Kunsthaus Baselland, Muttenz/Basel, Switzerland
‘Filer à l’anglaise’, the title of Raphael Danke’s current show at Kunsthaus Baselland, is the French foil to the English expression, ‘To take French leave’, which implies the act of leaving unannounced - perhaps ‘in the dark of the night’, as it were. It’s an altogether apt description of the Berliner’s Surrealist-invested process - and his work on view, which includes collages, a slide show, sculptures, a curious couch, and a disfigured Victoria’s Secret bag - which invariably begins with the human form and then deletes or distorts it, turning what is left into form alone. The effect is that the body haunts each finished piece like a dislocated ghost or an absent cipher, asserting its relevance while at the same time being nowhere (or only partially) in sight.
Collage, with its cuts and elisions, is the perfect medium for such disappearing acts, and Danke’s Baselland show - his first at a European institution - features two distinct series in the format. The first (including works from 2003 to the present) mines the fashion magazine spreads of amateur collagists everywhere, but the artist upends this all-too-familiar goldmine by excising the models at the centre of them. With the lovely, attenuated female forms gone, the collages become studies in the often empty and moody atmospherics that remain. Long, svelte vertical cuts make their way up the center of each image, sewing together shadows, patterns and the odd chair or stool. In some, the play of shadows and the willowy curve of the cuts evoke Edward Weston’s modernist nudes of Georgia O’Keeffe and Tina Modotti. But in the most intriguing works, a shock of hair emerges from the centre seam. Missing a body, the hair - frizzy, isolated, freaky - is weirdly compelling; it plays witty counterpoint to the bland attractiveness of the ads themselves, offering itself like a funky fetish object come from more tepid environs. As a coda to the series, a slide-show of the excised models - each pasted in turn onto the far-out cover of the 1978 Stuart Holroyd book Great Mysteries: Mysteries of the Inner Self - seems unnecessary. As the slides cycled through the models, they began to sap the collages of their latent eroticism, turning them back into the static advertisements from which they came.
The next series of collages are strewn through a larger installation (Ansicht 1:1 (la différence), 2006), comprising white building blocks and a noirish pair of mens-size black-patent high heels, which simultaneously referenced one of Carl Andre’s brick floor works and Umberto Boccioni’s seminal 1913 Futurist painting, Dynamism of a Human Body. If the installation, with its allusions to both pure form and the clearly corporeal, was a bit forgettable, the collages that wound their way through it were not. For them, Danke dispensed with the fashion industry and took as his material elegant black and white photographs of ballet performances. In one, an inspired geyser of tutus and bodies rises from a pile of dancers in ecstatic plié. In another, a dancer en pointe offers up a burst of tulle in place of the top half of her body. In such works, it is clear that collage is the medium in which Danke excels - his juxtapositions seem inevitable but not showy, pleasurable but not pointedly so—yet this does not stop him exploring his chosen themes in other media.
Filer à l’anglaise (2008)
An eponymous series of sculptures from 2008 offers another take on physical disappearance, with all its erotic and fetishistic potential on full throttle. Russian dolls - the insides of which famously yield ever-smaller versions of the same form - are turned into burned-out husks that resemble claws or pseudo-African totems. The tall, slim pedestals on which they’re presented are shrouded in women’s pantyhose in various hues, with ladders running up their sides and feet left to lie limply on the floor beside. Danke’s preoccupation with a kind of caffeinated Surrealism was probably at its most evident here; yet no matter how pleasing the works, their obvious origin begged the question of what their dialogue with the earlier movement was achieving. Despite their wit and seriousness of intent, the works on view inched closer to homage than critique.
All, that is, but for the few odd-men-out works that opened the show - a couch, a bag, and a screen - which seemed themselves to act as humorous foils to Danke’s project. In line with the artist’s established theme of bodily vanishing, the couch - which greeted museum-goers like a genial slacker - was shrouded in a rainbow blanket that was ostensibly an image of the artist’s aura, with the artist’s aura-beaming visage removed. Next to it, a Victoria’s Secret bag hung off the wall, featuring the outline of three Russian dolls cut into its shiny pink paper. Nearby, an austere geometric wood screen glared from its perch on the floor. The works, in their odd proximity to each other, seemed a little ridiculous, but in the end, the comic relief they provided seemed to at once add levity to Danke’s show and underscore its seriousness of purpose, by revealing just how far he’d go to make his point.
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