Nicole Wermers, Untitled Forcefield, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Loss and Found

by Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, Director and Chief Curator

 

Snoop Dogg was recently denied entry into Australia because he failed the country’s test for character. They deemed he was missing something he needed. Nicole Wermers’s exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum addresses similarly oblique notions of loss. By taking a formalist view of the absences created from the removal of elements, the artist offers an opportunity to think about how these absences came to be as well as what else might now go there.


The title of her exhibition literally translates from German as “Matter and the Dissolving of Matter.” Wermers appropriates well-known forms from everyday life. Her choices are objects that communicate something beyond their objecthood—objects with an aura. Several of her works have incorporated cigarettes. Rather than being interested in any negative connotation—the artist describes smoking as “an elegant way of wasting time”—she is attracted to the remnants of what has literally gone up in smoke. After the object starts to disappear, a ghost or absence remains.


Wermers’s exhibition includes three types of sculpture as well as a video projection. Her sculptures are playful. The Double Sand Table (2007), a beachscape, is made up of two tables that form an L-shape. The location of the work in the museum gallery is both confrontational—it blocks the entrance to the space—and protective, forming a buffer for the space and the viewer inside. The table is filled with white beach sand and littered with cigarette butts and ashes. The work perhaps recalls a covert, intimate meeting on a moonlit beach. It also references earlier works that were simultaneously ashtrays and sculptures. She explains, “Public ashtrays are in this strange state of vanishing into the background and are only visible for the smokers that use them. I like the idea of a sculpture you would ash into—a somewhat disrespectful gesture.” Unlike her earlier works, additions to the Double Sand Table are not welcomed. Wermers’s objects in this exhibition are connected by their playful appropriation of urban forms and her sly allusion to wicked behavior.


Another strong influence on her work is the legacy of sculpture within Modernism. Both the low and high ends of Modernism are present. Wermers combines aspects of sacred architecture and the visual construction of the sublime; the formal vocabulary of the International Style; and the intellectual distance of Minimal Art, Constructivism, and Geometric Abstraction.1 What does Modern look like? With the surging popularity of mid-century Modern design, being—or at least looking—Modern is a badge of hipness, regardless of geographic location or income bracket.


In Wermers’s Kusine—German for female cousin— Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column (1938) is updated, feminized, and transformed. The Kusine sculptures are each different heights, painted two colors, and made of a piece of folded, thick steel in a v-shaped form with a large spatial absence in the center. Here Wermers takes a three-dimensional work and gives it a two dimensional twist. In profile, the viewer sees the cut-outs of various round shapes that are systematic, continuous, and repetitive. From other angles, the works appear flat. The Kusines reference an iconic sculpture by Brancusi. Brancusi’s original is an outdoor sculpture, 100 feet tall, cast from a series of rhombus shapes. Located in Târgu Jiu, Romania, it resembles a stylized version of a traditional Romanian funerary pillar.2 Wermers chose the form specifically because it is recognizable. The void of the Kusines runs counter to the volume of the Brancusi, substantial and full. Artists other than Wermers are currently engaged in looking at Brancusi as well. Philosophy of Time Travel, a recent exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, reimagines Brancusi’s Endless Column by literally forcing a recreation of his totemic sculpture into and through the gallery space.


Wermers looks for objects that are seemingly abstract but are rooted in the everyday and have a dubious effect. Her Untitled Forcefields are inspired by the metal detectors placed at the exits of department stores.


“I became interested in the metal detectors because they are these weird pieces of urban furniture that are visible and invisible at the same time. They are part of the fabric of the city, directing people through the urban landscape, determining their movements and sometimes actions. An invisible radiation emanates from the detectors, and their presence is meant to scare off potential thieves. They are often paired, and the way that people walk through them makes them reminiscent of ancient stone lions guarding the entrances of archaic buildings.”


Wermers takes on contemporary reality, making elegant forms from the collected detritus of modern life.3 Aside from their seductive aesthetics, the works have purpose, but not necessarily function. Function is something that they only reference. Wermers is drawn to in-between spaces.4 What don’t we notice? What is designed or enacted to make sure we do notice? What form facilitates what intended effect? The artist’s Untitled Forcefields balance seduction and control, as well as the temptations of beauty and artificiality.


In her video Palisades (1999), a negation of gravity occurs as the spaces that the artist traverses with her camera are inverted. The camera wanders across a weirdly-lit wonderland of ceilings in semipublic spaces: hotels, office spaces, and shopping centers. Mundane objects like light fixtures become sculptural, otherworldly, and oddly compelling. But there is also a naughty element here, as these are not spaces to which an uninvited person is supposed to have access, let alone film. Her surveillance summons thoughts of who watches who and why. Wermers’s work brings to mind furtive engagements, gestures in urban spaces, and the idea of being caught, be it stealing or smoking. The video is projected at the Aspen Art Museum in black and white, although it was originally shot in color. This choice highlights another recurring theme: reduction.


Although Wermers is a sculptor in the traditional sense—working on discrete objects and placing them in relationship to each other as well as to the space in which they are contained—her choice of materials conveys a wry sense of humor. For example, she has punctured the exterior of an exhibition space in England with a giant earring, hanging the huge bulbous form as an embellishment on a plainly reconstructed wall of what is otherwise a traditional Victorian-era British building.


Wermers also creates magnificent collages of minerals. Culled from old books, the reproductions present a sumptuousness that cleverly mimics the actual gems. Her other collages often depict abstract three-dimensional objects and sculptures, although their origin is very much of this world. Her other collages often depict abstract three-dimensional objects and sculptures, although their origin is very much of this world. They are made from pages of fashion and interior decorating magazines, using the props and backgrounds from advertising and lifestyle pages. The color gradation suggests an abstract, infinitive space but is, in fact, the result of carefully lit photo studio backgrounds.


Heavily populated urban spaces offer the sensation of individual anonymity. People are empowered by the belief that somehow their actions are invisible. As the viewer walks around Wermers’ Aspen Art Museum show, her sleek objects recall some past urban behavior that we hope no one else saw. Artist Aleksandra Mir, in her top ten list of Palermo for Artforum, mentioned a nun with a Frette bag and asked, “What else does she have that I don’t.” In her humorous but inherently serious question, Mir is asking something similar to Wermers about what replaces things that have gone missing. Both artists suggest that perhaps the object, feeling, or opportunity replacing that which has been given up is, in fact, better then what existed before.

 

NOTES
1 Anna-Catharina Gabbers, Wonderwall: Constructing the Sublime. Tomio Koyama Gallery, March 3, 2007,
http://www.tomiokoyamagallery.com/exhibitions/p/KIYOSUMI/2007/0303WW/eng.html, accessed June 1, 2007.
2 www.studiomusuem.org/exhibitions_new.html, accessed June 1, 2007.
3 www.delfina.org.uk/exh/pr_render.html, accessed June 1, 2007.
4 Tate Triennial, Tate Britain, March 1, 2006, http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/triennial/artists/wermers.htm,
accessed June 1, 2007.