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The blazing exhibition Works on Paper, on Paper by the septuagenarian North-American artist Barbara Bloom at Berliner gallery Capitain Petzel exposes the subliminal ideologies of modern visual culture through her sculptural —kind of mise en scène— objectual installations, furniture design assembled compositions and images. On view until the first of August, the show explores what it means to pay tribute to the presence of an absent person or lapsed event.
Barbara Bloom, who was born in 1951, Los Angeles, California belongs to a generation of artists, including Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Prince, who shared a mission to expose the hidden ideologies of modernity especially related to visual culture. They were ambivalent about both high and low art, producing works of impressive visual charm. At the high point of her career, when the art world was predominantly a masculine start system (Kiefer, Koons, Schnabel, etc.) Ms. Bloom’s constructions nicely transgressed the cult of “genius”, the triumph of moneyed taste, and the vanity of the excessively privileged.
Since the 1970s Barbara Bloom (from now also referenced as BB) has used photography, installation, film, and books as a means of looking at issues of collecting, museology, design, taste, and investment in the objects with which we surround ourselves.
Composed of two parts, Works on Paper, on Paper features Ms. Bloom series Stand-Ins in the main gallery space and Objects of Desire on the backside.
Stand-in (noun): a person who stands in for another, especially in a match or performance; a substitute.
In film and television, a stand-in is a person who, before filming, substitutes for the actor for technical purposes, such as lighting. The director will often ask stand-ins to deliver the scene dialogue and walk through the blocking of the scenes to be filmed. Stand-ins are distinguished from body doubles who replace actors on camera during dangerous acts. Stand-ins do not appear on camera.
Chairs as Stand-ins
Bloom is not so much interested in the expressive treatment of a banal subject but in the logic of the metonym, the substitution of one thing for another: the object for the person, the seat for the body, the presence for the absence.
In the 1980s BB had already made a few portrait “homages” —each composed of a picture, rolls of photographic backdrop paper, and a chair. But one day in Berlin, she stopped in at a photography exhibition and saw F.C. Gundlach’s 1961 portrait of Jean-Luc Godard, seated on a bentwood chair, in front of an unfurled roll of photographic backdrop paper. The photograph is framed so that the backdrop paper is clearly revealed for what it is, functioning, as in BB’s pieces, to isolate the subject while revealing the complete artificiality of the arrangement. As a device, it paralleled Godard’s own filmic devices.
BB loved the way films such as À bout de souffle (Breathless) enframed the overused interior voice; the way that everything important was communicated elliptically, and objects were allowed to speak for themselves. She loved Godard’s refusal to fill in the blanks, exposing instead an abandoned ground scattered with clues. So there was nothing else for her to do: she bought the photograph and hung it on a painted rectangle, beside a matching, unfurled roll of photographic backdrop paper, with a bentwood chair standing on it. This is Homage to J. L. Godard, 1986. That is probably why BB Stand-ins are located somewhere between sculpture, mise en scène, and the clues left for a detective’s investigation.
Bloom’s Stand-Ins constitute an ongoing series from the 1980s and Godard had long been one of BB’s personal heroes —her first homage piece had been, in fact, a response to the death of Jean Seberg, the naive young girl of Godard’s 1960 film À bout de souffle. Homage to Jean Seberg, 1981, was the first of the chair/backdrop paper and objects works (not quite a portrait).
A photographer unfolds a strip of seamless background paper in order to frame what is placed in front of it, so as to photograph the model and accessories in seamless, isolated color. The point of this color-field framing is to separate the objects from the real world, rendering them contextless, spaceless. The backdrop papers function similarly as a framing device. Each Stand-In consists of an unfurled roll of seamless backdrop paper on which is placed a piece of furniture, accompanied by objects: books, open magazines, newspapers, pieces of clothing, and occasionally framed images.
Homage to Jean Seberg, 1981 is part of Berlin’s exhibition alongside Marriage on the Rocks, 1986, a blue backdrop paper and a plywood construction in the shape of a double bed and bedside tables, a photograph of his-and-hers watches framed and found books with invented covers.
Four new Stand-ins produced in 2020 complete the show. My favorite of the new ones is Deconstructed (Blow-up), 2020, probably because Antonioni’s Blow-up is one of my fav films of all time. Here on a pristine white seamless studio backdrop are a crumpled lavender-colored backdrop paper and two smaller pink and green papers which are the stand-ins for the girls’ protagonists of the original scene. In front of the backdrop papers is a camera, whose monitor shows on an endless loop the original Blow-up scene.
Sad Gray Story, Marilyn, 2020 contains a grey backdrop paper, a framed digital print of six photographs pf Marilyn in reading postures and a posing bench with a stack of six books with covers of varying gray shades dark to light, selected from a list of 430 books owned by Monroe: The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, The Captive by Marcel Proust, The Ballad of The Sad Café by Carson McCullers, Say You Never Saw Me by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sigmund Freud’s Letters.
Reflections on Mrs. and Mr. VN, 2020 shows a digitally printed wallpaper, mirror, chair with printed seat fabric, table, typewriter and a digital print of Carl Mydans’ photo of Vera Nabokov typing with a reflection of her husband Vladimir Nabokov dictating, in their home in Ithaca, New York, 1958.
The Idea of Glenn Gould, 2020 is an homage to pianist Glenn Gould’s manner of playing, his belongings at his early death, and his preferred piano: a Steinway CD 318.
Bloom has spent years making works that explore what it means to pay tribute to a person or place, and she has given much thought to conjure up the presence of an absent person or lapsed event. She has pondered extensively the many forms of memorial, commemoration, and homage. With her Stand-Ins, she approaches the subject of portraiture, but these works are not portraits but substitutes of the person honored.
Objects of Desire
Behind the six Stand-Ins it is placed a partition wall. Here Bloom presents her new series titled Objects of Desire. For this, she takes as a starting point the idea of the desired object and contemplates what grants it the seductive and capacity to act as a conveyor of meaning.
If we were to consider these objects, not for their aesthetic, symbolic, or metaphoric qualities, but as intermediaries (messengers) perhaps we should consider them, as described by the anthropologist Alfred Gell, as ambassadors.
In this section of the exhibition, Bloom presents a number of items that have over the years, as she says, “gotten their hold on her”. These are not the originals and thus do not possess the “aura” of the item once touched by the hand of the famous person: Nabokov, Warhol, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Jackie Kennedy Onasis, Roland Barthes. These works, which have been produced in this convulsed year of 2020 are facsimiles of particular objects used by the celebrities mentioned before. Each facsimile is housed and displayed in a custom-built case that infers the original owner’s habits, actions, and interaction with it.
One of the most interesting cases is the one dedicated to writer Vladimir Nabokov: Nabokov’s Collection, which contains small found printed covers of his novel Lolita pinned inside like insects. This case reveals BB’s interest in Nabokov, not only as a novelist —shown also in her Stand-in Reflections on Mrs. and Mr. VN—, but also as a lepidopterist.
Jackie French Verbs, is a facsimile of a book of french verb conjugations that belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis, the book is opened to pages with her childhood drawings. Joyce’s Schema, shows a facsimile of James Joyce’s handwritten schema for his novel Ulysses (1921). Andy’s Doodles, is a facsimile of the book The Psychology of Adjustment and Objective Approach to Mental Hygiene by F. Shadder (1936) doodled by Andy Warhol. Barthes’ Exercises, is a facsimile of a drawing by Roland Barthes together with a photo of him and Austen’s Pins, shows a facsimile of a page with numbered editing pins used by Jane Austen in the early 19th century. The numbers correspond to points in the text where edits had been made.