Though the title of Monica Bonvicini’s exhibition of drawings, ‘Desire, Desiese, Devise’, is typical of her elastic approach to language, it is the title of the weighty exhibition catalogue – Disegni – that strikes a chord. Made between 1986 and 2012, the 600+ works on paper shown in Hamburg (an expanded version of a show that began at the Museum Abteiburg in Mönchengladbach) were almost all monochromatic – red on white or black on white with only occasional colourful elements in collaged magazine cut-outs. But these limitations in colour were made up for in breadth of technique. Disegno, after all, means not just drawing, but also sketch, design, pattern, scheme, plan or aim. Bonvicini’s ‘drawings’ take in architectural plans, studies in perspective and figuration, stencilled texts, handwritten love letters, collage and large-scale photo-based works in ink.
Many of the works were borrowed from the artist’s studio and had never been shown before, which suggests they have something of an ancillary role in relation to her large-scale sculptural works and video installations. Displayed here on their own terms, however, without the weight of the sometimes belligerent sculptures, they had an unexpectedly dynamic effect. Despite the enormity of the exhibition, spread over three floors, and the fact that the 25 years’ worth of works were hung a-chronologically, recurring themes seemed to underpin Bonvicini’s entire oeuvre like a flexible foundation. Architecture, gender, desire and work are shown in her drawings to be inseparably intertwined, laying over each other like transparent foils.
This was literally the case in a 1996 series of 15 drawings on translucent paper (‘Places of IDs’). Suspended from the ceiling in free-floating
frames and visible from both sides, the works showed plans of architectural facades or interiors fused with the erotic outlines of men’s and women’s bodies, or a forest of dildos. Clearly influenced by gender-orientated architectural theories, in particular Beatriz Colomina’s influential 1992 book Sexuality and Space (from which Bonvicini borrowed some of the images), Bonvicini sees built space not only as prescribed by gender-related power structures, but also infiltrated by a powerful libidinous energy.
Similar articulations were to be found in the eight-part Drawing to Wall Fuckin’ (1995), which relates to the artist’s breakthrough video from that year, Wall Fuckin’, in which a woman masturbates with a clean, white corner of drywall. Translucent paper laid over red graph paper turns the drawings a fleshy pink, while the regularity of brickwork, fenestration or model houses they picture contrasts with the voluptuousness of naked female bodies. That one work pictured Louise Bourgeois’ ink drawing Femme Maison (1947) is likewise significant: an image of this work hung in Bonvicini’s studio at the time, and inspired a 1997 performative video, Hausfrau Swinging (studies for which were also shown here). While these studies for sculptural or video works were interesting in their own right, others (such as those for The Fetishism of Commodity, 2002) were less so. Though it was intriguing to witness a project evolving through the medium of drawing, for a visitor unfamiliar with the ultimate sculptural results, they came across as lacking in finality.
More successful were the works that functioned independently as series, such as the aforementioned ‘Places of IDs’ or 60” BMW and 60” Fiat (both 2006), in which the entire contents of a can of black car paint was sprayed into an irregular glossy blotch, like a car-fetishist’s money shot. In ‘Hurricane and Other Catastrophes’ (2008), one of the few series conceived expressly as large-scale drawings, ink drips and splashes perform a purposeful approximation of the violent natural forces inflicted on the New Orleans buildings they depict.
Throughout the exhibition, stencilled, hand-written or printed words formed a silent, fragmented soundtrack of thoughts and emotions – anger, disappointment, desire and contradiction: is it or is it not? Do I or don’t I? Some suggested a Lawrence Weiner-esque conceptual turn, in which Bonvicini’s words-as-emotions stand in for his words-as-materials. Elsewhere, words emerge as if involuntarily, picked out in negative form from a monotonous hand-drawn chain-link pattern. Comprising single words, scribbled notes-to-self or borrowed, mostly un-cited quotations that continue where the artist’s thoughts leave off, these script a personal monologue that underlies ideological positioning. In one work in the series ‘Anxiety Attack (Untitled)’ (2003), a quote from the diaries of Anaïs Nin fills a whole sheet of paper in simple stencilled outlines, and could easily be Bonvicini’s own voice, expressing the frustrations of desire lived out within the constraints of architecture: ‘I get furious at stairways furious at doors at walls furious at everyday life which interferes with the continuation of ecstasy.’
Though Harald Falckenberg’s catalogue text states that the artist had put these issues behind her by the end of the 1990s, and now ‘refuses to see cocks and cunts all over the place’, it was hard to see their endpoint within the scattered chronology of this exhibition, in which cocks and cunts were plenty in evidence. The repeated themes that have become something of a cul-de-sac in Bonvicini’s installations, boxed in by high-production values, here described an open-ended and still-compelling situation, full of doubt and productive conflict. A whole lifetime of work can be made out of our embroilment in the inescapable but inexplicable structures of sexuality and architecture. By returning to the drawing board, this exhibition showed that it is not over yet.