San Francisco

Ulrike Palmbach

Wirtz Art

For the past decade, Ulrike Palmbach has been making her own versions of familiar objects, employing, unexpected materials—using surplus army blankets, for instance, to construct a drooping stack of storage crates. She has also used blankets to make woolen telephones (the old-fashioned desk model) and cozy-looking cartons for milk and eggs. These handmade interpretations of machine-made products immediately evoke Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures, while other transformations—a loaf of bread carved out of wood and “sliced” with a saw, or a tabletop littered with wooden apple cores—puckishly suggest Surrealist antecedents. Palmbach has also constructed unsettling life-size models of cats and cows out of unbleached muslin sewed over intricate padding that “fleshes out” wooden armatures.

The artist’s recent exhibition at Stephen Wirtz Gallery was dominated by Hounds, 2006, a pack of ghostly, muslin-covered dogs, seemingly caught in the act of following a scent. This compelling group stood in counterpoint to Boat, 2005–2006, the other major work in the show: a model of a small skiff made out of what looked like soggy cardboard, suspended from the ceiling in the center of the room. Also present were a handful of smaller sculptures that suggested ruined boxes of the same pathetic material, held together with twine. In actuality, neither boat nor boxes are cardboard at all, but rather dyed or painted muslin wrapped and sewn over wood and cotton batting. No effort has been made to sustain the illusion up close; loose threads hang everywhere, suggesting that these works are meant to be understood as props in some kind of play (or, perhaps, costumes for the actors in that story).

Palmbach began Boat in response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Her bedraggled empty boxes may therefore be seen as stand-ins for the soaked, ruined houses of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward, while the dogs evoke the packs of lost and starving animals that roamed the city’s streets. Boats, unfortunately, are so metaphorically loaded already that it’s difficult to empty Palmbach’s out, so to speak, in order to make room for yet more meaning. Still, this profoundly useless vessel, made of muslin disguised as cardboard, can be seen as a symbol for the lack of adequate response to the storm—or perhaps the ineffectual remedies offered to the many by the few in possession of money or connections.

Katrina has now, to some extent, been replaced in the national consciousness by other disasters. But distance in time does not diminish the impact of Palmbach’s work—after all, these works can just as easily be understood as responses to an ongoing atmosphere of distrust and fear. This larger meaning is suggested slyly by the title of one of the box sculptures, Unattended Suspicious Package, 2006, a clear reference to the threat of bombs in public places. In the end, however, the context in which this work is understood is one that encompasses current mayhem within the über-narrative of human behavior. There is something eerily timeless about Palmbach’s materials, her palette of familiar objects rendered in gray and tan, and the weeks and months of labor that these pieces clearly require. Maybe this boat has just crossed the River Styx, and the hounds are stand-ins for Cerberus. After all, for some—whether in Baghdad, Palestine, Darfur, or the Big Easy—Hell is no longer just an abstraction.

Maria Porges