New York

Katharina Fritsch

Matthew Marks Gallery

That there is something patently ugly about much—if not all—of Katharina Fritsch’s work is too little remarked upon. Perhaps this has to do with the way it is ugly: not at all in the conventional sense of wandering afield from some aesthetic “ideal,” or even in presenting for abject delectation the long-hidden, seamy underbelly of something we thought we knew. Indeed, Fritsch’s objects court another kind of ugliness; they take their forms as perfect, smoothly contoured icons that rebuff the eye through a kind of affectlessness or, perhaps better said, through a kind of aloofness.

This particular schism between surface and depth is usually attributed only to people. (Of someone beautiful but mean or indifferent, we say shruggingly that “they’re ugly on the inside.”) But such a divide seems, too, to inform much of Fritsch’s oeuvre, which over the past three decades has willfully confused material things and their psychological effects. Lynne Cooke, writing about Fritsch’s monumental (and monumentally creepy) Rat-King, 1993, argued that this and other of the artist’s sculptural works are “neither fetishes nor trophies” but “artifacts devised to act as catalysts.” The description is apt, for Fritsch’s works do seem to set off a kind of chemical reaction in their viewers. They cue associative links without necessarily admitting these as their own content and, in doing so, call attention to the ways in which public and private meanings act as strange—sometimes incompatible—bedfellows.

Take Fritsch’s recent installation at Matthew Marks Gallery, titled The Garden, 2008. A series of freestanding walls built for the occasion dictated visitors’ traversal of the space around a sterile configuration of four central cubicle-like structures, each of which housed its own tableau. Entering these über-controlled spaces, one couldn’t help but feel that even the most formal English garden would appear downright unkempt in comparison. A kind of contemporary memory palace, Fritsch’s “garden” choreographed so many exacting dioramic encounters, each asking to be related to the previous, however blindly, and however obliquely. One space held a table covered with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth that offered not picnic wares but a vibratingly blue pair of cast kidneys, placed just so; in another, a gray vase stood dumbly, its strangely plasticine body belying its classical pretense; elsewhere, a pair of skeleton feet evoked both a cheesy horror show and a staid archaeological museum.

These objects and others, including a jet-black Saint Katherine and a gray giant—whose cast, painted surfaces are so lushly uniform that they almost look soft—were surrounded by large-scale silk-screen prints. Each depicts a pastoral or otherwise idyllic landscape (most of the images are from postcards Fritsch collected as a child; there are shots of Essen, Langenberg, Münster, etc.) or a vision of abstracted “nature” (close-ups of a thick hatch of ivy and a rose garden, for example). Yet these images, however much their subjects—and ostensibly their deep-rooted connection with the artist herself—would seem to promise a kind of humanizing context, also operate as smooth, unyielding surfaces. Indeed, leached of differentiating hues, a few are presented in stark black-and-white, while most are rendered as weird monochromes (or, more precisely, they are shown monochromatically, since some are split into two or more single-color sections), their generically “specific” subjects swathed in vaguely chemical colors. Pictures that would otherwise be the epitome of nostalgic banality operate, then, as standoffish stand-ins. Here the markers of small-town life (in Germany, but also everywhere) were presented as flatly silk-screened generic images of, among other things, a cathedral, a sailboat drifting lazily on the Ruhr, a public square. But for all the ostensible warmth one would think they would have amounted to, the environs of Fritsch’s “garden” felt fantastically chilly.

Johanna Burton