Julia Trotta for VOL.ONE
I was invited by Austrian artist, Michael Strasser, to write the first text for an ongoing series called Coupé International. The idea behind the project is to create a dialog between New York and Vienna by pairing an artist from each city for an exhibition and catalog. For the inaugural show, Michael selected Maria Walker from New York and Anneliese Schrenk from Vienna, two artists whose work I had never come across before. Once introduced to the artists through dialog and images, the pairing seems appropriate as it brings together two young artists who share sympathies both formally and conceptually in their quest to invent new ways to consider painting. Scraps, remnants, folds and stains are celebrated, not only as formal tools, but as entry points into complex emotional and psychological territory. In the tradition of artists such as Lynda Benglis or Eva Hesse, Walker and Schrenk challenge the (traditionally male) flat picture plane to develop a visual vocabulary related to anthropomorphic traits such as joints, skins, fluids and blemishes. These paintings are flesh and bone.
Like many painters, Maria Walker begins each piece by building a stretcher. But Walker isn’t interested in right angles. She plays with the process, manipulating the wood to construct a kind of skeleton, oftentimes pushing the piece into the third dimension. Unprimed canvas is then wrapped on the stretcher, but the wood below is always present, protruding, pushing, and prodding its way into the composition. Sometimes the result is subtle, other times the wood dominates the painting, refusing to go unnoticed.
In 2012 (52 weeks), fifty-two bulges are worked in to the frame of the stretcher, one for every week of the year. These bulges are carefully articulated along the perimeter of the painting in a spine-like pattern. 2012 (52 weeks) is a piece from Walker’s Calendar paintings, a series wherein the paintings function as a record of time passed. Each space formed between the vertebrae of the stretcher marks a seven-day period in the studio. Walker took the paint she used that week and poured it down its allotted gap, which provided a canal for the paint to flow organically. The stains reveal the rhythm of Walker’s painting practice. Some weeks are extremely dense with pigment while others are left blank.
Another series marking the artist’s productivity are the Shards. After completing a painting in the studio, Walker collects the scraps and leftover material to use for another, smaller piece. Shards share the same DNA as their parent paintings, and thus could be understood as offspring. Walker’s Shards are smaller, more condensed, and more precious than her larger, more physical paintings. Like humans or animals, the jewel-like paintings often resemble their parents, but on occasion they are surprisingly distinct.
While Walker’s paintings begin with bones, Anneliese Schrenk’s paintings are defined by their skin. Working almost exclusively with leather, the connection to the body is literal. She burns, washes, folds and slashes the flesh in a process that can border on violence, yet the result is always controlled, formal and ultimately serene.
Animal hides have been used throughout history for clothing, protection and decorative objects. At a certain point man figured out how to preserve and soften leather by using smoke, grease, and bark. Today tanning is an industrial process with very high quality standards. Schrenk uses the leather that has been rejected, either due to natural markings on the animal or faults in the factory, as the material for her Flawed Hides series. In Flawed Hide 21 (2011), a black piece of defected leather is stretched over a 210 . 180 cm stretcher, allowing the marks and discolorations to perform as abstract gestures. A grey, ghostly fog emerges from the blackness forming a blurred cross in the center of the image. Life and loss are present in the surface of the skin. While the Flawed Hides are some of Schrenk’s most simple paintings, they are also among the most haunting. Although the artist does not intervene or manipulate the surface, her sensitivity, the way she reveals the composition, is deeply considered.
With the Cooked series surface is turned into sculpture. Continuing her research and preoccupation with leather, Schrenk cooks, dyes, and hardens the material to create a mass of frozen folds. In Cooked #6 (2013), the leather is contorted into a wad revealing both sides of the surface– two shades of fleshy-pink. The once-taught epidermis is wrinkled and deformed, with no visible support (no bones), just layers of gathered flesh. The result is decidedly organic, and relates to Lucy Lipard’s description of “anti-form” as being, “not so much opposed to form as committed to introducing another area of non-formalist form to be delt with.”1
With anti-form, manipulation of material by hand, imprecision, and chance are celebrated.
Schrenk’s direct interest in skin, surface and the organic, when paired in an exhibition with Walker, helps reveal the latter’s more subtle references to the body. One striking overlap between the two practices is that both women have translated the proportions of their own bodies into abstracted self-portraits. Walker’s piece, Stand (2011), is the exact height and scale of her body, and as the title suggests, the piece stands upright on the floor. A stained chartreuse canvas is stretched on one side, while the other side is left open to reveal the back of the painting. It’s here that we see that each corner is enhanced by the corner of a triangle affixed to the stretcher, like little hands and feet. Schrenk also uses the volume of the human body, presumably her own, as the basis of her Body series. Columns of wood are upholstered with a leather skin, forming a single clean block. These pieces can stand up straight as minimalist sculptures or be placed on their sides and used as a bench or skinny bed. With Body 5 (2 parts), the column is divided into 2 pieces: a body and a head. The blocks are stacked on top of one another, with the head piece skewed, slightly off alignment from the base. This subtle break serves to just barely animate the piece, and the proportions immediately become more obvious reference to the human body. The painting has flesh, bone, and perhaps even a brain.
1. Lucy Lipard, Eva Hesse, Da Capo Press, 1976. p.136