Los Angeles

Manfred Pernice

In his first solo show at Regen Projects since 2002, Berlin-based artist Manfred Pernice continued his ongoing formal investigation with a terraced installation of blocky sculptures. Eight discrete constructions, all titled exscape (all works 2006)—which also served as the name of the show—were arranged on several wedge-shaped planes demarcated by a gray vinyl mat and a raised platform covered in gray carpeting. An additional sculpture, titled ikebana 1, which effectively recalls the Japanese tradition of flower arranging with a twisted scrap-steel “bouquet” situated on a cylindrical base, occupied another, otherwise empty black platform.

The clunky rectangular and trapezoidal exscape sculptures, all made of MDF and some including wooden elements, are painted an uneven white with faceted patterns in unexpectedly cheerful combinations of light blue, aqua, canary yellow, green, and brown. Like much of Pernice’s previous work, they vaguely recall vernacular architecture. Most also act as pedestals for found objects, including small figurines, empty packages, jars containing creepy unknown substances, and plastic badminton paddles. Also on display in this show were a number of handmade objects, including a black glazed ceramic piece in which several vessel-like shapes are crudely grafted onto a platter base with repeated indentations of Pernice’s finger—like ceramic “welds”—emphasizing the artist’s interest in economizing gesture. This piece sat atop a two-tiered base to constitute exscape 1 and replicated in miniature the larger figure/ground play of the individual sculptures in which the “pedestals” are just slightly more interesting than the objects placed on them. In this sense, exscape 1 also served as a model for the installation as a whole.

The rough assembly of the structures—at first glance they appeared unfinished or, conversely, ruined—lent the installation an open-ended quality. Most of the exscape units are sparsely adorned with pasted images, including calendar pages of ikebana arrangements, photographs of public spaces, a “for rent” flyer, and reproduc- tions of paintings by Yves Tanguy. (Two display boards of painted MDF—one hanging on a wall and the other leaning against it—featured arrangements of similar images.) In previous installations, Pernice has slyly embedded his brand of formalism with references to specific historical sites—the Plattenbau housing projects, for example—and, by extension, the sociopolitical reality from which they emerged. Here, however, his readily legible codes, from the rarefied tradition of ikebana to the design of public spaces to Tanguy’s landscapes, all seem to level cultural and symbolic meaning in favor of a closed circuit of formal self-reference. With his carefully unkempt installation, Pernice risks falling into the mannerism that eventually plagued Tanguy, whose paintings of imagined forms situated in sublimely vacant landscapes practically define the Surrealist movement’s investment in externalizing the artist’s subconscious: Through repetition, even the most uncanny forms can become familiar, and what once felt unsettling becomes brand identity.

Pernice presumably intended to draw parallels between Tanguy’s biomorphic compositions and his own arrangements of ambiguous (anthropomorphic?) structures, but it is unclear from the objects on hand whether the artist is adopting or rejecting the now regressive Surrealist notion. If Pernice has elsewhere successfully identified the point at which formal sculpture’s self-sufficiency is threatened by an inability to preempt or limit signification, he has responded by successfully pursuing intriguing relationships between his familiar, vernacular forms and the wider social space to which they inevitably relate. But the possibility of moving inward, seemingly suggested here, is fraught with questions from which Pernice, and these inert forms, are unable to, uh, exscape.

Michael Ned Holte