Markus Raetz

at the Arts Club of Chicago, through April 14

By Fred Camper

Swiss artist Markus Raetz, who’s long had a considerable reputation in Europe, plays perceptual games in the 51 sculptures, installations, and drawings spanning three decades at the Arts Club, his first one-person Chicago show. TODO-NADA (1998) consists of four letters cast in brass, carefully designed to read “todo” from one angle and “nada” from another. Metamorphose II (1991) represents the silhouetted head of artist Joseph Beuys from one side and a bunny from the other. Duo (1998) reveals a right-side-up head from either of two positions and an upside-down head from two others.

But what’s most interesting about Raetz’s work is the way it configures the viewer’s perception as an ongoing process. In her foreword to the small catalog, Arts Club director Kathy S. Cottong writes that “experiencing a Raetz work is akin to experiencing Zen enlightenment, the moment of knowledge….Look too closely and it is gone.” Walking around a piece can suddenly cause an image to crystallize, then fade away, underlining the fragility of all imagery, even of knowledge. There is no “right” image here; in Raetz’s view, the physical world has no immutable underlying structure, and our perception of it depends on our perspective.

From a third position it’s possible to see another “word” in TODO-NADA: a backward N followed by three Os. It’s hard not to read this as an exaggerated “no” or a profusion of zeros, so the title can be read not merely as “nothing to do” or the more affirmative “to do nothing” but also as the suggestion of a more general void. As one circles, one becomes more aware that the letters consist as much of the empty space around them as they do of solid brass forms.

Radically redefining the viewer’s role, Raetz’s work makes you realize that what you see depends on how you move about the space. In the 1985 drawing Seeing, he depicts eyes as neither sockets nor globules but as stalklike protuberances. Viewing his sculptures, one viscerally experiences vision as an active force projecting into space. Indeed, the drawing Senses (1987) shows an orange line winding around and through the figure’s eyes, ears, nose, and mouth as well as the space around the head.

Raetz is more interested in posing paradoxes than in offering solutions. Silhouettes, for Ernst Mach (1992) is named after the physicist-philosopher who addressed the question of why a mirror flips an image horizontally and not vertically: as in Duo, Raetz creates a bust that’s right-side-up or upside-down from different perspectives, adds a mirror, and produces a reflection flipped both horizontally and vertically. And his sculptural homage to Magritte’s famous painting This Is Not a Pipe, which unhinges the traditional relationship between names and objects, is the first of the many I’ve seen to carry off the mind-bending power of the original. From one angle Raetz’s Non-Pipe (1992) represents a very Magritte-like pipe, but from most perspectives it’s an abstract work so dynamic it’s almost kinetic, making the momentary materialization of a pipe seem as transitory as a puff of smoke. The power of Raetz’s work doesn’t lie only in finding a hidden image but in discovering the fragility and arbitrariness of all images. Inverting the rhetoric of much modern art, Raetz suggests that truth lies not in the revelation of fixed forms but in constant change.

Still life painting is the subject of the sculpture Large and Small (1993). From its origins at the end of the Renaissance, the still life has represented bourgeois possessiveness, depicting the bounteous meals the art collector hoped to enjoy. Consequently, most still lifes presented their objects with a certain fixity, at least until Manet and Cezanne. But Raetz explicitly denies stability: he places a large bottle next to a smaller wine glass–but from another angle the bottle turns into a large glass and the glass into a small bottle.

Raetz’s airy watercolors, most from the 80s, reveal a fascination with the changing forms of nature; critic Bernhard Bürgi has written of Raetz’s love for “rocky caves, grottos and crevices from which one can look out over the sea.” Raetz told me that he rarely makes nature watercolors today and added, “My sculpture was not influenced by natural subjects but more by how we perceive.” But because many of his sculptures are based on branches or leaves, it’s hard not to see nature as a lingering inspiration, one that might account for a profound difference between Raetz and many artists who also argue that perception is relative and who joke about past art: Raetz’s work is more whimsical than ironic–there are smiles here but no smirks. Equally important, though his pieces can look minimal, there’s little of the minimalists’ geometrical regularity. Even Raetz’s apparently rectilinear letters are full of curves. Nature’s changeability and general lack of precise symmetry introduce an air of caprice to the Arts Club’s big, open, but almost sterile gallery.

In Same (1999) the word appears in zinc-plated iron letters in front of a mirror, giving the viewer two “sames.” But there’s no angle from which they’re identical: try to stand somewhere to make the little loop in the M the same, and the As become different. These variations are an inevitable consequence of the geometry of reflection, but the underlying scientific principle is precisely what makes the impossibility of symmetry here such a forceful idea.

What really makes Raetz’s work sing, however, is the way it articulates a poetics of empty space: one becomes aware of how our sense of solid objects is interlocked with our perception of the space around them. When a piece suddenly crystallizes into an image, it’s but a momentary flash, like the sun reflecting off a whitewater stream. A head or a pipe becomes continuous not only with the abstract forms that are also part of the piece but with the adjacent space, which shifts as one moves. Work that might seem dry and conceptual becomes surprisingly lyrical. Even the show’s most rectilinear piece, Two Volumes (1999), has a curious gentleness about it. Two open rectangular frames hang over a gray rectangle on the floor, but the frames suggest convex or concave boxes, and if the installation is viewed from the side, the boxes are so shallow they almost vanish.

Gyroscope (1999) is kinetic in itself, driven by a small motor under a large sprocket wheel that rotates two adjacent wheels set horizontally. A curved heather branch is mounted at the center of each wheel, and as they circle they seem to dance a little duet of curves. If the viewer moves, the forms shift again: from one position the curves seem to gyrate almost in parallel, as if they were the two sides of a woman bending her torso, while from another angle the curves seem to expand and contract, almost as if a lustful viewer were moving his eyes up and down the curves of a woman’s body. Look a little longer and it becomes evident that each branch is rotating at a slightly different speed (one wheel has 64 teeth and the other 63). The single moving body is soon transformed into two sticks rotating in opposite directions, and then the image switches back again, like a little cinema–and in fact early in his career Raetz made an animated film. The spectator can change the work by moving, but the work shifts too, creating an interaction in which it’s impossible to separate stick from woman, nature from culture, viewer from artwork.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Courtesy Brooke Alexander Gallery.