Vienna’s established galleries have an ambivalent relationship with discovering and promoting young artists. Risk aversion and uncertainty are not always compatible with a pioneering spirit. One common solution to this dilemma is the practice of gallery exhibitions curated by art school professors. Such exhibitions can, for some, serve as springboards into the gallery scene. (I have also benefitted from this practice, at the ‘Zurich’ show curated by Josephine Pryde at Galerie Senn in 2003). Even despite the opportunities provided by such exhibitions, the featured artists often serve as living proof of the influence or acumen of the professor in question. For example, according to its press release, the unambiguously titled exhibition ‘is my territory’ curated by Monica Bonvicini at Galerie Christine König in 2013 outlined ‘the time, place and themes of her ten-year activity as Professor of Performative Art and Sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna’.
During that exhibition, one of Bonvicini’s featured students, Toni Schmale, met an artist more than 40 years her senior who was excited about her work. The artist was Austrian sculptor Sepp Auer, one of a generation of artists like Christian Ludwig Attersee and Walter Pichler who in the 1970s and ‘80s tended to reside on farms in South Burgenland – a region they smugly referred to as ‘the valley of the kings’. In comparison to peers like Attersee and Pichler, Auer was far less pretentious: he never felt attached to a specific scene, and romanticized neither town nor country. In a country that, today, faces turf wars between the urban and the rural, the conservative and the progressive (as exemplified in the current presidential election campaign) a figure like Auer might even serve as a role model.
In spite of their respective backgrounds, this joint show by Schmale and Auer came across as a collaboration between equals. In the first room, Schmale’s bulky sculpture hl. Antonia (St. Antonia, 2015) referred to the artist’s namesake, who was reputedly tortured and died a martyr. The discipline of women’s studies has pointed out that in creating such legends, Christianity often took pre-Christian women (strong, erotically charged Celtic goddesses, for example) and turned them into saints, thus desexualizing them – and making them suffer. (My own namesake, for example, the Swiss national saint Verena, reputedly a holy virgin, is portrayed with a comb and a jug of water to symbolize her chaste activity in caring for the sick. In fact, mythological traces of a very different kind shine through here: the comb, for example, is also the main attribute of the water nymphs who were responsible for fertility and childbearing, and it is seen as a symbol of the female pubic triangle, synonymous with the vulva, an erotic symbol of life and renewal.) The breaking and veiling of the erotic power of women is symptomatic of patriarchal structures, especially those of the church.
The holy virgin Antonia is supposed to have been hoisted by one arm and hung for days from a beam during the persecution of Christians by the Romans. Although Schmale’s sculpture is geared towards such tales of suffering (‘work, work, meekness, rigor’, as Schmale wrote to me in an email), it is not linked specifically to one of the corresponding instruments of the kind on display in Vienna’s Museum of Torture. Instead, it deals in formal terms with the screw clamp, a tool used to fix work-pieces for processing. Here the clamp becomes a BDSM monument; Schmale becomes a virtuoso sculptress with supreme command of her materials. ‘In this abstraction, the functions of a clamp are inverted’, she writes, ‘the arm, which usually presses, slides. the horizontal and vertical forces depend on the size of whatever is to be clamped. […] the formal twist takes place above all at the point where the hierarchies of metals collide. the zinc-plated steel, the brass, the polished aluminium tube. doesn’t really go together, is almost painful, is camp.’
Auer, too, who trained as a locksmith, privileges the craft-related aspects of elegant surface treatment over traces of artistic individuality or expression. The chipboard and aluminium sculptures in this show are all painstakingly cut, recalling frames or auxiliary constructions that suggest a supporting role more than autonomy. Although Auer claims in the press release that the common ground between the younger artist and himself lies in their formal interests, they also share a gift for finding forms that point up the sexual connotations of those formal decisions.
On one aluminium sculpture recalling a bench (Untitled, like all his works; 2009), Auer painted a fragment from a contact ad from the Kronen Zeitungnewspaper (a recurring motif in his work): ‘SINNLICH pur 0664/640 65 04’ (pure SENSUALITY). Auer has often poked fun at the relationship between descriptive texts and artworks – doing so here in the vocabulary of prostitution. By contrast, desire is the theme of Schmale’s outstanding new works wildkatze (2016), a steel sculpture that alludes to so-called ‘wildcats’ (customized rifle cartridges) and the two wall-mounted works kimme and korn (notch, bead; 2016) whose shape is inspired by gun sights. The surfaces of all three are browned – a technique usually used in the production of precision tools and weapons. A wildcat in the sights of a rifle, the target is also a projectile in its own right: here is a situation in which the roles of hunter and hunted continually switch.
This show deals rather jokingly with the way value judgements are pinned to material, rated ‘high’ or ‘low’ within the historiography of art. In the interplay between Auer’s ‘erotic late work’ (as art critic Markus Mittringer once described it) and Schmale’s linking of queer themes with traditional questions of sculpture (such as that of the plinth), the greater the supposed distance between the two – and the more space there is for erotic play with these hierarchies.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell