BY Wes Hill in Features | 02 FEB 13
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Issue 8

Nora Schultz’s Building Signs and Language Acts

The artist’s found industrial materials serve as material supporters of meaning

BY Wes Hill in Features | 02 FEB 13

The work of the Berlin-based German artist Nora Schultz conflates Post-minimalist and Conceptual art of the 1960s and ’70s; those Postmodern experimentations that led to a reinvigoration of sculptural practice and the establishment of installation art. Writing in 1973, Lucy Lippard claimed that the six years following 1966 had been characterized by what she termed ‘the dematerialization of the art object’, which complicated the specificity of art and heightened the consideration of context. However, in the same period there also emerged artists such as Richard Serra, Eva Hesse and Carl Andre, who didn’t strictly adhere to this dematerialized sensibility. Shultz’s work, in its resemblance to systems-based Conceptual art and its incorporation of found industrial materials such as steel rods, rubber, metal sheets and rope, invokes the differing preoccupations with form and anti-form during this period. Schultz – born in Frankfurt in 1975 and graduated from the Städelschule, Frankfurt, in 2005 – does not so much reflect on this period of art history as extend these artists’ preoccupations; as if searching for a material language that is distinct from the pictorial and the textual.

Nora Schultz & Manuel Raeder, Ein Traum: Die selbstgebaute Druck Maschine arbeitet endlich (detail), 2012, mixed media (courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, and Campoli Presti, London/Paris)

Included in the group exhibition Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language (2012) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Schultz’s Discovery of the Primitive (2012) consists of an upright metal armature, rolls of paper informally marked with black ink, metal cylinders and rubber sheets. Before being installed in the gallery space, the various components of the work functioned as support material for a printing session, from which Schultz’s Rorschach-like prints were produced. A similar process is undertaken in the series Countup/Countdown (2009–ongoing), which, in one of its incarnations, involved the use of a rubber mat as a stencil for numerical prints that were subsequently arranged alongside makeshift printing accoutrements. Conceived in collaboration with the peripatetic New York-based Japanese artist Ei Arakawa, the series, like much of Schultz’s work, foregrounds the material constructions that constitute signs, emphasizing mark-making and readymade arrangements as types of language acts.

Numbers are typically used to identify increments in accumulative processes, and Schultz’s works often draw attention to these processes. Chairs Times 10 & Black Square Times 2 (2010) is pretty much what its title describes, comprising a stack of ten grey chair frames without seat supports alongside a black, table-like structure with a square sheet of metal on its top and bottom. Signifying ‘table and chairs,’ the two sculptures are immediately associated with one another – however, their repetitive aesthetics create an odd sense of self-containment.

Nora Schultz, ‘Always Hold On’, 2009, installation view, Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi
Nora Schultz, ‘Always Hold On’, 2009, installation view, Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi

In Always Hold On (2009), Schultz again explores the fundaments of self-expression via readymade objects. Displayed in her solo exhibition 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 (2009) at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, the work consists of a zigzag-shaped metal handrail attached to the wall and floor of the gallery, positioned alongside a framed photograph of a surfer in a mass of water and above a sheet of raw plywood on the floor. On the plywood sheet is an arrangement of four coils of rope and two black and white pages from books: one of Walker Evans’ Depression era portraits that were famously appropriated by Sherrie Levine for her 1980 series After Walker Evans, and the other documenting an early 20th century ethnological field trip in Africa, taken from The Predicament of Culture (1988) by the American historian James Clifford. Clifford’s book, which partially inspired Schultz’s exhibition, explores how ‘self‘ and ‘other’ are established in ethnographic studies and modern intercultural relations. As if responding to Clifford’s appeal for more performative, pedagogical and methodological innovation in the study of cultures, Schultz’s work suggests that contemporary art often provides such innovative perspectives, unburdened by notions of cultural authenticity. More ‘readable’ than many of her other works, the inclusion of handrails and ropes – as symbols of physical supports – also serve as metaphors for the sign itself, as material supporters of meaning.

Whether primitive-looking tables with thin supporting frames (X-Tables, 2007), or scrapyard compositions (Piece of Tunnel, 2010), Schultz’s materials are often precariously installed, and, on occasion, suspended from gallery ceilings and walls. Moving adeptly between sculpture, painting, printmaking, photography and design, her approach to art-making similarly hangs in the balance. Neither completely formalist nor completely following conceptualist lines of enquiry, Schultz places an acute focus on the liminal moments before forms become signs.

Main image: Nora Schultz, ‘Always Hold On’, 2009, installation view, Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi

Wes Hill is a writer living in Sydney, Australia. His book Art after the Hipster: Identity Politics, Ethics and Aesthetics (2017) is published by Palgrave Macmillan.