Andrea Büttner, Deutsche Bundesbank Dining Room, 2019, cardboard, book-binding linen, 8 1⁄4 × 29 3⁄4 × 20 7⁄8".

Andrea Büttner, Deutsche Bundesbank Dining Room, 2019, cardboard, book-binding linen, 8 1⁄4 × 29 3⁄4 × 20 7⁄8".

Andrea Büttner

High overhead in the blue, barrel-vaulted firmament: potatoes. Painted, not real. Of the versatile tuber, Andrea Büttner has said they are “what maybe Duchamp would have called a ‘prime word.’ Within art there are forms that can be poo, or bread, or a potato, so they are kind of ambiguous primal shapes.”And here they were, on the gallery ceiling, twinkling, transubstantiated spuds in a field of precious ultramarine. “We have,” they seemed to say with a knowing wink, “transcended our earthly stature.” Büttner’s work has long been invested in probing theologically inflected binaries (high and low, sacred and profane, private and public, spiritual and material), frequently linking them to social and institutional critiques of art and its more worldly contexts. At the heart (the soul?) of the artist’s recent exhibition “The Heart of Relations” was a kind of aesthetic and Conceptual syncretism: Eccentric combinations, spare delineations, and elegant sidesteps offered a series of proposals about how we live together, or might, in and alongside art. 

The lapis lazuli over the gallery’s largest space was an invocation of Giotto’s early-fourteenth-century Scrovegni Chapel, with its extensive fresco cycles of the life of Christ and the life of the Virgin. In Padua, Italy, the ceiling is painted with golden stars and roundels of Mary, Jesus, and the prophets. Büttner’s substitution of root vegetables for saints is less sacrilege than social-minded art-historical collage: She links her motif to van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, 1885. This early work, which was poorly received at its debut, depicts a dark domestic interior in which a family of peasants share their starchy evening meal. Like their meager nourishment, the peasants are beige, lumpen, dusty. In Painted Ceiling (potatoes), 2019, Büttner abstracted them metonymically into celestial beings: an elevated labor, twofold.

If van Gogh’s painting is cramped with figures, Büttner’s show harbored none. In this exhibition, her subjects were places, not people. Dachau, Coventry, Groß St. Martin, Plötzensee, 2017–19, consists of four postcards and the middle spread from a small booklet mounted to sheets of glass: They depict an aerial view of the Karmel Heilig Blut, a Carmelite Catholic convent just outside the Dachau concentration camp in Germany; in the same location, a spring tree branch with blue sky and barbed wire behind; John Piper’s baptistry window at Coventry Cathedral; a religious statue from Great St. Martin Church, Cologne; and Georg Meistermann’s altar fresco mural in the Maria Regina Martyrum, Berlin. This is a community of devotional architectures frozen in flashes of memento mori—blank dispatches from abroad—and void of inhabitants. Some are sites of trauma and ongoing attempts at recuperation or solace where perhaps none exists, and others evidence the long history of secular artists and architects turning their hands to sacred contexts.

Upstairs, three architectural maquettes continued the theme of evocative composite structures with a host of interlocking references: Made of thin cardboard, with all colors flattened and patterns reduced and simplified, were Deutsche Bundesbank Dining Room, Rockefeller Dining Room, and Corner Münter Haus Murnau, all 2019. The first two interiors refer to notable artist commissions (by Victor Vasarely and Fritz Glarner, respectively), while the third is more tender and idiosyncratic, representing the wood-paneled corner of the Blaue Reiter painter Gabriele Münter’s dining room with a series of tiny icons balanced along its thin upper ledge. Back downstairs, I paused to rest on Bench, 2018, a length of pale wood balanced across two gray plastic crates, to take in the potato heavens, the postcards, and four framed ink drawings of frames—stark lines of brown and midnight blue on white—that frame nothing but abundant white space. There is a poetic refusal in Büttner’s work, with its carefully structured stanzas in which repeated phrases and variations—not of, but around an idea—show that stripping away can be a powerful additive force.