Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda, untitled (detail), 2014, paper, 8 1/4 × 11 3/4".

Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda, untitled (detail), 2014, paper, 8 1/4 × 11 3/4".

Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda

Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda, untitled (detail), 2014, paper, 8 1/4 × 11 3/4".

There wasn’t much to see in this exhibition: just four works spread throughout the gallery’s three rooms. The first was Monika (all works 2014), a large, rough-hewn stone, set on a mantelpiece; the second, Ulrike, the silhouette of the interior space of an arch, cut from a sheet of rubber; and the third, down the corridor past the offices, a color woodblock print with pastel-colored wood grain, titled Lena. The names represent three generations of women: Monika, the wife of the legendary Düsseldorf gallerist Alfred Schmela; the couple’s daughter Ulrike; and their granddaughter Lena Brüning (who closed her own gallery in Berlin in 2013).

The fourth, Untitled, was a sheaf of papers lying on the windowsill in the first gallery, and this turned out to be the displaced center of the exhibition. It carried paraphrases, in English, of selections from Galerie Schmela’s correspondence in the years after its founder’s death, in 1980, when Monika and Ulrike continued to run the gallery in the face of many obstacles. Lena features as a baby, described in a letter by her grandmother as “the sunshine for the entire family.” The original documents are in the gallery’s archives, which were recently acquired by the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda are based.

In the first pages, we read, “Monika writes that Aeppli has probably heard how everything has fallen apart for the Schmelas.” As the ensuing letters shed light on various episodes in the life and work of the gallerists during this time, there is a lot that can be read between the lines. One learns about the family’s personal and financial struggles, large and small disappointments (Joseph Beuys seems not to write back to increasingly plangent letters; a sale to a French public collection falls through at the last minute), and occasional successes; there are accusations, misunderstandings, unheeded requests, even betrayals.

One exchange is also included in the form of color photocopies. It is presumably highlighted in this way because it encapsulates much of the emotional tenor of the exhibition. Monika writes a confrontational missive to Düsseldorf’s city councillor for cultural affairs, who, she has heard, told someone that “the Galerie Schmela isn’t what it once was any more.” He writes a kind and respectful letter back, clarifying that what he remembered saying is that “she and her daughter have been put in a very difficult situation to overcome.” Scant solace, perhaps.

The temptation, perhaps due to the inevitable voyeuristic thrill of reading such intensely private letters, is to interpret the show as a kind of epistolary novella, one in which we find ourselves siding with the protagonists, who seem to ask for our sympathy in part because we end up knowing so much about them. The three artworks, meanwhile, take on new nuances through what we learn about the people whose names they carry. As stand-ins for these three women, they are like the mute actors in the theater piece whose development is charted in the letters. If, on the one hand, they dramatize the degree of “objectification” that takes place when the viewer pieces together the narrative of a particular, difficult time in the lives of these people, they also seem a means of recompense for the possible betrayal of making these confidential letters public. Take Lena, for example: Perhaps the soft and warm colors of the wood grain are in deference to her grandmother’s love for her, nullifying any charge of sentimentality.

In part by being in the third person, the fragmentary story told in the printout creates a similar sense of simultaneous distancing and proximity, intensifying the emotional and intellectual engagement with what is normally hidden and excluded from the realm of art. The show collapsed the neutrality of the gallery, not by undoing it with an academic gesture of institutional critique, let alone by entering a navel-gazing cul-de-sac, but by breaking the fourth wall with essentially literary forms of affect, empathy, human involvement. And, of course, it makes one wonder what e-mails are being written in Bortolozzi’s own offices, where similar entanglements of work, life, art, and history are inevitably taking place.

Alexander Scrimgeour