Hubertus von der Goltz: Balance and Perspective

at Fassbender Gallery, through November 25

Nina Levy: Attachments, Liaisons, and Fixations

at Peter Miller Gallery, through November 11

There’s something new on the front of the building that houses Fassbender Gallery. A thin piece of black metal juts sideways and upward from the brick wall, way above your head. A man’s metal silhouette perches precariously on it; in a wind, this thin plate of a man flaps back and forth slightly. Featureless, inscrutable, yet vulnerable, he seems caught in mid-journey, utterly alone.

Skyline Balance is one of 13 works by the German artist Hubertus von der Goltz at Fassbender, all of which place silhouettes in simple settings of lines and planes. The man’s journey in Skyline Balance changes depending on the angle it’s viewed from: while the rod points toward a water tank across the street, when seen from the south the rod parallels the elevated Metra tracks behind; from the northwest the man is almost lost against the densely packed Loop skyline. Inside, in Balance (#9519), a small flat figure stands on a rod jutting out from the gallery wall; like a tightrope walker he keeps his feet together and arms extended.

These anonymous figures are not unique individuals but surrogates for us all. “I want an image of man, but not of a special man,” von der Goltz told me. He could have created, he says, “a fat man or a woman, or someone with glasses or long hair,” but he didn’t want such specificity. The figures’ simplicity and precarious positions encourage the viewer to identify with them, to feel that like them he’s delicately balanced. A hint of drama in the figures–Where are they going? Will their journey be successful?–encourages empathy.

Before 1983 von der Goltz was making realistic three-dimensional figures, trying to express individual psychology through sculptural form. He was also asking himself basic questions–“What is truth? What is real?”–and reading Sartre and Camus. He started making silhouettes after a visit to Italy, where he was struck by the silhouettes of Renaissance sculptures on buildings in Florence and Siena against the evening sky–“a neutral background without any measure. I thought, Oh, that’s it.” He’s since placed his own figures on many European buildings; one graced the Berlin Wall before it came down.

While von der Goltz’s works are provocative, some are a bit too simple. Aspiring to an inclusive generality, he’s had to abandon much of the sensuality that’s a main source of pleasure in art. His more schematic pieces seem reducible to their ideas. But others have just enough visual seductiveness to give their ideas life.

In two other “Balance” pieces the rod emerging from the wall is curved; these rods twist back on themselves, reversing direction more than once, suggesting an unpredictable and complex journey. Corner Installation (#9231) is just four metal rods linking two perpendicular walls, with a figure balanced on one of them; but each rod is a different length and thickness and crosses the corner at a different angle, making the space seem alive with possibilities. The rods’ direct connection to the walls makes the pathways they represent seem to emanate from the architecture of the room, suggesting that journeys are part of the general condition of things–just as the figure could be anyone.

This idea is presented most strongly in von der Goltz’s powerful wall painting, Pathways. Dozens of black acrylic polyhedrons on one of the gallery’s white walls are painted in such a way that the white spaces between them suggest architectural beams, elevated walkways, abstract roadways through space; I also thought of the steel frames of skyscrapers, and of Piranesi’s complex fantasy-prison images. Two of the black shapes contain white silhouetted figures, the smaller one on a smaller “beam,” suggesting distance and producing a depth effect. But this painterly illusion is undercut when we see that the beams are merely the unpainted portions of the gallery wall, creating a more metaphysical depth: this elaborate labyrinth appears to grow out of the room itself, producing the eerie feeling that such structures underlie all of “reality.” Ultimately von der Goltz’s black paint merely highlights an omnipresent truth: that every space is alive with choices, directions, possibilities, that being alive means learning to choose. In several smaller acrylic works on board, from a series called “Auf dem Weg (‘On the Way’),” flat figures are balanced on curved rods in front of white backgrounds strewn with glyphlike black shapes that suggest intersecting lines. These mysterious shapes, the artist says, stand for “turning points.” He wants the viewer “to come into the figure, and see that there are other possibilities of being, other ways of seeing.”

In contrast to von der Goltz’s conceptual, dry, spare work, Nina Levy’s is brightly colored, luminous, and extravagantly sensual. And if von der Goltz’s pieces are occasionally too schematic, Levy’s 13 new works at Peter Miller are sometimes too full, cluttered with dozens of small nude men and women made of translucent colored resin. They’re also pleasurable to look at, both disturbing and fun.

The figures in Merry don’t seem at all happy. The piece is a bit like a merry-go-round seen from above, with 16 rods radiating from a single center; the whole assembly, mounted on the wall, can be rotated by hand. At the end of each rod a man and a woman face each other head to toe, a mounting that suggests the sexual 69 position. The man appears to be looking at the woman’s knee, however, while the woman looks off to the side. Each figure is a different color–orange, blue, lavender–and because the colors never repeat exactly, each identically shaped body almost seems to belong to a different “race.” Perhaps most important, when one spins the wheel these couples remain apart, forever frozen in their positions despite the motion of the whole.

Levy’s work is equally playful and bleak. The identical figures evoke commodified, mass-manufactured baubles. And Levy’s heaps of bodies are just as alone as von der Goltz’s solitary figures–more alone in a way because, lost in a crowd, they seem to be offered no alternatives, no freedom. Instead they’re imprisoned in endless cycles of repetition. The floor-to-ceiling Shower consists of 12 strings of 11 nude figures each, hanging upside down and facing in various directions; only rarely do they face each other. In Walkers two concentric circles of nudes, the outer male and the inner female, march in single file in opposite directions, never touching.

Other works suggest a troubled view of the human body. In Reservoir upside-down blue figures appear to have their chests and heads buried in a blue plastic disk, as if drowning, their bent legs perhaps flailing. In The Happy Couple the woman’s upper torso and head have been replaced by a giant hand, attached to her with a small metal rod; the man’s upper body has been replaced by a curled tongue. The surfaces of the tongue and hand are tactile, even lush in their rough detail and deep red color, which overwhelms the pale tan of the torsos; but what makes them sensual also makes them disturbing: why is the key sign of identity, the head, replaced by a hand and a tongue?

Bathing Beauties, like several other pieces, includes figures that combine male and female attributes. Five gradually rising concentric arcs like the tiers of an amphitheater contain a total of 42 nearly identical upright figures; the lower half of each is a nude woman from the waist down, and the upper half an upside-down nude man also from the waist down. Unlike most of Levy’s figures, these are not translucent. Their pinkish and purplish surfaces admit no light; perhaps, given the title, their skin has been hardened by the sun. The upturned feet display a few surface imperfections, a result of variations in the casting, that could be bunions or clumps of sand. Confronted with this faceless multitude of feet and genitalia, one tends to focus on such tiny humanizing signs.

The idea of bathing beauties may hold a key to this work. The doubled sex organs and the almost theatrical presentation suggest nudes on display for the voyeur’s pleasure, a kind of demented artist’s send-up of a swimsuit contest or a bisexual porn magazine. You want crotches? the artist taunts. Well, here! Levy heightens the most dehumanizing aspects of porn–its anonymity even when faces are shown, its endless repetition–yet one feels a certain fascination with these other-than-human humans. Certainly the artist must have been fascinated to have made so many of them.

Making them is not easy. Each piece of plastic resin has to be cast individually, a tedious process that requires Levy to be up at 4 AM if she wants to do more than three figures in a day. “There’s certainly a repetition compulsion involved as far as casting this stuff,” she told me. And because the resin is toxic, she has to wear a respirator while she works.

Levy grew up in Chicago, where her parents have an injection-mold plastic business in their home, producing things like cereal-box toys. Levy’s day job now is as a freelance pattern maker for mass-produced plastic–“I’ve done Bugs Bunny and Fred Flintstone.” But issues of mass production are clearly present in this exhibit, which straddles the boundaries between high art and kitsch, between the handmade and the mass-produced; her molds are created from figures she shapes by hand. Trained in fine art, she speaks of her work in terms of gender relations and group dynamics but admits to being “highly invested in traditional figurative sculpture.”

It is precisely Levy’s combination of art and kitsch that I found both fascinating and problematic. Her translucent figures trap light inside them, seeming to glow from within. But it’s hardly the inner light of one of Georges de la Tour’s candlelit figures–it’s closer to Christmas tree lights, as she seems to acknowledge in Small Lights. Strings of Christmas lights hang down the wall, each light encased in the midsection of a nude. Here the figures are not identical; in some the men’s legs are together, while in others one leg arcs forward, a variation that seemed both important and not very interesting–a kind of formal statement about the fact that even different mass-produced designs all look the same. The way the bulbs illuminate the figures from within crudely literalizes the subtler effects with light in other pieces. Small Lights is closer to high art than to a Christmas tree, but it replicates enough kitschy effects to make one wonder how different it really is.

One piece, placed by the entrance, makes a wry joke of Levy’s themes: bodies as objects of display, the anonymity and alienation of people in groups, the fascination of sensual forms that straddle the boundary between traditional figurative sculpture and mass-marketed toys. Blandishment Bowl is a large vessel containing multicolored human midsections in the bright colors of jujubes, waiting to be handled. Yet it’s creepy to touch them: not only are you violating a usual gallery taboo, they neither feel as edible as they look nor as firm and finely wrought as fine art “should.” Genuinely in between, they incriminate the viewer who stops to touch them–seduced by Levy’s borderline world, which calls into serious question the difference in function in our culture between baubles and Rodin.