Los Angeles

View of “Eau de Cologne,” 2016. Floor: Four works by Jenny Holzer. Wall: Louise Lawler, (Bunny) Sculpture and Painting (adjusted to fit), 1999/2015. Photo: Joshua White.

View of “Eau de Cologne,” 2016. Floor: Four works by Jenny Holzer. Wall: Louise Lawler, (Bunny) Sculpture and Painting (adjusted to fit), 1999/2015. Photo: Joshua White.

“Eau de Cologne”

Sprüth Magers | Los Angeles

View of “Eau de Cologne,” 2016. Floor: Four works by Jenny Holzer. Wall: Louise Lawler, (Bunny) Sculpture and Painting (adjusted to fit), 1999/2015. Photo: Joshua White.

Monika Sprüth, reflecting in 2015 on the inaugural “Eau de Cologne,” a group exhibition mounted at her gallery in tandem with 1985’s Art Cologne fair, characterized the show’s all-woman roster as an incidental that caught her unaware—a calculated claim that served as a sly rejoinder to the art world’s patriarchal exclusivity, which dominated then and persists today. Since that moment, “Eau de Cologne” has maintained an iterative existence, reappearing in 1987 and 1993 and then in 2015 and 2016. Successive stagings would include new artists alongside the work of a few veterans from the 1985 show. At various points throughout the years, the original contributors—Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman, and Rosemarie Trockel—have reappeared. Only over time did the project assume a decidedly feminist position. This most recent version was arguably the least spontaneous and most self-aware, featuring the aforementioned artists and acknowledging their respective influences on contemporary representation strategies and postmodern feminist discourse.

With an emphasis on gender critique within the representational realm, the presentation of new and historical works by these five elucidated the discursive and conceptual contradictions underpinning the women’s politics. Today, each artist possesses distinctive cultural capital indebted to her gaming of cultural patriarchy, ironically enabled by her recognition of the fact that permission to play such games has been socially and historically accorded only to men. The exhibition’s poster, a reproduction of the 1987 “Eau de Cologne” publication cover, gestures to this via a layout by Barbara Kruger: A woman plants her face into her manicured hands above a headline that reads ARE WE HAVING FUN YET? Several of Kruger’s “Cologne” colleagues share her playful attitude toward language and representation, while some have employed appropriation to query the notion of the stable subject. A fine example of the former strategy—use of appropriation as a means of dislodging sedimented social structures (an approach shared by all five)—was seen in Louise Lawler’s (Bunny) Sculpture and Painting (adjusted to fit), 1999/2015, in which the artist revisits one of her earlier photographs, of an installation of Jeff Koons’s oversize bauble Rabbit, 1986, and Peter Halley’s The Acid Test, 1991–92, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The image was here printed on adhesive vinyl, stretched to fill the wall’s panoramic dimensions—a quip on how social advantages (we see these two men’s valorized artworks) are structurally enacted (they adhered, literally, to the gallery’s walls). Lawler’s work simultaneously distorts and disarms the depicted works’ own grips on (self-) representation. More than a dozen acrylic yarn pieces by Rosemarie Trockel, including Recovery, Apparent, and Papagallo, all 2014, ranging unevenly in scale and striations of color, spanned another gallery wall. These works, whose canvaslike planes feature lurid vertical and horizontal lines, resemble early painterly approaches to Minimalism, a historical movement that was particularly male-dominated in its aesthetic values and criteria. Trockel jostles this legacy by knitting these works from yarn, a process whose connotations have been historically associated with women.

Elsewhere, works reflected the other side of postmodernist feminism, after it has queried the durability of hegemonic structures and emphasizes an arrived-at slipperiness of subjectivity. Here, notions of agency and fluidity—themes that span the oeuvre of Cindy Sherman—were embraced. Along with Sherman’s 1975–76 “Murder Mystery” collage series, wherein the artist takes on thirteen different glamorous filmic roles, the exhibition also included photographs from her 1999 “Broken Dolls” series and Untitled #327, 1996, a horrific portrait of the artist wailing while seemingly covered in gold leaf. As these works, and indeed Sherman’s oeuvre more broadly, celebrate the conditional formation of the contemporary subject and the figure of the mask, it’s worth asking: To what end do Sherman’s manipulations and alterations of her own appearance serve? As the sociologist Terry Lovell described in her cautious critique of deconstructionist feminism, we are given the deceptive impression that “the removal of markers of identity and of subjective dispositions may be achieved as readily as a change of clothing or the adoption of a new mask.” Such a consideration is useful when examining these artists’ practices alongside the limits of any political gambit that stresses an exposition and queering of naturalized social relations. “Eau de Cologne” continues to reveal these women’s practices as both vital and ripe for the gestations of feminist discourse. In this regard, it’s not surprising that such an iterative project would espouse the premise of Julia Kristeva’s cyclical, eternal temporality (women’s time) while the decades pass—or repeat this punny riff on men’s grooming products as it attempted to destabilize those patriarchal systems that dictate the “essence” of women.

Nicolas Linnert