The Abstract Room curatorial team & guest contributor Elise Allemand present the first leg of the Abstraction & Architecture project.
Abstraction & Architecture: Space and Human Factor
Architecture is by essence a three-dimensional practice, while Abstraction has a long history of association with the flatness of the canvas. With no surprise, the questions of space and planarity are central for contemporary artists who navigate between Abstraction and Architecture. Among the participants to the Abstract Room project, Evan Robarts takes no sides. He treats as equals the volume of his scaffold and the flatness of the Color Field wall painting that lies behind. Frédéric Caillard chooses to flatten the volumes of the Sydney Opera House into a purely emblematic silhouette, a sort of brand that has nothing left to do with space. Lucie Le Bouder takes the other direction with her two-dimensional cutter drawings. By superposing flat planes found in architectural blueprints, she creates a sense of volume. Christine Liebich, who works with welded steel rods, has also recently gone 3D. The center piece of her triptych – Dark Knight (11) – looks like a robot deploying its arms, breaking the two-dimensional constraints that hold the left and right pieces together. Dark Knight (11) is a very cinematic work, a sort of hapax in Christine Liebich production. Her pieces are typically carefully composed and balanced, but Dark Knight (11) does not so much look like a finished piece, but rather like an intermediate state, providing an interesting account of architecture as a passage, as the transformation of a two-dimensional idea into a three-dimensional construction. Another approach of space is proposed by Markus Linnenbrink and Umut Yasat with their works mounted on wheels, which speak of mobility as a possibility to recompose space.
Christine Liebich, Dark Knight (10), Dark Knight (11), Dark Knight (12), 2018 / structural steel, lacquer / 120 x 80 cm. Courtesy Christine Liebich.
It is quite common to stumble upon artworks that have a form related to their subject matter, but it is less frequent to encounter parallels between work processes and subject matter. It is thus striking to see that a vast majority of the Abstraction & Architecture artists use work processes that are based on the accumulation of elemental components and that recall construction processes such as bricklaying. Umut Yasat accumulates personal objects, Markus Linnenbrink color remnants, Lucie Le Bouder lines and floor plans, Frédéric Caillard acrylic paint layers, Christine Liebich steel rods and Vincent Mauger bricks, PVC pipes or bottle cases. This practice highlights the importance of time, materiality and craftsmanship in the production of the works.
Evan Robarts, Installation view of Run of the Mill at The Hole, New York City, 2015. Courtesy Evan Robarts
Another unexpected common ground that links the works shown in Abstraction & Architecture is what could be called their human factor. Architecture is about structures, specifications of materials and arrangement of space to enhance “functionality”. It is a product of science and technics. But in fine, all this technicity provides the framework in which our lives develop, an aspect that is often overlooked when discussing architecture. This human factor is captured by Lucie Le Bouder when she hand-traces her cutter lines. The lines are very well aligned but we are not in a cold and standardized mechanical reproduction. The depth and the angles of the cuts slightly vary, randomly peeling the paper coating off and providing a delicate organic feel to the otherwise very geometric aspect of the work. This appropriation of the architectures by the artist (and more generally by building users and inhabitants) also speaks to the practice of Umut Yasat. Umut Yasat builds his sculptures, called Der Stapel (The Stack), with personal archives and objects. Even though all the Stacks have the same dimensions (A4), Umut Yasat makes these pre-formatted constructions his own, filling them with private material and stopping their erection at his own height.
Markus Linnenbrink, FIVEYEARS, 2005 – 2010 / epoxy resin, pigments, objects / 46 x 210 x 15 cm. Courtesy taubert contemporary, Berlin
Markus Linnenbrink sculptures – which are made of resin recovered from his drip paintings, poured around everyday objects – bear in their flesh the memory of his studio and of his artistic practice. Evan Robarts human factor is less intimate and more social. Robarts uses material from building maintenance activities, referencing blue collar workers and their hard labor, decrying boundaries between social classes. The question of labor is also at the foundation of Benjamin Sabatier’s practice, who sees it as necessary to acquire personal and artistic autonomy. The works of Benjamin Sabatier, Evan Robarts and Frédéric Caillard also develop political messages, from the denunciation of Donald Trump positions (Robarts) to charges against capitalism (Sabatier, Caillard). These different approaches, whether intimate, personal, social or political, confirm that contemporary abstraction is today more than ever connected to the real world, and that the days where abstraction was autonomous and remote are now long gone.
Symbolism: towards eternity
One of the curatorial entry-point of Abstraction & Architecture is symbolism. The tower-like constructions of Markus Linnenbrink and Umut Yasat are obviously visually reminiscent of high-rises, even though they were not intentionally meant to speak of architecture. Despite disparate appearances, they are very similar on a conceptual level. Both artists are actually directly building an archeology, an approach which is in itself full of contradictions. In its movement, archeology is related to digging, not to building. Moreover, archeology typically happens long after the useful phase of a construction. Archeology cannot be built, it needs to be discovered. But Umut Yasat and Markus Linnenbrink are not interested in the usefulness of their creation. Like archeological artefacts, their sculptures are here to render the essence of things: the memory of his artistic activity for Markus Linnenbrink, and his life history for Umut Yasat. The same paradox has produced some of the greatest landmarks in the history of architecture, from Plaza de España in Sevilla to the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. These monuments were built with no functional goal in mind and they ended up capturing the soul of a city.
The Stacks of Umut Yasat and the Linear Sculptures of Markus Linnenbrink can also be described as clones. They have the same DNA but slightly differ visually, like identical twins who would have different life experiences, or like those monuments which underwent restoration according to the Venice Charter of 1964. The Charter stipulated that “the replacement of missing parts must integrate harmoniously with the whole, but at the same time must be distinguishable from the original so that restoration does not falsify the artistic or historic evidence”. The renovation of the Neues Museum in Berlin by David Chipperfield is a prime example of project which rehabilitated the memory and the spirit of the original building according to the Venice Charter principles. Chipperfield duplicated the layout of the openings of the old wing but refused to copy the elements that were specific to 19th century achitecture, like the moldings. Other recent instances include the Unterlinden Museum of Colmar, where Herzog & de Meuron copied the volume of the old gothic convent and the Basel Kunstmuseum, with the horizontal lines of the old façade being echoed by the offset of the stone bricks of the new building. The sculptures of Umut Yasat and Markus Linnenbrink, which can at times take years to make, relate to these monuments: each piece of their series is in sync with its own time – its raison d’être is even to represent its own time – but they all bear the same atemporal spirit.
Exterior of the Neues Museum, Berlin. Photo Gryffindor. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
The cutting process is well represented among the Abstraction & Architecture artists. Lucie Le Bouder draws with cutters, Umut Yasat cuts all his personal objects and documents to the standard A4 size and Frédéric Caillard shapes his monuments by cutting wood panels. In the Tools & Materials section, cutting is also at the heart of Vincent Mauger’s practice. Arman said in substance that cutting was in fine a desire to stop time(1). The thought is delightful in regards to Umut Yasat practice, who purposely attempts to capture passing time in his work. But it is also very telling in the context of symbolism: time has little bearings on symbols, the emblematic silhouettes of Frédéric Caillard monuments do not require maintenance and have no use for Evan Robarts scaffolds.
Desire to stop time, atemporal spirit or willingness to build an archeology, the Symbolism section of Abstraction & Architecture is thematically very strongly leaning towards eternity…
Tools & Materials: everything is in the gap
The largest piece in the Tools & Material section is a compelling scaffold installation by Evan Robarts. The work is multi-faceted, spelling out contemporary social issues and echoing some of the key debates of art history(2). The other pieces – by Christine Liebich, Vincent Mauger and Benjamin Sabatier – make up a sort of trilogy. The three artists are using construction materials (in this project, steel, bricks and concrete), but they are not importing these materials from reality as found abstraction. Each one of them is using his or her material as a full-fledged fine art media, using its inherent characteristics to develop an innovative and unconventional artistic expression in the field of abstraction. Of course, the referential potential of each material cannot be expunged, and the works are enriched by the many connections that form with the construction world, but those works primarily stand out as being animated by a force of their own, disconnected from their source material. This impression is probably reinforced by the tendency of several artists to intentionally divert the common images associated with their material: Benjamin Sabatier stages his concrete as light and flexible while Vincent Mauger have his bricks lose their orthogonality and turn organic(3).
But despite a similar treatment of construction materials, the underlying approach of each artist is quite singular. Christine Liebich has a way with balance and composition. These classical skills, combined with her interest for duality, result in an elegant aesthetics that culminates in the dialogs between her pieces – often presented as diptychs and triptychs.
Vincent Mauger, Système adéquat, 2013 / site-specific installation at maison rouge-Fondation Antoine de Galbert / height of pvc tubes 0,25 to 1,50 m, floor area ~60 m². Courtesy les Amis de la maison rouge. Photo Vincent Mauger.
Vincent Mauger’s sculptures and installations look like three-dimensional topographic projections, but they are based on a deep and unsettling contradiction. On one side, they are carved in familiar low-grade materials (bricks, PVC pipes) and deliver a reassuring signal: we are in charted territories and there should be no surprise. On the other side, the very essence of topography (which is at the crossroads of nature and cutting-edge technology) is negated by the choice of ordinary fabricated materials. These conflicting indications (that could be summarized by Frank Stella as “What you see is not what you see”) abolish our normal set of references and make Vincent Mauger’s work stand-out as ungraspable and peculiar.
Benjamin Sabatier is above all interested in the making of the works, in how the original idea is modified by the labor of the artist and the behavior of the materials. And this may be where the key difference between Abstraction and Architecture lies. In this gap between the idea and the final object. Architecture needs to eliminate this gap, which has always been so fertile in art. Research and mistakes are totally banished from the construction phase. There is no trial and errors, and creativity is limited by the need to guarantee feasibility on the first attempt. With such constraints, how can architecture continue to be innovative and break new grounds? Maybe by following Vincent Mauger’s recipe: remain in charted territories (to ensure feasibility) but desynchronize your conventional components to create surprise, bewilderment or amazement. This is a good way for Abstraction and Architecture to build a future in common.
Notes (1) In Arman’s 1964 Stedelijk Museum exhibition catalog: “I believe that […] in the destruction, in the cut, there is a will to stop time”. (2) See the essay Evan Robarts: Mondrian 3.0 for a full analysis of the work. (3) Those practices are similar to the one of Frédéric Caillard, who changes acrylic paint destination by converting it to a support.