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The revolutionary strength of Dadaism consisted in testing art for its authenticity. A still life might have been put together from tickets, spools of cotton, and cigarette butts, all of which were combined with painted elements. The whole thing was put in a frame. And thereby the public was shown: Look, your picture frame ruptures time; the tiniest authentic fragment of daily life says more than painting. Just as the bloody fingerprint of a murderer on the page of a book says more than the text.
In her current show at David Zwirner, titled simply Isa Genzken, the artist presents sculptures from her Shauspieler (Actors) series, two new large-scale architectural sculptures, pieces from her Nefertiti series, as well as panel works both on the floor and along the walls. Her work here functions in a similar fashion as the photomontages Benjamin describes. Like the collage artist who takes objects from the world, combines them with paint, and sets them inside a frame in order to show the viewer that “the tiniest authentic fragment of daily life says more than a painting,” Genzken uses the gallery space itself as a kind of frame, setting objects within and then adding her own version of a paint stroke. So, the mannequins from her Schauspieler series appear indistinguishable from those in department store windows, yet their beauty is disrupted by lines of spray paint on their bodies, tape wrapped around their mouths, and other interferences. In this way she presents objects from the world for our appraisal, as well as pieces of the art world itself.
The Zwirner gallery has been stripped down to its bare elements for this show. Standing inside the single large room, I was surprised that the space felt less like the pristine white gallery it is and more like a large, raw loft. I can think of many reasons for this curatorial decision, but overall the result of this stripping down is that it provides a new context for the objects. Were the mannequins situated inside the usual white cube, there would be less contrast between them and the space; in other words, it would feel too much like an upscale department store, rather than a warehouse. Even with the change, I must admit, the resemblance to Barneys and Jeffrey was at times difficult to ignore — which brings us back to Benjamin.
Genzken also makes collages and photomontages, and some of these are included in the show. In fact, her works from the series Briefmarke fit Benjamin’s description quite well — in particular “Briefmarke IV” (2014), in which Genzken combines four panels into one large piece, images interrupted by lines of tape and spray paint. Among the photographs are some of the artist, which present Genzken herself as a subject for examination and scrutiny. This happens, too, in her floor piece “Untitled” (2014), which includes various images of the artist, and also within a Schauspiel group of mannequins, one of which lies atop a catalogue of Genzken’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. In the end, Genzken is asking us both to reconsider these everyday objects by placing them in a different context and to reexamine the artist herself, and by extension, her intensions. In other words, we’ve not been given an answer, we’ve not been “taught” anything. Instead, what we are left with is a beautiful conundrum, a complete undoing.
Isa Genzken continues at David Zwirner (519 W 19th Streeet, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 31.