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© Franklin Heijnen / Flickr
© Franklin Heijnen / Flickr

Beauty Within Chaos: The Work Of Artist Isa Genzken

Picture of Julianne Cordray
Updated: 21 December 2016
Inaccessible mirrored views generating an image that is both organic and intimate, constructed and public: these qualities characterize Isa Genzken’s varied and elaborate works. The Berlin-based artist maps city and self in her architectural assemblages, mixed media installations and serial sculptures. Image functions as architecture and architecture functions as image in a vast and immersive interplay of media and references.

Image and Inaccessibility

The fundamental and interior elements of both buildings and bodies are depicted through surface projections – fragmented mirrors, fogged metal, crinkled foil, or reflective surfaces that evade eye level – in which a clear, consistent image is never available. The means by which images of beauty manifest and disseminate within art and popular culture forms one of the bases of Genzken’s past exhibition Make Yourself Pretty! at Martin-Gropius-Bau. Comprising the extensive range of media and materials in works spanning her career, and traversing the locales of New York and Berlin, her dioramas, large-scale tableaux, canvases and mixed media assemblages delve the depths of hidden structures and defamiliarize the recognizable.

X-Ray, 1989/2015 s/w Fotografie 108 x 81,5 cm Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Koln/Berlin/NewYork

Isa Genzken, X-Ray, 1989/2015, s/w Fotografie, 108 x 81,5 cm | Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Koln/Berlin/NewYork © Isa Genzken, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016

Playful Yet Ominous

Blocked communication, through networks and systems that never fully integrate into a functional, unified whole, manifests in a series of concrete block sculptures fitted with radio antennae. Propped up on a table, the structures simultaneously evoke a small-scale model of a cityscape, materials of construction, and minimal representations of radio receivers. That they are literally blocks aptly illustrates a blockage of communication, further constituted by their hard, impenetrable materiality, out of which now useless antennae extend in a futile effort to reach a signal.

In another work, clothes from the artist’s own wardrobe— items both personal and mass-produced—are stripped from the body and from their original purpose, and decorated as objects for distanced viewing. Removed from both body and self, the embellished garments portray an impression of self: one that is individualized by the addition of decorative elements, at the same time that it alludes to its fabricated, performative nature. Similarly unveiling an inner self, large X-ray prints of the artist provide a portrait from below the surface. Alluding to technologies of image-making, exposure, invasiveness and the fragility of the body, it is an image that is extremely personal and intimate—revealing the body’s innermost systems—as well as detached and universal—the body it describes in such clinical detail is not a visibly identifiable one.


Isa Genzken, Soziale Fassade, 2002 | Ringier Sammlung © Isa Genzken, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016. Photo: Galerie Buchholz Koln/Berlin/New York

Fuck the Bauhaus

Traversing and interweaving minimalist geometries and ordered seriality with mismatched hodgepodge and ornate surface decoration, Genzken reveals both the functionality and absurdity of such modernist systems that were highly prized in the early 20th century, and cultivated particularly by artists and architects of the Bauhaus. Interacting with the space of Martin-Gropus-Bau—built in the late 19th century in the renaissance style by Martin Gropius, great uncle of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius—Genzken’s approach penetrates through the very fabric of the city. Designed as an arts and crafts museum, the building and its architect preceded the emergence of the pervasive modernist aesthetic—its geometric forms, reflective and transparent surfaces—that flouted ornamentation and favored clean functionality, structural clarity and an appearance of lightness and openness. This drive toward newness, industrial materials, and rationality worked against architectural styles such as this, which looked to the past and imitated its forms. The juxtaposition of this building—reconstructed after sustaining extensive damages during the Second World War—with the ubiquitous modernist structures that shape the urban landscape, parallels the assemblages created by Genzken within. Her work Fuck the Bauhaus embraces an aesthetic of disorder evolving between the rational structures of buildings and within the elements of life. Sparse construction materials combine with a variety of detritus and splashes of color, in an architectural model that is not in a pristine state, but configured as shambles.

Nofretete, 2014 7 Gipsb¸sten mit Brillen, Holz, auf Holzsockeln mit Rollen je 190,7 x 40 x 50 cm 4 Metallplatten, je 150 x 120 cm Installationsgrˆfle variabel Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Kˆln/Berlin/New York, David Zwirner, New York/London und Hauser & Wirth

Isa Genzken, Nofretete, 2014 | Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Koln/Berlin/New York, David Zwirner, New York/London und Hauser & Wirth © Isa Genzken, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016

Rational Structures and Incoherent Systems

The contrasts that weave through Genzken’s work reconfigure relationships between self and image, structure and space, object and functionality—in the process destabilizing categorizations of beauty and brutalism, individuality and universality. In a persistent focus on, and disruption of, processes of reproduction—through mass production and media, serial sculptures, casts and molds—and rationalized systems of construction, her works both reveal and blur familiar modes to indicate the precariousness of preconceived notions. In a series of empty window frames and privacy screens—absent of glass or screen, detached and placed against a wall, or standing in the middle of a room—their intended function, to screen or provide a view, is removed and recontextualized. The window, with its dual purpose and referential quality—at once permitting vision and openness, and providing a protective barrier and sense of confinement aptly describes processes of construction in both image and architecture. As a mechanism for viewing and producing images, the window initiates individual views from varied and unrepeated perspectives. Self-image construction evolves as a process occurring through changing relationships to the environment, and within the spatial relationships of structures: as a continuous process shaped by collective memory and subjective impressions.