Peter Wächtler crafts his creative universe from short, semi-narrative vignettes that build up and deflate in a flash. His latest show, ‘Secrets of a Trumpet’ at The Renaissance Society, uses narrative disjunction to simultaneously encourage and subvert the expectation that an exhibition should cohere like a unified text. With its disparate characters and styles, the show looks and feels more like the visual equivalent of a short story collection.
Let’s start with the show’s table of contents: a short text on two panels; a bronze relief of a frightened cat on a fence; four plywood boxes painted with scenes from the life of an Edwardian dandy; four waist-high, bronze model apartment blocks; four large-scale watercolours depicting clotheslines in the breeze; and a bronze otter holding a baseball bat. Some of these share materials (bronze, watercolour) and some an aesthetic sensibility (sketchy, provisional), but each has its own tale to tell.
The exhibition opens with the aforementioned text, mounted on two panels like the pages of an open book. The narrative rambles, tinged with hysteria as it mourns and then threatens a spent yogurt container in the same breath: ‘Goodbye my friend. It was nice to have known you … BUT should I ever see you again, you little useless wild berries fuck, I will destroy you, I will break you, I will fuck you up, just as I did with that jar of mayo, remember?’ The text touches on death and faded friendship with the same moody humour that Wächtler pours into every piece of his writing. As in the rest of this exhibition – and, indeed, much of the artist’s output – the story presented here consists of loosely associated characters and a darkly comic tone.
The exhibition’s next chapter stars a Teddy boy, hurriedly sketched in pencil and watercolour on the sides of white plywood boxes, hinged like storage trunks, that line a gallery wall. The painted scenes in Teddy Boy 1–4 (all works 2016) offer a condensed, nonlinear montage of the dandy’s life as he sprints gleefully through city streets, jumps from his lover’s bed and lies in state at his own funeral. They look deliberately unpolished, in contrast to the sartorialist’s elegant appearance. From their expressive-yet-calculated marks to the vilified stock characters they portray, the box paintings drip with irony.
The plywood boxes share their rough-hewn appearance with four miniature bronze sculptures of nondescript high-rise apartment blocks (I-IV). Their geometrically imprecise forms sit slanted, the gridded windows on their sides revealing handmade imperfections. The sculptures’ slipshod construction and diminutive stature make them appear rather pitiful, an impression compounded by the enormous gallery that seems to swallow them up. They are accompanied by four large-scale watercolours, Laundry 1–4, each showing a clothesline set against a backdrop of rolling hills and windswept trees. The skies in these paintings are grey and foreboding, in contrast to the wind that billows playfully through the vibrantly coloured and richly textured garments
Each of these groupings forms a loose narrative thread but any attempt to weave these together into a single, overarching tale can only end in frustration. In his short story collections, like Come On (2013), Wächtler masterfully plops the reader into radically different shoes, from those of a decomposing mummy to an emotionally repressed public access television viewer. But the gallery proves an awkward space for such a motley collection of voices. Here, shut out from the narrator’s head, viewers are forced to peer in from outside, without Wächtler’s empathic language to guide them.