” My works are in constant state of change. I’m not interested in reaching an ideal state with my works. As people walk on them, as the steel rusts, as the brick crumbles, as the materials weather, the work becomes its own record of everything that’s happened to it.”
What Carl Andre writes about Squares, a work he created in the 1960s, is taken word for word by Sabine Gross in her extensive floor-piece Gefunden (Found) (2008). From the minimalist metal plates that fit together in Andre’s work to form a spacious square, here there remain only rusted remains with flaws and jagged edges. It seems. The artwork is in disarray, having lost its ideal form, and all that remains is a remnant, a fragment in which time itself has left its mark. If we believe this outer appearance then Carl Andre’s works comprise exactly what Sabine Gross so drastically implements in her sculptures, “the work becomes its own record of everything that’s happened to it.” This claim nonetheless appears somewhat odd if we remember earlier works and concepts by Sabine Gross, ones that take a confident, critical or even ironic look at art history, thus having nothing in common with the pathos of minimalist art. These include her light and sound installation Das Gelbe Haus (The Yellow House) (2004), the video installation The Black Scream (2004) or Melancholie Modern (according to Dürer) (2006); in each of these the artist takes on quite a heavy piece of art history with Van Gogh, Munch or Dürer – in order to dismantle it, using current art tools to comment on it and expose it to a new form of perception.
Sabine Gross ventures into new territory with Gefunden (Found), a sculpture that appears destroyed and condemned to decay. She opens up the idea of a current work with art-historical significance being discovered in a new cultural context at some time in the future and presented as an archaeological find. The question arises as to whether the estranged object still corresponds to what we ascribe to it and to what extent our own perception changes in the process.
The fact that this is not about a discovered object, as the title may initially suggest, becomes apparent on closer inspection: Gefunden by no means consists of weathered metal plates; it is a cast sculpture made of acrylic resin, and it is only through an elaborate patina treatment that it appears as what it is not. This is despite the fact that the artist attaches great importance to the reconstruction of surfaces, ie she seeks an effect whose aim is to deceive us. She thus creates a virtual reality that takes the place of materiality. Form, material and meaning take on a contingent relationship; the unity of surface and material is dissolved. If we assume that sculpture, when seen historically, is defined essentially through its materiality, then Sabine Gross sets out to achieve no less than to question materiality and therefore the structures that lend sculpture its historical basis and meaning.
Upon first glance we are led to believe that her own objects are all real relicts and archaeological finds, yet they simultaneously appear so exaggerated that we feel we should distrust them and the harm they have encountered. Sabine Gross’ sculptures are indeed designed to present certain contradictions: Ohne Titel (White Cube) (2008) with its shining, spotless surface appears to be all about minimal aesthetics that are then fractured on one side where the cube swells upwards and is torn open. From this opening the sculpture reveals an interior that appears organic and raw, standing in diametric opposition to its minimalist exterior. Sabine Gross’ ‘destructions’ are, however, the result of intricate artistic design: the ‘frayed’ edges of the deformed cube are devised to allow for the recognition of calculated aesthetics that are not the result of aggressive interventions, even if they appear to be.
If Sabine Gross were indeed to present to us a sculpture by Robert Morris or Donald Judd, she would be following in the footsteps of Georges Bataille’s Base Materialism and American Anti-Form Art. Both positions revolved around a preoccupation with simple or inferior materials, breaking the self-importance of modernist materialism and dissolving oppositional categories such as pleasant/offensive, precious /inferior etc. After Georges Bataille, Base Materialism turned itself against idealism in art. It accused materialists of devoting absolute priority and significance to dead material, ie to classic art materials. The material stands for itself and therefore occupies a conceited position – of superiority! For Bataille on the other hand it is the very materiality of things, the organic matter, which speaks to us physically as observers; “matter is seductive waste appealing to what is most infantile ins us since the blow it strikes is devolutionary, regressive, low.”
Conversely, Sabine Gross’ sculptures prove to be extremely cryptic adaptations of objects that may quote Base Materialism, but in reality they merely imitate it perfectly. Her works ‘Ohne Titel (Kampfplatz)’ (‘Untitled (Battle Ground)’) or ‘Ohne Titel (Reifenspur) (‘Untitled (Skid Marks)’) (2006) likewise pursue this principle. The seemingly squashed, splattering sludge is framed in a stylised, three-dimensional contour which makes an object from the organic structure alone. It is therefore not a question of portraying signs of combat or skid marks but of simulating authenticity through the clever processing of what are in effect worthless materials and exposing this material to a disrespectful, aggressive treatment in order to create something that appears authentic. At the same time even the ‘puddles’, ‘sludge sculptures’ and ‘tyre tracks’ do not appear as naturalistic representations of material due to the artist’s use of strong overtones and colouring that alienate what are assumed to be natural objects. In reality, therefore, the authentically real is entirely artificially arranged.
Consequently, Sabine Gross counteracts the material aesthetics of Anti-Form (such as Robert Rauschenbert’s Dirt Painting of 1953 or Robert Morris’ Untitled (Dirt) of 1968); what remains is an object that quotes art history without taking on the historical significative content of its form. She deconstructs art-historical positions and ideologies in order to take the oeuvre that is charged with art-historical meaning and transpose it into a different condition and context in which we have to adopt a new approach to issues raised by famous works of art. What happens when the flawless surface of a minimalistic cube is fractured? Which aesthetic indicators do we have to employ if the famous work of art no longer fits what was previously expected of it? May we still even trust its form and appearance? What happens when we view Duchamp’s Fountain and the urinal in Sabine Gross’ work threatens to sink into faeces consisting of acrylic? In 1917 when Duchamp submitted an upside-down urinal for the Independents’ Exhibition in New York signed with ‘R.MUTT’, it was rejected by the jury on the grounds that it was “immoral and vulgar”. This provocation persists in Sabine Gross’ work. The depraved is given an image yet remains ineffective because its organic qualities are reduced to the surface and the initial object of offence, the urinal, only remains as a fragment.
While Duchamp was concerned with transforming an object of utility into an exhibit in order to make it visible as a work of art, Sabine Gross fragments this art object, which for us has already become an icon, and pretends to return it to its original context of mundane plumbing. Ultimately, the object reveals itself to be an artistic performance, thus proving that it is just as construed as the idealised form itself.
With her art that looks at art’s reception, Sabine Gross formulates a remarkably confident and critical treatment of established artistic positions, which meanwhile include radical, anti-modernist statements such as Dada and Anti-Form. This stance reveals a very current, contemporary perception of art that considers the artwork’s myth to be a construction and portrays it as such. Or, as Roland Barthes put it: “Myth is a value, truth is no guarantee for it; nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi (…) The meaning is always there to present the form, the form is always there to outdistance the meaning. (…) To wonder at this contradiction I must (…) apply to myth a static method of deciphering, in short, I must go against its own dynamics.” Sabine Gross succeeds with her sculptures in holding our glance and making it sensitive to the mechanisms of art history that clothe artworks in a myth that superimposes and naturalises their actual statement and creation. As Roland Barthes put it: “What is sickening in myth is its resort to a false nature.”
In 2006 Sabine Gross developed a series of wall objects (lambda prints on aluminium) that show torn open screens, the gashes being arranged in a way that allowed for the creation of a new, aesthetic composition. The hole in the screen, ie the picture, is determined by an ‘empty space’, while the original colour or the motif (that of a landscape) is repelled and fragmented. “The picture is what no picture is”, says the artist when commenting on this occurrence. This means that if the original picture has dissolved, if it has been deconstructed, then its place is taken by something that shows the picture as a construction: the reverse side of the screen, an empty space that no longer consists of a canvas frame and canvas but only of their reproduction – as a print that at the same time imitates its contours and plasticity.
If Lucio Fontana’s concern in his Concetti Spaziali was the penetration the picture’s surface and its enlargement into the surrounding area, Sabine Gross extends this concept ad absurdum by taking the area behind the picture, which that is created through the torn-open canvas, and making this into the picture.
This context encompasses the burnt pictures, such as ‘Ohne Titel’ (2005), which shows a computer-made image of a burnt hole. Similar to the ripped canvas screens, the intended optical illusion causes the viewer’s gaze to deflect repeatedly between the portrayal level and the level behind the picture without allowing the viewer to conclude on what is being portrayed – or where the portrayed is actually situated. According to the artist, the viewer therefore opts for the motif of the burnt hole “because it plays not only with the form but also with the content of the presence and absence of what is portrayed and what can’t be portrayed, or emptiness. (…) This contradiction also becomes evident in the picture’s materiality in that it was produced using a photo-technical procedure (lambda print) but never came into contact with a camera.”
In her most recent wall-work Sabine Gross also confronts us with oeuvres that appear to have been exposed to dramatic changes: empty canvas screens covered in water stains that look as though they had been rescued as fragments from the scene of an accident along with the wall that surrounds them. But what we assume to be destroyed paintings is in fact sculpture. The canvas screen consists of acrylic resin and the ‘water stain’ is tea. With these non-artistic means the artist is seeking to produce a pictorial space where one would suspect to find a surface; she thus blurs the decision between two or three-dimensionality. The part of the floor sculptures that appears to be heavy metal plates is in fact lightweight. What appears to be canvas is heavyweight. It is not without irony that Sabine Gross takes a look at rigid opposites such as genuine/fake, original/copy or the ‘reality’ of two or three-dimensional objects. Her piece ‘Drama I’ is a wonderful example of this. The stretcher bar frame of a monochrome painting is broken in several places and the canvas has sunk into itself in such a way that paint has collected in a deep crease and seems to be trickling off the picture. The artist has taken the materiality of the paint literally and transposed the portentousness of Concrete Art into sculpture in a way that causes it to sink into itself literally before our very eyes.
All of these works by Sabine Gross express a radical objective: to present art’s myths and icons that are a firm component of art-historical practices in their construed form. And to show that the artwork itself endures a dramatic transformation within the course of this process. It becomes the ‘casualty’, the accident victim of art reception that pursues its own interests. When Sabine Gross separates the surface from the material in her sculptures, she removes the basis for historical definitions in sculpture, freeing the artwork from a pathos that promotes its mythologisation. In Gross’ work it sees its place taken not by new truths but by artefacts shaped by the realisation that there can only be a contingent relationship between form, material and meaning.