Thoughtful works tell of life’s predicaments

In the midst of the art boom of the early 1980s, German artist Thomas Schutte began a series of works that addressed the production of art, the role of its institutions and the status of the artist. Resembling architectural models and arranged, like installations, in a stage-like fashion, these sculptures were a rather cynical, melancholy take on the condition of art. His «Model for a Museum,» for example, presented an imposing, austere building which incinerated art in its interior. His «Studios» series (meaning artists’ studios), drew attention to the life of the artist and the production of art. The «Collector’s Complex,» a later work, raised issues of ownership, authority, the accumulation and presentation of art. A story that Schutte wrote in the early 1990s somehow sums up the content of those works: «Bedtime Story» relates how the art business goes on strike, artists gradually lose interest in exhibiting and in the end nobody misses art. Schutte’s art often seems to communicate a skeptical, occasionally even dark, vision of life. Ranging from architectural models to figurative sculptures and drawings, it indirectly touches upon social issues and politics. An example is «Die Fremden» (The Strangers) presented at Kassel’s Documenta in 1992. The work, a grouping of stylized human figures who emit an air of being self-contained vessels, was the abstract depiction of a family of refugees. Inspired by broadcast media images of Kurds fleeing northern Iraq during the first Gulf War, the work also raised the subject of the loss of identity and racism, which seemed particularly resonant in Germany, especially after its 1989 unification. But besides intellectual content, Schutte’s work is also about stretching the potential of sculpture, experimenting with forms, space, materials, scale and manners of display. From his architectural models, more prominent during the ’80s (Modellbauer, which means a model builder, was used at the time as a classificatory term for Schutte and artists such as Reinhard Mucha, Harald Klingelholler and Ludger Gerdes), to his grotesque, facially contorted, puppet-like figures and more lately to his large, figurative sculpture, Schutte’s work has a varied and very distinctive visual style, which the artist has constantly recycled, with variations, for the past 20 years. This visual multiplicity is one of the points that the artist’s exhibition at Athens’s Bernier/Eliades Gallery puts across. The exhibition includes four large sculptures as well as a series of drawings, a medium which the artist has used extensively, not as subsidiary to his sculptures but as autonomous works. «Fabrik,» from 2003, harks back to Schutte’s architectural-like models and as its title suggests, alludes to a factory. One of the points written about in Schutte’s sculpture is its feel for the void, the lack of solidity and weight: «Fabrik,» which is mounted on a table evokes this feeling of interior hollowness – perhaps a metaphor for how institutions or social mechanisms lack meaning and fail to nourish or protect values. The work also expresses the artist’s longtime concern with scale, which he manipulates in unexpected ways, possibly so as to jolt the viewer into thinking more critically. Also at the exhibition are two of Schutte’s sculptures of female nudes (also very recent creations), a genre which the artist has increasingly worked at since the 1997. Larger than life-size, these figures again very much play with mass and space, and also with scale. Of the two, the most figurative sculpture also subtly reminds one of the contorted figures that Schutte used to make in the early ’90s. Strangely, it is also reminiscent of the social, prewar art of Kathe Kollwitz. The exhibition also has one of Schutte’s «Grosse Geister» trademark figures (from 2000), those larger-than-life, Michelin man-like sculptures that Schutte has made in many variations. The «Kleine Geister» are the smaller version. Seen together with their larger variants, they show the artist playing with scale, which he often does by mixing different scales within a single work. Experimenting with scale is perhaps a method for highlighting the artificiality of art. But it is also Schutte’s way of showing the absurdity of life and the alienation of the post-industrial world, in the midst of which man struggles to find some meaning. Whether through figurative sculpture or the architectural models that allude to the man-made environment, Schutte paints an image of man as defenseless and dangerous, yet kind; ridiculous, grotesque, pitiful but awesome at the same time. Life is made up of all these contradictions and Schutte’s art, distanced and involved all at once, is there to point them out while also casting a self-critical look at the function of art itself. Bernier/Eliades Gallery, 11 Eptachalkou, Thiseion, tel 210.341.3935. Through November 29. (Due to public works in the area, the gallery can only be reached on foot from Pireos Street). A reputable artist Born in the mid-1950s, Thomas Schutte trained at the Dusseldorf Academy of Arts in the mid-1970s. Fritz Schwegler, Gerhard Richter and Bernd and Hilla Becher were among the teachers who had an influence on him. Schooled in conceptual art, Schutte developed into one of Germany’s most prominent sculptors. His international reputation extends to worldwide museum exhibitions (his 1998 retrospective at London’s Whitechapel Gallery is one of the most significant), participations in prestigious events (at the Kassel Documenta and the Munster Sculpture Project) and commissions for public sculpture. His work was introduced in Greece through the Bernier/Eliades Gallery.