Juro Grau, Sabine Mohr, and Dieter Vieg

at the Flat Iron Gallery, through May 27

The recent technological revolution has marginalized the visual arts in a way that it hasn’t music, theater, dance, or literature. The media have taken over the visual realm, thereby making the expressive and imaginative working of materials–paint, wood, metal, or stone–by the human hand obsolete. And every artist since the 1960s has had to struggle with the consequences of the marginalization.

Ernst Fischer, the Austrian critic, posed this question in the late 1960s: “Is it possible that a withdrawal into the small collective, into the creative community remote from the centers of power, can offer a hope of creating small islands of freedom even in the world of power?” Artists collectives, artists-run galleries, and collective studios and living spaces have appeared, disappeared, and reappeared in increasing numbers all over the world in the last 30 years. A further development has been the international exchange between these collectives, which has flourished in spite of meager resources.

The Near Northwest Arts Council’s Flat Iron Gallery is currently hosting an exhibition of three artists from Kunstlerhaus in Hamburg, Germany, one of Chicago’s designated sister cities. Kunstlerhaus has been home to an artists collective since 1976, longer–it’s said–than any other building in Hamburg.

Although the three artists, Juro Grau, Sabine Mohr, and Dieter Vieg, have created separate installations, these produce a surprising unity. The simplest explanation would be that artists who live and work in proximity can establish a dialogue. Another explanation would be that they faced the same limitations. The artists had to restrict themselves to small pieces that could easily be flown from Hamburg and assembled at an unknown site. In the case of Sabine Mohr, what was brought was augmented by materials acquired and worked on in Chicago.

Some years ago I saw a film of a collaboration between Joan Miro and a theater group in Barcelona. What remains with me is an image of the black lines of Miro’s painting emerging as he works. My memory includes the sound his moving hand makes, an interrupted hard scratch as of wood on wood. Standing in front of Juro Grau’s installation, Toto, made of 11 small 10-by-13-inch oil paintings on canvas, my first thought was of that scraping sound. Grau’s line is rough and jagged. Each of the small paintings contains an image: a face, a leaf, a star, the dots of a domino, a racket, a cup. These are all found images, taken from our present reality, a world dominated by objects and signs. Grau makes numerous drawings before approaching the canvas, but a close study reveals that the images continue to go through many changes even as she works. Often the surface has been reworked and a previous image will show through, a reminder of where the artist changed her mind.

These works are a small part of an ongoing series. Being small and portable, the separate paintings can easily be transported to exhibition sites and assembled in different configurations. The ambiguity of the images–Is it actually a leaf, or perhaps an animal? And what relationship does it have to the cup, if that is a cup?–disturbs or irritates the viewer who desires to read one meaning into the work. The title of the series, Toto, is a play on Loto, a picture card game of German origin, and “toto” as in “total.” When we play card games we take the familiar designs for granted, but in fact we have no idea of the origin of the images or of what they once symbolized.

It isn’t surprising that Grau’s work brings to mind Miro and the surrealist-influenced early works of the American abstract expressionists, though I doubt that Grau espouses the philosophy of surrealism. In front of Grau’s Toto I find myself caught between the disconnected emblems of the pieces and the whole; between the individual cards and the meaning of the game; or, as we seem to be in reality, between individuation and totality.

Of these three artists, Sabine Mohr is the one who most often makes site-specific installations. She makes no permanent objects–no paintings or sculptures–nor any product that can be sold or acquired or has to be stored. Her installations deal architecturally with the space they’re in and exist only for the duration of the exhibition. Sometimes, however, there are reusable elements, and in her installation Sight Unseen she has attached a number of small found pieces of smooth, curved, varnished wood that she had used before. Possibly these fragments once helped form the decorative elements of furniture. Arranged on the wall here, they read as the disjointed words of some strange script or language.

Mohr has covered a section of floor with black and white tiles to look like a checkerboard. On this floor she has placed a large table. The table is the expressive center of the piece. In the world of furnishings, there are only three pieces that truly express the presence or absence of human beings: the bed, the chair, and the table. Together they form a trinity symbolic of basic human needs; and for this reason I think Mohr’s choice of a table is not arbitrary. However, it’s not its “tableness” that gives it power here but the way the table has been worked on. It has been very carefully constructed and finished, and then almost totally destroyed by the drilling of hundreds of large holes that have left it a few holes short of total collapse. The piece conveys the exhausting energy that went into its near destruction. It also seems to act as a slap in the face to a technology that constructs and destroys by the flick of a switch.

On the table, Mohr has placed a handmade book documenting previous installations. Glancing through this book, looking for a thread of obsession or content that might run through her work, my first thought was of the Argentinean artist Lucio Fontana, whose theory of spatialism involved a process of cutting, slashing, or forcing holes in his materials. However Mohr is probably not so interested in the hole as in its repetition. One senses the peculiar stress of the long-distance runner; there must have been moments when she wished she had never started drilling these holes, and giddy moments when she felt she could go on drilling them forever.

The third artist, Dieter Vieg, is primarily a creator of small, very intricate paintings. He is also a writer of short, lyrical epigrams that are, for the most part, untranslatable. Although there are no words on display in his installation, a catalog from a previous exhibition is full of these epigrams, one of which can be translated: “Without the word there is nothing to bind the color to the canvas.” Considering this sentence together with the title of his large wall installation, This Is the Song of Immanuel Kant, we realize that behind the work are linguistic and philosophical ideas that somewhat inhibit the viewer’s freedom of interpretation.

My first reading of this installation was that it consisted of two pointillist paintings hanging on a gray “bar code” painted directly on the wall. Since nearly every product the consumer buys these days possesses its bar code, it’s logical to make this association whenever we see vertical stripes of irregular width. But there is something else going on here.

Immanuel Kant can be called the father of modernity. And if we look at Vieg’s piece more closely we see that it is not a bar code at all (though since modernity covers the period of capitalism and commodification, the bar code could be referred to ironically). We might recognize it as geometry’s golden section, a canon of proportion in the academies of fine art after the Renaissance, and we see that the stripes become progressively narrower as they move right. Is time speeding up to some apocalyptic end? The end of modernity? “The only conceivable end of Kantianism is the end of modernity,” wrote the British philosopher Nick Land.

But being an artist, Vieg must end his piece on a utopian note: a vertical bar of green and orange, like a thermometer with the green rising from the bottom. These colors, green and orange, colors of Irish national liberation, to Vieg symbolize freedom.

The binary code is alluded to again in the two small paintings. They contain mirror images of a Madonna, the colors being reversed. The colors are applied painstakingly in small dots that the eye blends to read. The breaking up of the images into dots reminds us of electronically produced images that are constructed this way, from the newspaper photograph to the television screen to the computer printout. This is a very coded work, but once the code is broken there may be nowhere for the imagination of the viewer to go.

In the United States it is virtually impossible to avoid the market. Even artists who make works that cannot be sold end up also making related objects that are salable. This is also the most difficult country in which artists can work collectively, because the market demands competition and competition is anathema to collaboration. Maybe in those countries that have a tradition of art making that predates capitalism resistance to the market is easier. This is an important exhibition for artists in Chicago to see because it is a reminder of possible routes to take that avoid the cul-de-sac of mainstream high art, routes other than individual isolation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Laura Weathered.