Spanning the floors of the West London townhouse that’s home to the Austrian Cultural Forum, are the sparse yet densely textured works of Anna-Sophie Berger, Fay Nicholson and Constanze Schweiger. The combination of these three artists results in a show that examines the technical details of material construction while foregrounding an individual interaction with form. From the accompanying text to the installations themselves, the presence of Robert Rauschenberg, and the particular moment he occupied, echoes throughout the exhibition even as it feels innovative and fresh.
The exhibition is only four works in two spaces; a low ceilinged basement and a sunny reception room. The overall effect, however is of a more expansive nature. Praise is due to Hannah Conroy’s curation, which considers the architectural fabric of the particular spaces, pointedly riffing on the Salon’s period features and the potential claustrophobia of the basement gallery. The space is used cleverly, taking the viewer on a route that seems to travel out beyond the rooms of the Austrian Cultural Forum.
The artists command the space within the galleries. Each piece leans into us, lays in front of us, or draws the room’s period features into the bodies of the works themselves. First directed downstairs we encounter the fabric works of Schweiger and Berger. Berger’s installation, ‘becoming visitors who know nothing’ (2015) is a polyester sheet that rolls out into the space. We have to walk around and peer over it to view the family photos that have been digitally printed on to the cloth. The work is an exercise in misdirection and imposition as it plays with perceptions of material. Not only does the placement force the viewer to walk or stand in a particular way, its construction is not as simple as it first appears. The bolt of ‘cloth’ is really made of plastic, the intimate ‘family photos’ are really clandestine snaps of another person’s experience. But this fakery is played with and tempered by the printing details still visible around the edge of the sheet – the colour code and the focus on the item’s structures. The admission of the work as a conscious construction somehow makes for a more intimate object. By foregrounding the artistry of the artwork, its materiality and process have become biography and sleeve note.
Placed at an angle to Berger’s work is Schweiger’s ‘Unititled (vow6)’ (2015), which holds the viewer in a totally different way. The piece is an off-white cotton scarf, folded and suspended in a ‘V’. At the lowest point of the V a length of cane is cupped by the fabric, giving tension to the cloth. As with the referenced ‘Jammer’ works of Rauchenberg, the fall and fold of her scarf structure are both static and full of movement. This is a beautiful work, however, the extreme simplicity perhaps is its undoing. The conversation with Rauschenberg here was as an appreciative nod, a pleasurable nod but, for me, it is almost old-fashioned with too delicate a touch and too concerned with its own beauty.
In the upstairs Salon space overlooking a neat and leafy square are Nicholson’s two works, ‘Surface/Kisses/Crosses (in italics)’ (2015) and ‘Seeing Everything Feeling Nothing (my soft geometry)’ (2015). These site-specific works capture the exact sense of gesture and material that Rauschenberg embodied as he straddled Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism. ‘Surface/Kisses/Crosses (in italics)’ is a collection of parallelogram canvases printed with geometric lines that continue beyond the canvases, following the plasterwork lines in the panelling and wall alcoves. Layered over the canvases are painterly swipes that breathe air into the compositions. ‘Seeing Everything Feeling Nothing (my soft geometry)’ is a giant cargo net stretched across one wall, bulging out over the mantelpiece and forcing itself into the room. These works also signal toward Robert Morris’ felt folds, each installation bringing out a different aspect of its placement, with the basic elements of the room becoming integral to the shape of the sculpture itself. And this is the kernel of the exhibition, a cry that the materials of ‘Basic structures of’ come down to a micro level, making ideas of ‘emptiness’ a fallacy. In Michael Fried’s essay, ‘Art and Objecthood’, he criticised the Minimalists concern with materials, claiming that “materials do not represent, signify, or allude to anything: they are what they are and nothing more.” This beautifully balanced show reimagines those basic materials: they are what they are, which is, in fact, everything.