was forced to experience it from one side and one side only, Comber’s muscular ’70s sculptural idiom—think of Gordon Matta-Clark’s architectural fragments infused with the implicit menace of Richard Serra’s prop pieces—was nullified, essentially presented as a diorama. (Flatten out Schramm’s three-dimensional expanses of color and the result might look like a Cubist collage.) That this work, which made high drama of devastating the white cube, is nonetheless contained in this way significantly undercut what could have been a viscerally unsettling experience.

Beyond its title, derived from the term for continuously breaking waves, the work offered no narrative thrust or external references.To its credit, Comber’s thorough abstractness left the door open to imaginative ruminations on the precariousness of shelter, the untamable violence of nature (earthquakes, hurricanes), and destruction’s potential as a creative force. This kind of painting-sculpture-architecture hybrid (which nonetheless refuses the label of “installation”) is increasingly common, and one can imagine Schramm’s piece, which is perhaps three parts sculpture, one part architecture, and one part painting, as a counterpoint to the work of Brooklyn-based artist Lisa Sigal, who emphasizes painting above the other two media in her own site-specific interventions. Earlier precedents stretch from Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau to John Chamberlain. And the work also owes something to deconstructivist architectural projects like Daniel Libeskind’s proposed extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London or Coop Himme(l)blau’s UFA Cinema Center in Dresden.

Clues to Comber’s making were on view in the gallery’s entrance space and office, where a series of fifteen letter-size drawings and a wall-mounted maquette emphasized that this work was the product of much compositional deliberation. Some of these contained material shopping lists; a greater number presented schematic renderings of broken drywall panels surrounded by mathematical equations and other notes. The tension between our knowledge of the piece as premeditated and our experience of it as seemingly wrought by arbitrary, uncontrollable forces—whether genuinely natural or the “spontaneous” work of the artist—was a smart corollary to the equipoise between stasis and (implied) motion in Comber itself.

Schramm’s earlier large-scale sculptures—similar in form and in their use of Home Depot materials—seemed to have a less antagonistic relationship to the spaces in which they were shown, offering the viewer an opportunity to perambulate (and therefore more fully understand their complexity). Here, the integration with the surrounding architecture did not seem fully resolved: After several generations of artistic incursions into the formerly sacred white cube, simply crashing through the walls with bravado may not be enough. This exhibition proved that Schramm possesses an intuitive feel for materials and a keen formal eye, but has yet to reveal his conceptual underpinnings with clarity.

Brian Sholis