Annette Kelm

Annette Kelm’s photographs are characterized by formal rigor and a sense of objectivity; the works always maintain a distance from the objects they portray, which often look isolated, even sculptural. Taking a page from art-historically sanctioned post-Conceptual models from Gabriel Orozco to Christopher Williams (yet distinct from the latter’s commitment to notions of institutional critique), models in which increased attention to questions of technique, surface, and composition replace the “marks of indifference” (to quote Jeff Wall) associated with the first generation of Photoconceptualists, Kelm has developed a matter-of-fact, generally frontal approach to her motifs in which their sometimes hidden cultural-historical import is often directly proportional to their seeming artistic insignificance. In this recent exhibition, simply framed color photographs in various formats used references to the history of musical instrument making as well as product and interior design to evoke the historically fraught relationship between abstract art and commercial design. Kelm’s works create ornamental surfaces through decorative still lifes, combining flawless good taste and the aesthetic of a seemingly impartial photographic gaze—one that seems to ennoble everything it looks upon—with a reflection on the parameters of modern image-making that well exceeds the boundaries of specific media and genres.

The wall opposite the entrance to the show bore only a single work, Untitled (all works 2007), which depicts a 1929 “Mighty Wurlitzer Organ” (installed at the Berlin Museum für Musikinstrumente) in a slanting shot taken from a slightly raised perspective. This instrument, developed to accompany silent movies, has an almost Baroque design, with dramatic curves and gold ornamentation. Its four manuals are encircled by a ring of register stops composed of alternating red, yellow, and white switches. This primarily functional design feature is echoed within the picture by a small-format abstract lithograph by Joan Miró affixed to a column on the right. The utopias of avant-garde graphic design and the synesthetic ambitions of the early entertainment industry are thus displayed as complementary historical projects, in an arrangement that might appear almost haphazard at first glance. Other neutrally lit photographs show extravagantly designed instruments such as the futuristic Seiler Meteorit Piano 116 (designed in 1998) or the first solid-bodied electric guitar, produced by Rickenbacker in 1931 and dubbed the “Frying Pan.” Another image gives a picturesque view of Marie Antoinette’s “petit hameau,” her model farm at Versailles, invoked (much as it recently was by Sofia Coppola) as a sort of precursor to the modern will to impose design on everyday life. A series of four nearly identical shots of a trash-chic clock handbag from the ’80s show the minute hand slowly advancing.

Two images of textile patterns from the ’40s by American designer Dorothy Draper, shot close-up and filling the entire picture, convey a tactile impression even in Kelm’s elegantly glossy photographs, yet their constantly repeating patterns recall the Greenbergian ideal of a medium-specific painting concentrating only on questions of opticality and flatness. In Kelm’s work, the technical and decorative aspects of this particular design from the heyday of formalism—preserved in the medium of the photograph that here seems to mimic exactly the abstract principles to which modernist painting subscribes—reveal the extent to which the all-encompassing aestheticization of daily life finds its immanent counterpart in artistic modernism, with its aspirations to purity and autonomy. It is this dialectic from which Kelm’s consciously static pictures derive their conceptual dynamics.

André Rottmann

Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky.