‘Knotti Times’, the title of Michaela Eichwald’s exhibition at Silberkuppe – the first at the gallery’s new Schöneberg space – sounds like a cross between a Ken Dodd sketch and a Dickensian critique of social injustice. It fits because Eichwald is both an inheritor and satirist of a 20th-century German painting tradition torn between tongue-in-cheek cynicism and earnest angst. This tradition, which might be traced from Max Beckmann to Martin Kippenberger to André Butzer, is a romantic alternative to the cooler conceptual relativism of Gerhard Richter or Franz Erhard Walther. In itself, Eichwald’s title is a manifestation as much as a mockery of conflicted romanticism.
Each of the gallery’s two adjoining rooms was dominated by a collage more than five metres wide and dense with smeared, earth-coloured (and implicitly scatalogical) painterly gestures, amidst fragments of personal and pop-cultural printed material. The wide, narrow format of the collages, in conjunction with the richness of detail, dictated that the viewer wander back and forth along the works, peering in to decipher lines of text or explore photographic vignettes. This process might be a phenomenological metaphor for the construction and transmission of a linear narrative, but Eichwald mimics such a process only to atomize it.
This wish to posit narrative only to sabotage it would seem feckless and facetious if it were not grounded in the personal. The narrative being subverted is that of effectively legible contemporary art, as well as that of an artist’s identity. Self manifests itself as both indexical mark and autobiographical trace. One departure point for a stroll along Knotti Times I (2013) is a black and white photograph in the top left corner, which shows Eichwald’s kitchen. A plate of bacon and eggs lies on top of an industrial canister of resin – art and life brought into possibly toxic proximity. The image’s air of authentic disorder suggests a confessional mode; but, look again, and Eichwald has converted record into artifice by Photoshopping a line of text onto a packet of pipe cleaners: ‘Poseidon was weary of his seas.’ At the other end of the collage is a clipping from a newspaper’s classified section in which Eichwald posted a message: ‘The meteorite should come – M.E.’ The fanciful utterances, subsumed by the newspaper’s public context and the photograph’s air of documentary veracity, correspond to the collage’s islands of personal material caught up in wild currents of painterly activity. But gestural facture can also be seen as a subjective trace, while the fragments of referential meaning are alien matter, alluding to a culture beyond the solipsistic ‘shit-smearing’ of Eichwald’s mark-making.
Eichwald treats painting or sculpture like a Petri dish into which image and object are thrown and allowed to breed into unforeseeable hybrids. In the sculpture Zuviel Ansage (2011), the photographed bacon and eggs are dramatically brought to life only to be fossilized – along with a yogurt pot, a candle holder and a pair of spectacles – within a lump of the resin on which they balanced in the photograph. Raised from its plinth on wire stands, the resin is the approximate size and shape of a dog’s head, which triggered, in my mind – by a kind of Freudian wordplay – the phrase ‘dog’s dinner’, meaning a mess. Such subliminal association seemed appropriate because Eichwald is interested in getting underneath denotative content into inchoate substrata. Where text appears in her collages, it parodies its own linguistic logic, finding itself ‘all at sea’ in a ferment of inarticulacy.
An old shipping map is pasted to Knotti Times II. The Artist in her mid-forties (2013), then submerged, almost to illegibility, under swathes of brownish colour, imitating the currents it is meant to represent while rejecting its claims to objectively represent nature. This dialectical subversion of representational narrative – first posited, then challenged – was the exhibition’s primary trope, reiterated in each work, as well as between them. Each of the two collages faced a painting on cream-coloured PVC on an opposite wall. These two Twombly-esque thickets of scraped, scratched paint took on the role of heckling rejectors of image and text’s claims to communicate coherently. But with their wide formats pivoting around a horizontal crease in their PVC material, they were also landscapes hung on a horizon line they simultaneously obliterated. Huneke (2013) engaged with the shipping map opposite it, over which Eichwald glued a photograph of a wrecked bicycle. While the photograph – and Huneke itself – seemed to be intimating that art takes you nowhere fast, the nascent exchange between them was already in the process of belying that notion.