In a city where the art scene is dominated by large institutions and dotted with disconnected artist-run spaces around the Städelschule, Roberta – a new space in Frankfurt founded by Anna Goetz, which occupies a private apartment near the train station – represents an important counter-model. Its inaugural exhibition, entitled ‘What We Know’, was a seemingly informal but careful selection of works focusing on the construction of subjectivity, juxtaposing artists from three generations: Moyra Davey, Lynn Hershman Leeson and George Rippon.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Roberta shares its name with that of a fictional persona invented by Hershman Leeson in the 1970s: Roberta Breitmore. Portrayed by the artist herself, Roberta moved in the ‘real world’, acquiring a credit card, a driver’s licence and turning up in public spaces. For the duration of the ‘The Roberta Breitmore Series’ (1974–78), Hershman Leeson produced documentary material around the character’s life, including Roberta’s Body Language Chart (1978), on display here, which comprised black and white photographs of Roberta sitting in various positions during a therapy session, accompanied by short texts offering clichéd interpretations of her body language. Another framed text, titled Description of How Roberta Wrote in Her Diary (1975), reads like an extract from her psychological profile. Hershman Leeson’s project not only demonstrates how subjects are defined through social and cultural constructs, it also disrupts that same system by introducing a fictionalized character into it.
Davey’s film Les Goddesses (2011) further probed the paradoxes of presenting autobiography in art. The film is based on an essay written by Davey, in which she interweaves her own family history with the life stories of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughters. Among these fragmented narratives, Davey ponders the possibility of conveying an autobiography through text, film and photography, using quotations from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle. The temporally fractured image sequences show the artist walking through her apartment, followed by close-ups of photographs that she took of her siblings in the 1980s, while occasional shots through the window act as meditations on the present. At one point, Davey cites Goethe’s diaries: ‘I can say nothing now except I am here.’ Like Hershman Leeson, with her anthropological documents of Roberta, Davey maintains a distance from her subject’s story: she dictates her essay into a recorder, and then retells it in the film with a monotone voice while listening to the recorded version. The artist, here, is writer, reader and listener.
Rippon’s work also focuses on the presentation of autobiography. In his first show at the Städelschule in 2011, while still a student there, Rippon exhibited a letter written to him by his father, regretting their lack of communication and asking for forgiveness. Since then, Rippon has produced unstable sculptures made of related found materials. One such assemblage, Tree (2013), shown here, comprises two interlocking, partly charred wooden planks sticking out of a bucket. Rippon correlates single parts to his family members: thus, the ‘tree’ becomes an abstracted, almost pathetic ‘family tree’. Rippon’s use of autobiographical documents echoes both Hershman Leeson’s and Davey’s. While all three artists represent strategies for creating ‘authentic’ subjective portraits, Rippon’s work – the youngest artist shown here – felt the most nostalgic and sentimental.