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Lotte Gertz – Susannah Thompson

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In Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, the author writes that ‘in children’s books there are inanimate objects that come to life, speaking statues, rings and words of power, talismans and amulets, and most of all, there are doors’.In Solnit’s book too, experiences and episodes that begin as ordinary events frequently become transformative or transitional, from dealing with unwanted gifts and long illnesses to coping with elderly relatives and family demands. It is perhaps the very rootedness of these experiences in reality (the domestic, routine, the body) that allows for their potential to become threshold concepts, to act as intermediate, liminal spaces between one phase and another.

Though often tangential and indirect, there is something of all of these themes and motifs in Lotte Gertz’s recent work, a practice which encompasses painting, printing, collage and drawing. In a literal sense, the images and objects which populate the works, such as those in the 2015 exhibition Rugs and Letters, have their origins in items found close to hand within the artists immediate surroundings. Plants, her child’s toys, food, vases, thumbnail photographs cut from DIY flyers and mailshots, tiny snippets of paintings from book catalogues lying around the studio or home, Gertz’s collation of source material is democratic and magpie-like. Canonical high art sits alongside the detritus of advertising, the timeless shored up against the throwaway. This process of selection, while it may  often be intuitive and serendipitous, is far from incidental as a way of working – throughout the artist’s work we find the quiet articulation of an intention to flatten hierarchies and occupy a space between binary oppositions in the juxtaposition of the lowly and the elevated, the fusion of art and craft, the  value identified in aspects of culture often ignored or marginalised. Here, then, is a painter trying to escape the baggage of painting, an adult who values children’s literature, a mother who refutes the notion that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’, and an artist who pursues an interest in other, alternative histories of art, craft, architecture and writing.

In the 2013 exhibitionsThe Possibility of Passwords and A Picture Show, the paintings A Vase for Jam-Jane, The Green Isle and Children’s Books Don’t Count take their titles from the writing of the prolific Danish author and activist Karin Michaelis (1872-1950). Amongst her many works of fiction The Green Island centres on the aftermath of the disappearance of the world save for one tiny island. For Gertz, part of the appeal of Michaelis’ work lies in foregrounding of the female and often mother figure as simultaneously activist, artist and idealist. Like the scattered items from all parts of her life and work that find their way into Gertz’s visual lexicon, many of Michaelis’ themes explore the inter-relationships between work, gender, motherhood and independence. The Green Island is set on an island that closely resembles the Danish island Thurø, Michaelis’ adopted home and the place to which Gertz herself returns each summer. In the novel, the collapse of the old societal structure and the emergence of a new order set the scene for a utopian tale, a reflection of the author’s political activism and her hopes for real societal change. In The Green Island, this utopian vision is led by children and Sylte- Sørine, a midwife who plays a crucial role in the transformation. Much of Gertz’s work, similarly, could be read  according to these alternative value systems – in her foregrounding of the domestic within the realm of art, for example, or, put another way, the attempt to transcend one’s conditioned being, even momentarily, through art.

In A Vase for Jam-Jane the artist’s own vase is employed as an image source and in doing so ‘fuses a personal item with a new fiction’. The title refers to Sylte-Sørine in The Green Island, portrayed by Michaelis as a keen preserver of jam and pickled fruit. In this painting and in Hanging Sausages (2015) the preserving, storing, containing and categorising of food is depicted, alluding to the artist’s broader interest in collections, taxonomies, systems and archiving, often of seemingly insubstantial or ephemeral objects, such as the images drawn from her mail-order leaflets and catalogues, junk mail designed to be fleeting and throwaway, now fixed in her work. In these and other works, Gertz also reveals an interest in the containers and tools which house such subjective archives. The hanging sausages must be suspended from a wooden frame, the jam sealed in labelled jars, the lawnmower and spanners in Spanners, 2013 and Children’s Books Don’t Count, 2013,  stored in sheds or behind curtains for future use.

Gertz’s preoccupations in The Possibility of Passwords are picked up and developed further in Rugs and Letters. In this body of work nomadic living is invoked in images of stacked and rolled up rugs, as in Blue Rugs (2015) and Rugs, Migrating in Summer, rolled up and carried away (2015) and in the tent-like forms of works such as Letter A/Tent (2015). In the imagery of rugs set against landscape and in references to tents and shelters which are neither wholly indoor or outdoor we might think of Bedouin culture with its lavish, rich rugs used to carpet portable, tented architecture or Japanese tatami mats, roll-able, moveable and functional as both floor coverings and systems of measurement. The collaged forms of some of these works add to this dimension, at times appearing as though the shapes and colours of which they are made could be recomposed, rearranged or reconstructed like a jigsaw or tessellation.Beyond the strictly formal aspects, Rugs and Letters is concerned with the idea of shelter and of creating a home. As well as asking what ‘home’ might be, Gertz again recalls Karin Michaelis, who in her own life created space, ‘home’ and shelter for refugees within the grounds of her own house, Torelore. The house became, in its own way, a temporary utopia and resting place for those in desperate need. And in many instances of people setting up camp, whatever the circumstances, there appears to be a need to establish a base,to create at least the semblance of a home, a community, and a sense of belonging, however unstable or fleeting.

The letter works – Four Es, one with nosebleed, Letter O, Letter I, Meandering Æ, Letter Ø, Letter E with two profiles and Letter A/Tent (all 2015) – represent the beginning of an alphabet Gertz has begun to develop. Starting with vowels, the catalyst for the works began in material experimentation using wood-cut printing techniques. For Gertz, the shapes of the cut-out wood seemed to lend themselves to letter forms and provided an opportunity for her to pursue formal experiments in colour, shape and scale. The artist’s awareness of Poul Gernes’ Letter Paintings, an entire alphabet of works exhibited in Copenhagen in the 1960s, acted as both exemplar and art historical precedent, as did Albert Mertz’s bold, flat shapes of colour used to compose figurative pictures. There are also, perhaps, hints of British Modernism in some aspects of Gertz’s recent works. Kenneth Rowntree or Eric Ravilious, for example, might be called to mind in terms of a shared interest in pattern, decoration, printmaking and posters. These artists share the pursuit of practices which straddle design and art as well as the hints of pastoral romanticism and stillness which are present in works which could be categorised, loosely, as landscape or still life painting. With Ravilious specifically, there is also a shared interest in the development of alphabets and letter forms. Some of these works – the mono prints for example – carry with them a sense of lightness, as though through the deftness of their execution they are imbued with space and air. But this speedy mode of production belies an often laborious process of selection and rejection, of generating remnants in the studio which might be discarded or transformed according to the artists’ intuition.Great piles of scraps and objects are created, and like the apricots in Solnit’s book, some are wasted, others transformed.

Though many of Gertz’s works reference literature, and half the paintings and collages in Rugs and Letters are ‘of’ letters, the works do not aim  to represent or depict ‘stories’ – there is no specific narrative to be unfurled. In this, and in challenging the conventions of composition and pictorial space (as it has developed in figurative or representational painting), Gertz has expressed a commitment to painting whilst simultaneously undermining many of the historical associations of the medium, in both formal and ideological terms. In this respect, Gertz’ everyday objects and letters could be the inheritors of a maverick tendency to ‘expand’ painting and stretch its boundaries. Her paintings of rugs, stretcher-less and fluid, are self-referential only in the very literal sense that they, like the objects they depict, are not fixed – they could be rolled up and carried away.

Over the past decade or so, Gertz has often produced works which were intended to be distinct or stand-alone, yet an intertextual or rhizomatic relationship exists between many of the prints, collages and paintings which span her practice. This allows for cross-referencing and continuity between different series, groupings and exhibitions of work so that even where a contrast or separation between themes or subjects has been the endeavour, the resulting works seem to resist their intended categorisation. Rugs and Letters, for example, was initially conceived of two opposing ‘forms’, the loose gestural and layered softness of the paintings of rugs and landscapes, and the hard-edged shapes of the letters, but in the event the final results were connected and overlapping, as Type Case Logic or Letter A/tent reveals. In other words, Gertz’s work is evidence of a practice which has continued to branch out and regenerate over the last decade. These latest paintings could be self-portraits in images and objects in which the sitter occupies a space outside the frame and points instead to the stuff that occupies her life, an assortment or patchwork of objects which might be seen as ciphers for her or an extension of her. Though they may be bound up with the fabric of her life, these are far from confessional or diaristic works. Rather, they are intimate and personal works which are less revealing than allusive. Perhaps they are anti-vanitas paintings, still lives which examine and contemplate the real and material aspects of life rather than cautioning against them.

Solnit, R. 2013. ‘Flight’, The Faraway Nearby. London and New York: Granta Books,  p. 61.

Connolly, C. 1938. ‘The Charlock’s Shade’. Enemies of Promise. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,  p.116.

From the 1920s onwards Michaelis was renowned for  her  humanitarian work  and frequently spoke and wrote on political issues such as the dangers of nationalism, the treatment of animals, the position of ‘illegitimate’ children in society and other crucial socio-political concerns. In the 1930s she was instrumental in aiding and accommodating refugees from Nazi Germany, including figures such as Bertolt Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel.

Statement by Lotte Gertz, 2014.