In 2007 Erik Steinbrecher travelled from Berlin to the Swiss Alpine village of Amden with 1,000 hamburgers and a double baguette, the latter cast in aluminium, in his lugguage. Invited to make a work relating to the Utopian beliefs of various social reformers and avant-garde artists who had lived in this farming village, Steinbrecher responded by hanging rows of the mass-produced meat patties from the roof of a barn or laying them across a meadow. Best known for his abstract sculptures made from building materials, the artist’s focus on organic substances in Amden appeared to be a radical aesthetic and formal change.
Steinbrecher’s recent exhibition at Stampa in Basel, ‘Brot & Hosen’ (Bread & Pants), brought together works dating back to 2004 to reveal the artist’s ongoing interest in organic materials – specifically, how one material can be made to look like another, without it being presented as an illusion. This coexistence of the original, still recognizable object and its new guise was the basis of the central arrangement of pieces: evenly laid out on a large wooden table were baguettes, döner kebabs, sandwiches, bread rolls, waffles and one or two abstract forms made from dough, all of them either cast in or sprayed with aluminium. The most banal substances were given a new, noble surface as though a baker had preserved all of his goods by casting them in silver. The installation’s display brought to mind the way archaeologists order their finds from a dig, while the single colour of the objects suggested a process of petrification.
What at first sight appeared to be a type of homespun alchemy belied Steinbrecher’s subtle message that reduction and excess have more in common than one might think. The purity, precision and seriality of his earlier minimalist work are echoed in the repetition of a basic vocabulary in this exhibition, as well as his stubbornly pared-down aesthetic. Although the objects presented in the monochrome assemblage were more obviously individual and hand-crafted than the mass-produced materials of the building trade, Steinbrecher’s ironic message is that seemingly individual and handmade foodstuffs are as anonymous and as globally distributed as any other product.
The same dichotomy informed the two pairs of boots and shoes in the exhibition, each cast in rubber without the toe caps. Clearly moulded to the feet of the wearer – perhaps an oblique self-portrait of the artist? – the material transformation visibly removed their uniqueness. The third body of work in the show, a collection of framed fragments of underwear and towelling (Underwear white, Underwear pink and Towelling, all 2010–11), preserves the vestiges of life in a vaguely erotic fashion. Shaped into two-dimensional forms that are both drawing and object, the torn strips of fabric have not been cast in aluminium, but have nonetheless undergone a similar process of transformation from the domestic to the ironically aesthetic.
Curiously, the formal and conceptual bonds between the three main groups of work were underscored by individual pieces, including two separate ventilators, a camping stool with a torn canvas seat and packaged dish cloths. Also appropriated from the real world, but left more or less as readymades, these works demonstrated that Steinbrecher is interested primarily in a kind of double vision that shifts between the original and the thing it might become. Although the possibilities are already recognizable, this sense of ongoing process allows Steinbrecher’s work to remain open to cross-fertilization with imagined scenarios and the world outside the gallery.