‘Mass-produced products that are cheaper and better than those manufactured by hand’ declared Walter Gropius in his 1925 manifesto Grundsätze der Baushausproduktion (Principles of Bauhaus Production, 1926). Today, that phrase would not be out of place in an IKEA business report. History has not always been kind to the aesthetic programmes of the last century, falling victim as they did to dogma or commodification or cliché. It’s in the latter spirit that those very ‘isms’ – Minimalism in particular – find form in Lena Henke’s sculptures: as material artifacts alive to social and historical associations, mostly dead to their origins, tarnished (or liberated) by the fact of their passing through actual history. Her sculptures are the product of what occurs between the original manifesto and the design brochure.
Disjunctions between idea and realization are often points of departure for the German-born artist’s works. Her austere plinth-like objects and plywood panels – with circular segments removed – in Core, Cut, Care (2012), shown at Kunstverein Oldenburg last year, evinced stiff Minimalist trademarks: rigid, silent tombstone-like objects, placed throughout a room or leaning against a wall and covered in tar, epoxy, or roofing felt. But hung on these were framed, upside-down photographs, mostly jittery one-offs, of man-made objects in outdoor settings colliding with urbanized nature: scaffolding bent around a tree, a candy-cane shaped bush hanging off a pink embankment at Christmas time.
Henke is no purist, juxtaposing iconography that is self-consciously ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’. Her sculptures seem to gleefully riff on and undermine textbook art historical categories, a fact perhaps most clear in her show She aid Something Like Don’t Let Me Walk the Stairs Again I Said But You Live There, featuring a row of eight translucent plastic rectangular prisms, printed with hazy, primeval-looking figures and mounted at urinal-divider height along the wall of Brooklyn’s Real Fine Arts in 2012. The figures – seemingly dancing in a circle as if on a classical Greek urn – were actually sourced by Henke from photographs of sculptures by the Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland (1869–1943). The chunky, innocent brawn of Vigeland’s forms – here, green and tarnished – was counterbalanced by the gelatinous clarity of the plastic encasements that – folds exposed – looked conspicuously like the clear plastic on cigarette cartons (further proof: a matchbook graced the exhibition invite). One might call this a reified timeline – art history refracted by its material housing. But to express this would be to ignore the refreshing interplay between fluid, faceless forms pitted against the near-transparent, cut-and-dry formats of everyday, serialized experience (boxes, cigarettes, urinals).
It’s no wonder that Henke lives between New York and Frankfurt (where she studied under Michael Krebber at the Städelschule), given that both cities, though at different ‘Mascales, contain radical extremes of everyday grit and moneyed posturing. Looking at her works is like looking at a MoMA poster on a bus shelter: vivid and once-earnest, but by now key-scratched and defaced. Likewise, the works’ most immediate effect is their heavy antagonistic force: scenes of blocked passageways or covered-up signage, like the blank, sparse planes from Core, Cut, Care. These opposing impulses (heaviness and levity, colour and whitewash, abstraction and reference) are often pitted against each other in the same piece: take the saddle-like blobs in Schlangen im Stahl (Snakes in the Stable), shown at 2011 at Galerie Parisa Kind in Frankfurt. Abstract, molded fiberglass forms, looking somewhat like plastic bags or tarpaulin, recalling horse saddles frozen in motion, though improbably balancing on consumer goods like men’s deodorant and tobacco tins.
In Henke’s first institutional solo show, Hang Harder, at the Neuer Aachener Kunstverein in 2012, a series of wooden panels, layered over with tar and epoxy resin, rested atop basic folding steel chairs which were turned against the wall. Tar is used in industrial settings both to solidify and to cover up a surface – to naturalize it and neutralize it, in a way. But, as Henke mentions in a conversation with Judith Hopf, recently published in Mousse, tar was an indirect way of channeling Richard Serra. Indeed, it’s hard, when looking at these works, given the duplicity between absolute black and tar’s uneasy sheen, to see past the reference to the intractable figure’s almost tyrannical brand of Minimalism – channeled in Henke’s pieces comically placed atop chairs used for their ease of removal.
Henke’s works are often about confusing the literal and figurative senses of a phrase, taking a principle to its contradictory limit point: abstraction turned impossibly concrete, and Minimalism pushed to its maximal extreme. Of course, it takes a deliberate cynicism to see this – a cynicism not foreign to Henke’s deliberately stiff, hardened objects. It’s the quandary shared by logicians and the insane that the most mapped-out arguments, like artistic movements, when taken rigidly, often collapse into contradiction.