Lawrence Weiner once made a sweeping distinction between ‘context’ and ‘content’ as what constitutes a work of art, condemning the former while approving the latter. What we call site-specificity, after all, is always a form of context-dependence. Julia Haller’s first exhibition at Galerie Christian Nagel encouraged reconsideration of what we mean by ‘site’ and ‘context’, and whether it is a good thing to be specific to or dependent on either. Galerie Nagel has often been associated with the burgeoning of German formalist painting of the early 2000s – an art characterized by the spareness of its abstraction, its stained raw fabrics, a stinginess with paint and primers, and a courting of the appearance of self-deprecation.
Haller’s four small-to-medium-sized paintings (all works Untitled, 2013), all painted in a single yellow acrylic colour on unprimed linen grounds, fitted this template, down to their restrained scale and the elegant staining of raw linen grounds. They might be paradigms or parodies of that recent chapter of painting history, were it not too recent for such a position to comfortably conform to the art-historical referential mode. Haller, therefore, treads a fine line between derivative and critical positions. The painting of the slightly older contemporaries she appears to reference – artists such as Sergej Jensen, Michael Krebber or Stefan Müller – draw on 1960s post-painterly abstraction’s circumvention of the swagger of Abstract Expressionist gesturalism by having painterly gesture be absorbed by raw fabrics. Jensen, for example, uses chlorine (subtractive rather than additive) to ‘paint without paint’. The operative dictum might be John Cage’s ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it’. Haller’s paintings are equally shy of declarative gesture, but her touch is unmistakably additive. Hers is a gradual accretion, making the reticence of her paintings a metaphor for incompleteness, a holding back from an implied whole rather than a constituting of the whole itself. Haller goes further, raising gesture, and its rejection, to a dialectical theme.
While it seems nothing could be added to a Jensen painting – the little that is stated being the most that could be said – Haller’s arrangement of shapes in the four works shown here intimate a web of pictorial fragments, a threadbare illusionistic field, like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. Where the shapes blur they might be signifying the dispersion of light as it pours through lesions in the canvas surface. The organic-looking triangles have a flexible, evolving uniformity. They might be samplings from ethnic fabrics that gather themselves up, in places, into a cartoonish dance. Whether they are traces of a formalistic or representational idiom, they imply an unstated source.
In the middle of the gallery, a folding stool sculpture had its seat removed and replaced with a drape of linen on which a few broadly gestural strokes of black paint had been applied, contrasting the relegation of the role of painterly gesture to that of dressing up a functional object with its more ascetic rejection by the paintings on the wall. There is a whiff of the moralistic around this binary, as though gesture were being equated with commercialism.
If Haller’s work seems to derive from its immediate art-world context, its dynamic of derivation is at least partially justified by the axis between origin and trace that it cultivates. Her handling resists her shapes’ repletion, leaving them too soft and semi-transparent for hard-edged formalism, and yet too non-gestural to reference the hand of the painter. They exist in a peculiar limbo: non-referential but implying the possibility of a referent they refuse to manifest, a wholeness (like that of Jensen’s or Müller’s work) that they conspicuously do not attain. It is in this detachment from context that Haller maintains a tenuous autonomy, which is nevertheless difficult to distinguish from nostalgia, homage and the attempt to claim one’s own niche within an established field.