November 13: A photomontage is a puzzle, more cryptic crossword than jigsaw and Rosemarie Trockel’s are more testing than most.
She was born in Germany this day in 1952; an important figure in international contemporary art, she lives and works in Cologne and teaches at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf.
Trockel studied from 1974 to 1978 at the Werkkunstschule in Cologne, which was then influenced by Joseph Beuys, of whom she said; “I was captivated by Beuys, but his authoritarian behavior rather repulsed me. My relationship to him was characterized by ambivalence.” Neither a student of Beuys nor a member of the Düsseldorf Academy circles, Trockel retained independence from the dominating masculine presence of the previous generation.
In the early 1980s, she was in contact with the Mulheimer Freiheit, a Cologne based group of painters that involved Walter Dahn (*1954) and Jiri Georg Dokoupil (*1954), and she also showed up at the Cologne gallery of Monika Spruth (*1949), who at that time presented only women artists.
Though Trockel actively avoids adherence to any one ‘style’ and works in a bewildering array of media, wool has been one of Trockel’s signature materials for her “knitting pictures”. These are machine-knitted, woolen material on painting stretchers with geometrical motifs, or with recognizable logos. More recent wool paintings reference formal compositions of twentieth century abstract painting.
Throughout her career she has used photomontage, and that is what most interests me, especially given that their meaning is so slippery, in defiance of the apparent indexicality of photography.
In 2012/13, Trockel’s work was featured in an exhibition called Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos at the New Museum in New York, a part retrospective/part curator exercise in which she incorporated outsider art, including the wool-wound objects of deaf artist Judith Scott
I think of work often as the invisible made visible, and it doesn’t matter so much to me whether I made it or not.
This exhibition then traveled to the Serpentine Galleries in London in 2013. In this show is a room, tiled in white, even on the ceiling, which itself is an artwork Ceramic Room (2012), a wunderkammer, it houses other Trockel works. One is a large plastic palm tree suspended upside-down from the room’s ceiling, accompanied by an oblong, white-metal birdcage housing three stuffed birds on branches mechanically dancing to their own birdsong.
In 2007 Trockel, invoked Gustave Courbet’s L’origine du monde, a provocative painting that lays bare the pudendum and prone torso of his partly naked model (the original owner kept it discreetly hidden behind a velvet curtain for the entertainment of his friends). In Gossip (above) the upper body of the collagist Raymond Pettibon (*1957) has been stuck onto the Courbet torso over a background depicting a design for a public-space commission to provide a feminist take on the condition of being a woman in the art world.
In the exhibition Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos, beside the suspended plastic palm tree titled Replace Me (2012) on the white tiles is a framed digital print of the scandalous 1866 L’Origine du monde. This time Trockel drains the realistic skin tones from the original by reproducing it in monochrome.She obscures he dark pubic hair of Courbet’s model with the digitally superimposed image of a large tarantula. How Feminist are Rosemarie Trockel’s Objects? asks Anne Wagner in her 1992 essay; while the tarantula might be a well-parried feminist riposte, it would be a fairly straightforward one until it is set against other phallus-toppling works by this artist who, when she is most delightfully bad, has the great white males of art in her sights; for instance this image from the series Nobody Will Survive (2008) in which the face of painter Francis Bacon has been replaced by a medical photograph of a wide open eye. Within its triple reveal, framed by roughly chopped reflective mylar strips, a fabric ‘wig’ reinforcing the curl of Bacon’s own quiff, and a white border, it is dazzling, a target as well as a projected of his fixations.
The monochrome Cosmos version of L’Origine sets up the same flickering double-take, between the original and the montage, spider and pubic hair assuming the same form. It is the context of the phallic palm tree which lends this work an irony, a jokiness even, slyly exchanging arachnaphobia for fear of castration.
This ballerina by another ‘outsider’ artist Morton Bartlett (1909 – 1992), who made hundreds of photographs of a family of handmade dolls discovered only after his death, stands in the same installation case as Trockel’s sculpture featuring a severed leg next to a whisky glass, while nearby in the Cosmos is Trockel’s mannequin of a sleeping newborn in a bassinet where a fat bluebottle fly nestles on its innocent, unfeeling cheek.
On the floor below this is a version of Living Means Not Good Enough (2002)
The life-size photograph of a female figure sprawls out on a blanket, in bra-less self-indulgence to enjoy a relaxed reading books and magazines, present as real objects, the covers of which are productions by the artist herself. Photographed from overhead the back of her head is cut out and folded upwards – wittily creating the illusion that, though she has no face, she is intently reading a Madonna interview in the British popular culture magazine The Face in front of her; the arrangement becomes apparent in this view from the other side of the installation
The ambiguously titled Living Means Not Good Enough reflects on the way we use mass media to evaluate and position ourselves, often to the cost of our self-image, though Trockel adds herself to that picture too; one of the spoof covers features a monochrome photograph of a young Trockel wearing a gold-buttoned blazer, standing next a swimming-pool, under the bold title Ich bin Dan Graham (‘I am Dan Graham’) in reference to the well-known male conceptual artist (*1942) whose wide-ranging media also includes magazines. Other covers include Kunst und The Double, and Man in Dark Times. It is her fastidious attention to such details that makes this work when a combination of 2D photograph and 3D objects so rarely does. In this case the life-size colour print is like those flimsy paper dolls which we used to dress with paper costumes with fold-over tabs, and harks back to the weirdness of Morton Bartlett.
The connections between Trockel’s works may be obscure, but the choice of A Cosmos as an exhibition title is suitably indicative of their interrelationship. They gravitate telekinetically around her choice of other artists’ output which like the lensing of distant stars, magnify and distort, with the effect most evident in her provocative photomontages, video- and photo-installations.
[Trockel, now 65, last showed in Australia at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) 30 Mar 1994 to 08 Jun 1994]