Anna Virnich’s ‘patchwork’ paintings are a visual conundrum, treading the thin line between abstract painting and sculpture. With the hands and precision of a seamstress and the eyes of a painter, the object of her desire is texture. An avid collector of fabrics, Virnich uses unusual materials in her art, from leather and woollen fabrics like nettle to more translucent textiles such as crepe, silk, tulle or taffeta. These scraps of clothes are sewn together into sensuous and poetic, constructivist-inflected patterns and mosaics, before being mounted on wooden stretchers. Their arrangement has been dictated by colour and material: mustard meets ochre, lavender and jade-green; tulle borders patent leather and polyester. Creases and the occasional hemline on an otherwise surprisingly even surface suggest the mark-making of the artist, while the absence of buttons, zips or holes removes any trace of other/previous uses.
‘Geflüster’ or ‘Whisperings’ is Anna Virnich’s fifth solo presentation with DREI in Cologne, showing seven of her newest textile tableaux from 2020 in a white cube arrangement. The title suggests a muted display, referring primarily to the absence of distracting perfumes, scents and sounds, which have interfered with the visitor’s perception in many of Virnich’s previous exhibition designs. Most recently, the immersive installation ‘Hyperdrüse’, at the Schering-Stiftung in Berlin in 2019, showed an iridescent, imaginary organ made of beeswax and fabrics. Two indistinguishable aromatic oils hung in the air: one was seductive and warm, while the other was intrusive, bitter and metallic. They evoked perhaps the visitor’s feelings of restlessness or ease. It demonstrated how Virnich’s practice oscillates between opposites, rooted in emotions, feelings, and materials. ‘Whisperings’, in turn, alludes to otherworldly, spiritual presences within the found fabrics, laced with a past, a present and now, a future.
The three patchwork paintings in the first room share a delicate mustard-yellow hue. In ‘Untitled #94’ (2020), translucent strips in jade-green and lavender lay bare the wooden skeleton of the painting’s stretcher, offering unexpected shadow dances behind the materials on the wall. ‘Untitled #93’ (2020), in salmon, lilac, bronze and ultramarine tones, offers an intricate design of creases, folds and overlapping corners. These have been tacked onto the two-dimensional surface, though not uniformly, creating an optical illusion of a relief with imperfections. While ‘Untitled #96 (lila-gelb-licht)’ (2020) studies the effects of light on layering fabrics and blending colours. This time, the khaki-green scrap below the pigmented nettle fabric forms a subtle shadow play beneath the painting’s surface.
The second room oscillates between yet another mustard composition, hung above a gap to the staircase, and the harmonious ‘Untitled #92’ (2020), clothed in a jade-green, mint, salmon and lavender ensemble with the occasional pitch of black. ‘Untitled #86 (Kaldron)’ (2020) in the third room is the unexpected climax of the exhibition. Nebulas of creamy-pastel-blue, nylon-like gauze contrast the application of patent leather in the centre. The exciting detail of the painting is the almost hidden dark patch below the surface, bearing a certain likeness to a tenting stingray, waiting for its prey. The ‘Kaldron’ in the title is a nod to a mysterious vase-craze described in Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Chronic City’ (2009). In the novel, these obscure vases or ‘chaldron’ exist as images only and act as vessels or gates between worlds.
Born into a family of artists, Virnich eschews traditional art historical references. She embarked on a year-long museum and gallery detox during her studies, and bonded with Walter Dahn, her professor and mentor at HBK in Braunschweig, over a shared love of films. Fans of Doctor Who will quickly point to Zoë Wanamaker’s character, Lady Cassandra, and establish a link to Virnich’s practice. In the series, Lady Cassandra’s appearance has been reduced to a brain in a petri dish and a tarp of skin stretched into a frame in need of constant moisturisation. This missing link to Virnich is not too far-fetched: in 2014, she showed a petri dish filled with incense in her show ‘When you dance with the devil’ at DREI. On other occasions, her artistic practice has been compared to that of a plastic surgeon – stretching the scraps of fabrics like membranes over the painting’s wooden elements – similar to a cosmetic facelift.
‘Geflüster’ at DREI brings Anna Virnich’s painterly practice to the foreground without letting synaesthetic experiences dictate the reception of her work. This presentation marks an incision in the artist’s exhibition history. It remains to be seen whether this sterile and sober white cube arrangement is an unconscious desire to cater to the demands of digital audiences in times of a pandemic; a return to seeking beauty in the repulsive may be imminent.