Initiated for his show at Lars Friedrich gallery in Berlin in 2011 and exhibited several times since – at Midway Contemporary Art in Minneapolis in 2014 and most recently at David Lewis Gallery in New York this year – Hans-Christian Lotz’s ongoing project Rain Over Water functions as a series of containers. Crisp aluminium frames designed to house solar panels are re-purposed to hold items vacuum-sealed in plastic: printed circuit boards, drawings and (nearly always) pig brains. Despite their fairly straight-forward production process, in person these roughly body-size panels aren’t so readily decipherable. As their outer surfaces are completely flat they appear at first like high-resolution prints of the objects they contain, glossing over the abject reality of the material just beyond the surface. How would they look, you might wonder, from behind?
Taken as a whole, Lotz’s work tends to point to what can broadly be thought of as intelligent commodities: pigs, for example, but also self-powered machines (water mills, aquaducts, solar panels) or those, containing motion sensors, that demonstrate a ‘smart’ awareness of their surroundings. Further, especially in their flat, wall-mounted format, it may not be so strange to think of the Berlin-based artist’s works as also bearing a consistent, albeit open-ended, relationship to painting. Historically, there have been tendencies to think of a painting as having ‘flesh’ – consider, as an early example, when in 1867 the writer Émile Zola described Edouard Manet’s oeuvre as comprising the artist’s ‘flesh and blood’. More recently the writer Isabelle Graw has pointed to our susceptibility to regard paintings as independent subjects capable of thought. Graw has offered the term ‘quasi-person’ to identify this illusory subjectivity, locating it in relation to the way that many paintings bear an explicit, physical connection to their producer. Lotz’s objects elicit a similar effect to the one Graw describes, but with at least two key differences: whatever traces of activity you might find in them rarely lead back to the author, and whatever ‘subjectivities’ might seem to teem beneath their surfaces are generally not human.
One of Lotz’s newest bodies of work draws out the latter trait especially. Installed on the walls of David Lewis Gallery earlier this year were three automatic sliding doors: cracked glass surfaces betraying them as second-hand. Their motion sensors detected your presence as you approached, causing them to open suddenly. After the initial surprise, you the viewer gained control and were able to cause the doors to open and close at will. The concept may sound fairly straightforward but in person the psychological effect wasn’t as easy to pin down. Hung several inches above the floor there was something inevitably pathetic about these exhausted, old doors being forced to perform on command, and despite the ubiquity of this technology, the moment of mutual recognition between viewer and machine was still faintly disquieting. If you listened carefully, a metal flute extending from the left side of one door produced the softest whisper of a tone, like a mechanical breath, each time the doors jerked open. The three works receive their names from three water mills Lotz visited last year at the Black Forest Open Air Museum in Gutach, Germany. Three contemporary ‘sensory’ machines that work like remembrances, or maybe even effigies, of three much earlier ones. Similarly drawing the conversation into historical territory, Lotz constructed an enormous, floor-to-ceiling fabric aquaduct (Not titled, 2014) that loomed over the other works in his solo exhibition at Midway Contemporary Art last year.
Highly contained and with a conciseness that makes them appear logically derived, Lotz’s work can at first seem slightly cold. As the artist Peter Wächtler – who co-ran the Brussels project space Sotoso with Lotz from their shared apartment – has put it, his works evince a ‘highly professional manner’ that can make the objects feel almost generic. Yet this quality is perhaps the crux of Lotz’s expressive language: the barely touched, neutral packaging allows ‘expressivity’ to be wrested from the author, leaving room for the objects to speak and perform in a language of their own. This was the case with the dirty, smudged refrigerator doors, Format das hieß Psychoscape (2009), which Lotz salvaged from junkyards and mounted on the gallery walls for his eponymous exhibition at the Oktogon, Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden, in 2009, where chaotic histories of use, wear and abandonment congealed into something mirroring painterly intention. Similarly, the mixture of chemicals and animal juice in Rain Over Water often results in strange puckers in the plastic that radiate outward from the pig brains like auras, managing to evoke equally the bleeding gestural marks of artists like Helen Frankenthaler and the outward spread of bacterial colonies in a Petri dish. Similarly, other aspects of the work’s content threaten to override their highly controlled format: when you consider that it’s unknown how long the organic matter sealed within these plastic casings will last, for example, or when a Radio Frequency Identification Chip embedded in Rain Over Water suggests its implication within an external, unseen system. Lotz’s inclination toward the surreal emerges the more you spend time with his work. Using the artificial, white cube aesthetic almost as another kind of readymade, Lotz slyly nudges the achingly familiar into the realm of the uncanny.