BY Manfred Hermes in Reviews | 14 NOV 05
Featured in
Issue 95

Henning Bohl

BY Manfred Hermes in Reviews | 14 NOV 05

There was both a stunning immediacy and a laid-back feel to Henning Bohl’s recent show. A rose trellis divided the long side of the rectangular main room like a giant fence or a rudimentary screen (Vorhang, Curtain, 2005). Its see-through grid structure set the stage for a large variety of representational modes and spatial arrangements. Bohl’s lightness of touch covers different genres and materials, characters, plots and geographies, but always maintains an over-riding simplicity.

As a second major dividing structure, a huge collage of large chunks of ripped paper loosely stapled together hung from the ceiling and split the main room in two at right-angles to the trellis. Snippets of information, photocopied drawings and bits of Japanese typography were turned into a broken, airy collage. A set of frame objects took the collage idea in yet another direction: strips of paper of different textures and colours, their edges sometimes undulating, ridged or curved, were stapled together and then stretched across crude wooden frames like a piece of fabric reduced to a few weaves (Le Morte Darthur, 2004, Der Teppich von Bayeux, Le musée des chefs d’œuvres and Untitled, all 2005). In his short catalogue essay Thomas Bayrle, who in his own collages has perfected a similar kind of ‘woven’ structure, points to Gottfried Semper, the major 19th-century theoretician of Germany’s equivalent to the Arts and Crafts movement. Semper derived his theory of ‘dressing’ architecture from the notion of fabric as the primary art form, a form of basic shelter and in direct contact with the body. It is from this starting-point that Bohl reinterprets the refracted Cubist space by turning discontinuity into a continuous form.

At the other end of the room an empty frame leaned against the wall, standing on little stubby feet coated in silver paper (Modell für Rahmen, Model for Frame, 2004). In what seemed to be a subtle adoption of a Kippenberger-esque sense of sculptural humour (his famous misuse of a Gerhard Richter painting as a coffee table-top comes to the mind) furniture was introduced as an important feature of the show. Several Ikea coffee tables (Toward a Coffee Table Book, 2004), one of them significantly altered by adjusting the legs so they point at a 45-degree angle, indicated a particularly Modernist legacy in which Ikea’s range of rickety furniture has become a parody of the Bauhaus’ promise of inexpensive, mass-produced, globalized, domestic ‘good taste’ designs. A metal shelf, the type you might buy at a DIY store, introduced yet another downsized display mode (Moel Grugog, 2005). The shelf housed a set of references that centred around The Studio, an art magazine co-founded by Aubrey Beardsley. As a major feature of reader participation, the magazine held recurring art competitions, requesting that submissions remain anonymous. One assiduous amateur artist sent in a drawing under the name Moel Grugog (a name that could well have been invented by Kai Althoff) and won third prize; that is, he got no money but an ‘honourable mention’. This story of unrewarded ambition and aesthetic mainstreaming is not the only one being told here.

These often but not always art-related references (based, for example, on artists’ biographies or Merce Cunningham books) introduced glimpses of different pasts to the present tense of the art space. They seemed to be dealing with the idiosyncratic or the allegedly overlooked, and could therefore be perceived as a critique of Modernism’s constraints. But this rationale has itself become increasingly smug, and something of an automatic and dulling response over the last 20 years. ‘Historicizing’ in capital letters, however, is not what Bohl’s work is about. Rather, it is based on a lower level of plotting, using the gallery as a multi-layered storytelling device. That’s why single objects, even canvases, never appear to be fully self-contained. There was nothing luscious and painterly here. Each canvas instead became the subject of constant reassessment and was reduced to a mere support (for instance, for paper cuttings). A pair of ‘laughing’ paintings on display may serve as an example: besides revealing an inclination to the grotesque, these almost identical pictures – one leaning against the wall facing the second one, which lay on the floor – were turned into simple ways of organizing space.

Just how effectively Bohl uses space became clear when you returned to the lobby with its stairway, large window and bar installations. Rather surprisingly, this ‘minor’ room was used to its full potential as well. Theater heute (Theatre Today, 2004), an installation of six canvases of different sizes, coarsely mounted on a wooden grid structure, was placed in front of a large window, partly blocking the view onto the square outside, while absorbing the incoming light, almost reducing the traces of japoniste bamboo to window-dressing. Bohl’s fractured spatial and sharp-edged arrangements lend his aesthetic inquiries into the issue of display a novel and subtly humorous dimension.