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Vera Lehndorff

Arcadia University Art Gallery Glenside/The Galleries at Moore College of Art and Design

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Vera Lehndorff is best known as Veruschka, one of the most celebrated supermodels of the 1960s, frequent Vogue cover girl and the sinewy body photographed by David Hemmings in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up (1966). Discovered in Germany as an art student, Lehndorff stopped modelling at the end of the 1960s to pursue the art career she had interrupted, turning, appropriately, to collaborative, staged photography. For the next decade she worked with painter and sculptor Holger Trülzsch to create highly stylized, body-based photographic work that is forceful in its single-minded exploration of visibility and disappearance, a near-perfect but uncomfortable analogy for Lehndorff’s own life.

Organized by Sandra Firmin, this two-part exhibition offered an enchanting introduction to a virtually unknown artist, examining two periods of production - one early, known as the ‘Oxydationen’ series (1970-86), on view at Arcadia University Art Gallery, and the other comprising more recent video and installation work from 1988-2001, shown at The Galleries at Moore College of Art and Design.

‘Oxydationen’ is a body of work that designates the artist as the central subject. A painted nude, she dissolves into natural and industrial backgrounds: a bed of rocks, a shadowy doorway, the edge of a window frame, a rust-stained wall. Jointly created, this painstaking camouflage evokes both awe and despair: awe for such a precise and laborious construction, intensely hued, with place converging on body; despair conveyed through a deliberate voiding of the body. This is the body in the action of inaction, sometimes violent, dematerializing, literally wearing its surroundings. In Oxydation, Hamburg-Altona, Installation of Pipe Driven Through Head (1978) a duct penetrates the artist’s mouth, creating the illusion of forced entry. In all of these photographs Lehndorff’s body becomes a conduit for the fierce and visceral, charging inanimate objects with a sudden and violent electricity. Lehndorff and Trülzsch make images that flirt with destruction, in which self-awareness bows to the larger futility of decay, visible in the sites of abandoned, derelict warehouses and factories, and also in the installation of the photos themselves. Rather than being framed, they are attached with industrial black magnets to panels of oxidizing, rainbow-coloured steel.

Arguably each and every one of Lehndorff’s photographic works represents an attempt to erase her Veruschka persona. In a lengthy and admiring essay on the artist in 1986 Susan Sontag declared, ’ Even ex-Veruschka is still Veruschka.’ What this reinforces is that Lehndorff is an interesting problem, complicating the legacy of 1970s feminist Body art. Her work coincides with Ana Mendieta’s famed ‘Silueta’ series (1973-80), in which the artist created negative sculptures in the landscape based on the shape of her own body. Both artists worked in specific locations, with diametrically opposed subject matter, but whereas Mendieta’s work is nature-based and spiritual, Lehndorff’s is urban, psychological portraiture. Even so, Lehndorff is hard to categorize as a feminist. While her technique is more sophisticated than Mendieta’s, her work is more naive in its relationship to the gaze, not just because it is shot by a cameraman rather than by the artist herself, but also because her body appears so persuasively passive. However, although it is too easy to explain the quality of submission through Lenhdorff’s modelling career, nor does she seem fully human. There is a darkly ethereal quality to the work, as though her presence in the architecture could also convince the viewer to participate and then be trapped for ever, like the mythological Daphne.

By 1988 Lehndorff titled her photographs as actual self-portraits, embracing the idea of presence. ‘Ash Self Portraits’ (1988) document a performance in which the artist is clothed, wearing a threadbare suit, her face and clothing covered in soot. A human statue, there is a Pompeiian quality to the photos. She lies frozen, sprawled across the sidewalk face-up, as though fatally interrupted by a volcanic blast or bomb. Characterized by malaise and urban warfare, both the ‘Self-Portraits’ and her video projections dwell in an anxious place. Burning City (1988-99) consists of three large-scale projections that document the incineration of a replica cement city. Recalling the repeated viewing of news footage, the solemn camera pans the carnage, referencing any number of current events.

To date, Buddha Bum (1998-9) is the only work that Lehndorff has made that can be construed as narrative. The film presents a phastasmagoric walk in which the artist appears as various personas - a lion, a vagrant and a Buddha, sitting serenely atop a block of ice. Older but still striking, her face seems closer to attaining the ‘spirituality’ glimpsed in her earlier body of work. Were it more directly a commentary on ageing or on personal ritual, Buddha Bums would have more of the surreal, mystical effect it attempts.

Highly original, Lehndorff’swork paints an apocalyptic portrait that is wonderfully tough, leading the journey into dissolution without the sentiment of loss, until we’ve arrived at the beastliness of beauty.

Jenni Sorkin

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First published in

by Jenni Sorkin

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