‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes / The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs / The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore, / And Yesterday, or Centuries before?’ Living nearly all of her life in her family house, spending much of her time in the small room where she wrote, Emily Dickinson was understandably preoccupied with architecture: her poems teem with interior spaces both material and psychological. So it is weirdly apt that Manuela Leinhoss, a Berlin-based artist with similar concerns, would permanently install her allusive sculptural installation A formal feeling comes (2007) in the Reichsbahnbunker Friedrichstrasse, the infamous Albert Speer-designed Nazi bunker in Berlin – a concrete tomb with no natural light that became a prison under the Russians, then a fruit market, then a sex club, and is now, as these things happen, a contemporary art space housing the Boros Collection.
Dickinson, along with a group of poets that includes Sylvia Plath and Rainer Maria Rilke, is a constant touchstone for Leinhoss, who studied philology rather than visual art. Like these poets’ work, Leinhoss’ practice – comprising architecturally inflected objects and wall works – evinces strict formal minimalism, straightforward lyricism and psychological reflection. Visual artists who explicitly reference the poetic – both the medium and the adjective – are often in danger of courting a kind of mannered materialism and, ahem, loveliness. Leinhoss’ formal rigour and stress on process mostly allow her to skirt this tendency, as seen in ‘Beautiful my desire’, her exhibition at RaebervonStenglin, though not completely.
Unlike her installation in the Boros Bunker, which hews toward black tonalities, Leinhoss’ constellation of works in Zürich was rendered in a pastel palette of pinks, blues, light greys or blinding white. The first room included a series of canvas-like pieces that hung on the wall like monochromatic colour fields whose restive surfaces were rippled and folded. The works – We are confused, in shell-pink tones, and The direct opposite of the one intended, in grey (all works 2010) – suggest Eva Hesse’s ‘Contingent’ series (1969), along with a raft of other references, but their muted prettiness and easy familiarity turn them static. In contrast, works that combined rigid architectural elements with soft waves of clay teemed with wit and mystery. Involved, for example, a Constructivist-tinged wooden structure that featured a piece of pink-accented clay stretched atop one tall white wall, felt persuasively haunting and new.
Likewise, two exceptional and completely white works in the gallery’s back room also contrasted strict architectonics with skin-like expanses of modelling clay. Quivering Areas comprised two attenuated tables, one sitting on top of the other. Thin blankets of clay, pinched and folded like extraneous skin, stretched over both tabletops. The entire construction seemed unstable and provisional: legs too thin, screws showing, cracks in the clay. Teatrino, meanwhile, featured smooth pleats of clay nearly spilling from the white canvas they bifurcate. The clay suggests a curtain, yes, but – like much of Leinhoss’ work, which smartly plays architecture against anthropomorphism – it also proposes a lolling tongue, or flaccid folds of elephant skin.
Such breadth of allusion is welcome. Nevertheless, the attractive poeticism of Leinhoss’ work is also its predicament: what does one do, and where does one go, with her bounteous inference and direct reference? If the artist’s emphasis on process acts as counterpoint, the works here were simply too pared down to make their making all that interesting. Indeed, as I made my way around the show, I often felt that the surfaces were too smooth – never mind the folds and ripples – and the palette too cloying, despite the austere white. In the past, Leinhoss’ work has featured an injection of roughness (historical, formal or architectural) that took the edge off her lyricism. Despite her undeniable brilliance, and this exhibition’s cohesive strength, I wished for that here, too.