Art

Electrifying Photographs of an Old German Guesthouse

For years, photographer Andrea Grützner was fascinated by a massive guesthouse in a German village. In 2014, she entered the house with her camera, photographing its well-tread rooms.

Andrea Grützner, "Untitled 1" (2014) (all photos courtesy the artist and Julie Saul Gallery)
Andrea Grützner, “Untitled 1” (2014) (all photos courtesy the artist and Julie Saul Gallery unless otherwise noted)

Big houses, particularly the old ones, tend to breed mystery. What ever could await in the many rooms hidden behind that one front door? You may personally recall a particular colossal residence from your own childhood that captured your imagination every time you passed it. For Berlin-based photographer Andrea Grützner, that house was a massive guesthouse in the German village of Polenz, about 20 miles east of Dresden. Owned by one family for five generations since 1889, it is an example of an Erbgericht — a traditional village inn found in rural landscapes of eastern Germany. It fascinated Grützner, who grew up nearby, for years, and in 2014, she entered it with her camera, photographing its well-tread rooms and corridors.

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Andrea Grützner, “Untitled 5” (2014)

Except, from her 16 resulting images, you would hardly guess this Erbgericht is over a century old. Currently on view at Julie Saul Gallery in what marks Grützner’s first solo US exhibition, the series invigorates the traditional space with an unexpected energy brought on by vivid color and bold form. Part of the magic of an old house lies in its unique contents and decorations, but Grützner strays from what may be obvious subjects such as furniture, fixtures, and fittings. She instead salutes architecture: it is the guesthouse’s walls, ceilings, floors, and staircases that she chooses to celebrate.

Through her lens, these most basic structures become wholly unfamiliar. Grützner confounds with her perspective, framing these surfaces so they meld into flat scenes. Staircases appear unclimbable, almost like bookcases; landings are abstract areas, with banisters offering a slight illusion of space. A photograph of an ordinary threshold appears as a painting: it offers a glimpse of an electrifying room next door with an eccentric carpet, but it’s a space that appears impossible to enter — like a trompe l’oeil nested within another. Other images recall the abstract paintings of László Moholy-Nagy, with Grützner melding stark shadows, rigid lines, and color divisions to create simple geometries.

Impressively, none of these dizzying views arise from post-production manipulations. Grützner shoots on analog film and uses color gels and mirrors to pull off these tricks of the eye. What we’re left with, as viewers, is a record of her private dance and intimate conversation with a silent childhood neighbor.

For all their visual dynamism, these collage-like images do feel quiet, largely because no humans appear. The Erbgericht seems deserted. Yet, if you look closely, you may find chipped surfaces or walls with peeling paint. Feet have marched up and down those impossible staircases, with the soles of shoes leaving subtle scuffs on each step. Even in Grützner’s new visions lie traces of age, of a home to many who formed with it their own memories.

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Andrea Grützner, “Untitled 16” (2014)
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Andrea Grützner, “Untitled 11” (2014)
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Andrea Grützner, “Untitled 4” (2014)
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Andrea Grützner, “Untitled 7” (2014)
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Andrea Grützner, “Untitled 8” (2014)
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Andrea Grützner, “Untitled 6” (2014)
Installation view of Erbgericht (Guesthouse) at Julie Saul Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Erbgericht (Guesthouse) at Julie Saul Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Erbgericht (Guesthouse) at Julie Saul Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Erbgericht (Guesthouse) at Julie Saul Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Erbgericht (Guesthouse) continues at Julie Saul Gallery (535 West 22nd St., Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 23.

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