Friday, 2 November 2012

Thomas Schutte: Faces and Figures - Serpentine Gallery, London

Thomas Schutte has been producing a wide variety of art, from architectural installations and mixed media sculptures to ceramics and drawings, for more than three decades. This current exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London concentrates on one of Schutte’s major preoccupations, the human face and figure, drawing on work from the last fifteen years. It is perhaps surprising then, due to the eclectic nature of his practice, that this show has such a traditional feel, being made up as it is primarily of sculptures in bronze, steel and aluminium, and drawings in ink, pencil and watercolour.

It is to the drawings that I am most drawn. There is a quiet, calm seriousness to them, a misleading simplicity. They do not shout for attention. They quietly, calmly and seriously get on with what they do. Often Schutte will draw the same subject many times over a period of months or years, modifying his materials aloing the way, some in ink, some in pencil, some with crayon added, some with watercolour added, with the result that his drawings frequently appear in series. On show here are Luise (1996), Mirror Drawings (1998-99) and Paloma (2012). It’s as if through repetition Schutte is acknowledging the ultimate futility of drawing, it’s inherent failure to capture the true and complete spirit of a subject, as well as his own limitations as an artist, and by use of repetition he can somehow get closer to that unobtainable absolute truth.

In some of the drawings there is a real delicacy of touch. Henri (2012) for example is a very simple and beautiful line drawing in pencil, which has two occurrences of red crayon. Untitled (2006) is an ink drawing of a male face where the ink is thick and black on the right of the picture but the lines, and consequently the face, on the left disappear into the whiteness of the paper. And in another Untitled (2006), the subtlety of the line and delicacy of the face, this time female, is contrasted by a thick block of bright orange on the neck.

The majority of the sculptures on display, I’m afraid to say, fail to move me. They include a series of expressionistic bronze heads, Wichte (Jerks) (2006); an imposing armless figure with solemn deep cheekbones cast in dark rust coloured steel, Vater Staat (Father State) (2010); a long haired and bearded sunken faced bronze, Memorial for an Unknown Artist (2011); all beautifully executed with expressive features, but failing to move me in the way, say, the sinister figures of Juan Munos do, a comparison most explicit in the two large sculptures outside the gallery, United Enemies (2011), two pairs of figures, again armless, with poles for legs, bound together and uselessly straining against each other desperate to pull themselves apart. (When I was viewing these I was delighted to find them both crawling with ladybirds, an unexpected incongruity and pleasing unintentional addition to the work, the bright red dots against the pale blue of the bronze.)

My two favourite of Schutte’s sculptures, Walser’s Wife (2011) and Frauenkopf mit Blume (Woman with Flower) (2006), are both female heads, both resembling the heads of buddhas with smooth Asiatic features and rough textured hair tied up in a bun. Walser’s Wife is upright whereas Frauenkopf… is lying on its side. Walser’s Wife, the most striking of the two, is aluminium painted with gold and purple lacquer, which plays tricks with your eyes reflecting different colours depending on the angle of view. Frauenkopf… is the more familiar and traditional green and brown of bronze. But it is detail that makes these sculptures compelling. Both contain intentional imperfections around the eyes. Walser’s Wife has two small tears, solidified drips of lacquered aluminium, falling uncannily from her upper eyelids. Frauenkopf… has a lump underneath the left eye and a dent underneath the right. Her whole face sags ever so slightly in the direction of gravity’s pull, giving her features a barely noticeable yet  unnerving asymmetrical skew. Both pairs of eyes, in representations of an otherwise idealized yet realistic style, are just deep grooves, devoid of eyeballs or pupils and therefore of emotion. It is in these minor deviations from verisimilitude that we are apparently purposefully separated from the same truth that Schutte seems so eager to obtain in his drawings.

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