The title of Kerstin Brätsch’s exhibition ‘(“Nothing, Nothing”) (“Rien, Rien!”)’ refers to Honoré de Balzac’s short story, ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ (1831), in which a painter – after a long wait – discovers his muse and is finally able to complete his magnum opus. But when he reveals the painting to his students, they see nothing but part of a woman’s foot abstracted by blots of chaotic colour. Distraught by his failure to capture his subject, the painter repeats ‘Nothing, nothing!’ then burns his paintings and commits suicide. Brätsch sets up her own narrative, whereby the primary elements of Balzac’s story – the artist, the work’s reception and the painting’s relationship to its model – play very different roles.
Here, Brätsch takes on the role of the Romantic painter. The seven large abstract oil paintings in the main gallery certainly refer to the overt masculinity of German Expressionism, but this is just one voice among many the artist adopts. Who’s Kerstin Brätsch? (2010), as one painting’s title asks, is unclear, while another work is called When You See Me Again it Won’t Be Me (2010). Moreover, Brätsch often works as part of DAS INSTITUT, a collective she founded with Adele Röder in 2007. Projected in a small room upstairs, VIOLA (2007–ongoing), a slideshow by DAS INSTITUT with Viola Yesiltac, presents images of Brätsch and Röder taking on different personae with each click of the projector. In these portraits, they use their faces as canvases, painting themselves with stripes, configuring their visages into Matisse-like abstractions in which their physical beings are no less fictional than the images they create.
While each of the paintings presented here can formally stand on its own, they can also be seen as performers within a staged exhibition of a new movement that Brätsch humorously calls ‘Corporate Abstraction’. This movement is concerned with the presentational aspects of the art object as much as its imagery. Each piece comprises a frame constructed from Perspex and exotic wood, with a painting on paper placed on the Perspex with magnets. Leaning against the walls, these works act as display platforms that can be seen through, walked around, used as temporary walls, stacked or rotated. While frames usually separate fictive from actual space, here the boundaries become indistinct. They operate at the junction where autonomous art works meet commercial display. Brätsch suggests the different ways that a spectator may view these objects – as decoration, status symbols, commodity items, sculptures or paintings.
The artist further fragments her frame of reference through imagery that manifests a sense of constant flux and mutation. Her images move as freely as the mobile phone adverts that she cuts out from The New York Times, spray-paints and clamps between sheets of colourful Perspex. Many of the paintings consist of cylinders or stripes suggesting conduits or flows. The segmented elements in The IF (2010), for example, resemble recombinant DNA in the process of forming some emergent biomechanical entity. Calling DAS INSTITUT an import/export agency, a term with both digital and commercial connotations, Brätsch and Röder constantly exchange, mutate and rearrange imagery, making the sequence of copy and model irrelevant. Brätsch’s paintings often begin with Röder’s graphic designs, which she cites, inverts and collages. These paintings, generated from digital code, resemble no original.
In ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’, Balzac’s master becomes despondent about not attaining his ideal of beauty, which he sees as dependent upon the dialectic between being and nothingness. Brätsch’s work, to the contrary, speculates on a more fundamental real, one where the material world – or in this case the exhibition – does not encompass the image but rather resides within it. With this notion, true beauty can emerge only from nothing, nothing.