Heike Kabisch, Hour of Devour, 2019, ink-jet print on paper, resin, mineral crystals, fabric, 84 7⁄8 × 59 1⁄4 × 9".

Heike Kabisch, Hour of Devour, 2019, ink-jet print on paper, resin, mineral crystals, fabric, 84 7⁄8 × 59 1⁄4 × 9".

Heike Kabisch

To manifest real disquiet in a gallery is not easy, but Heike Kabisch’s “frothing, you and I” got close. The main room in Berlin gallery ChertLüdde’s modest Kreuzberg space, half-lit by murky pink strip lights above a wall-size image of guileless rhododendrons, grew darker in every sense as you looked down. On the floor were blackened ceramic sculptures of desperately scrawny legs poking out from various kinds of covering, numbered as a series of “poses,” 2019–, and collectively titled I told you to be more passionate . . . (all works 2019). Left of the door, a coital scene was unfolding, heads and torsos cloaked—or at least that’s what was suggested by what looked like a dirty towel and, beneath it, a stuffed garbage sack—with one partner supine and the other atop, missing a sock lost in the tussle. Another fat-free figure, mostly inside a duvet, lay partied-out nearby. Two more—one properly dismembered—rode yellowed foam mattresses; and a third pair of lower halves met on the floor, conjoined at the waists by an unlovely mass of crumpled black-and-white paper.

In a second room, the intimations of clandestine sex-and-violence ritualism intensified under full light. The cracked-clay figure Exotica wore a dirty striped robe, with abutted brass bowls instead of a head. That similar queasily inhuman substitutions exist in occult imagery—in depictions of the goat-headed demon Baphomet, for instance—was also recalled by the adjacent relief Hour of Devour. In this work, a black-and-white photograph depicts a bronze Georg Kolbe sculpture of an idealized female figure—seemingly one of those in the German artist’s West Berlin museum, whose gardens are planted with rhododendrons—with a large sculpted hand engulfing the head like the “facehugger” in Alien. Dirtied towels cover most of the woman’s body. But the towels were apparently used to sculpt the hand in clay before it was cast in acrylic resin mixed with natural mineral crystals; a claylike material also splattered the print. Further undermining any insinuations of creepy ritual, the I told you . . . works and the darkened mise-en-scène punctuated by rutting and unconscious bodies constituted, according to the handout, a fragmented memory of a teenage “party basement” in the German town of Münster, where Kabisch grew up.

Any other competing narrative seemed to recede, angling toward thematic familiarity: The core subject appeared to be the process of artmaking itself and how it can evoke memories at once nagging and hazy. The artist seemed to be circling around some disturbing experiences from her youth—leading her, from an adult perspective, toward gender concerns and power relations, toward macho modernist sculpture and the flowers surrounding it—and infusing all of this with horror-movie dread, a certainty of tone rather than of detail. (No faces were visible, for example.) This show thus melded stage and backstage. Kabisch’s repeated passes at the same motif of horizontalized and half-concealed bodies suggested the artist probably hasn’t gotten it right yet, whatever “it” is. And so the uneasy atmosphere also felt like a proxy for the let’s-call-it-existential stress of making art, the continual revision toward a finessed shadow of something else.

A little overhung, “frothing, you and I” incorporated other nudges toward darkly unstable forces. In the gallery’s actual basement, mattresses and limbs got an upgrade: A single pair of legs rested on a princess-and-the-pea stack of nine foamy palliasses, a glowing coil of pale green LEDs standing in for the torso. Elsewhere, we saw an outsiderish drawing of a couple, composed of galactic red stripes and bubbles and festooned with unreadable annotations; a children’s board book interlarded with sketched spiders menacing collaged skinny legs; and a splayed, suspended sculpture of some small beast. These artifacts aimed at a feeling and glancingly missed, gifting their maker a task for tomorrow.