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Materials World

Two-artist show winnows through issues about form and content

Madeleine Dietz's "No Wall"

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 6/23/2010


Through June 26 at C. Grimaldis Gallery

Right now, the temporary is in vogue. Salvaged art litters galleries. Performance artists hold court in museums. Even when new media and video art reproduce or recast images of the embalmed past, they do so only to underline the permeability of the moving image.

In this environment, the C. Grimaldis Gallery's two-artist elements arrives orthogonally to contemporary trends. Madeleine Dietz and Annette Sauermann, two German artists born in the 1950s, work with base materials--concrete, steel, Plexiglass, earth--and simple visual forms. While the juxtapositions between materials and forms might have at one point been considered daring, this show feels conservative, grounded in 20th-century debates about the relationship between form and content.

Both Sauermann and Dietz produce series of works, making their investment in these questions all the more visible. In Sauermann's simply titled series "Wallpiece," five of which appear in the show, tinted Plexiglass sheets are layered with dark and light concrete slabs to make abstract shapes.

Viewed from far away, these pieces appear flat, with the light shining through the green, pink, and orange sheets distracting you from the thickness of the concrete slabs. But inspected up close, the weight and structure of the pieces, and Sauermann's skill in constructing them, becomes visible.

As Virginia Adams explains in her argumentative curatorial note, the influence here is not contemporary artists who work with light, but instead the much older tradition of geometric abstraction, an early 20th-century aesthetic style and philosophy that served as the accompaniment to Soviet hopes that the world could be made anew through art.

Utopian projects had a much longer life in architecture than art, and many of Sauermann's pieces could be thought of as scale models for unrealized buildings. For example, her "Wall Relief" uses two long horizontal bands of dark concrete, connected by two strips of translucent plastic, to create a space that is closed and open at the same time, like the hands of a clock that suggest a clockface when one isn't there.

Madeleine Dietz also uses unexpected materials in formal ways, but her steel and earth pieces are more conceptually complex. Steel and earth are not normally thought of as materials appropriate for a gallery show, but Dietz's sculptures and wall pieces naturalize these raw and processed materials.

One of the larger pieces in the show, "Where Is Your Song?," serves an effective introduction to Dietz's project. A rectangle made of unevenly shaped red clay bricks lies on the floor at a slight angle. A rectangular steel structure, with the bottom edge left open, intersects the red clay rectangle at the top, with the right vertical bar reaching halfway through the red brick rectangle. While a drawing of these two shapes would be uneventful, the earth's fragility and the steel's hardness underlines the uneven relationship between form and materials.

Dietz's wall pieces press this point further. In "Vault," "Not a Wall," and "Five to One," steel squares form vertical or horizontal monoliths. But one square, or a sliver of a square, is open, revealing piles of red earth bricks. Dietz stacks the bricks so tightly that you can't be sure whether the entire structure is in fact made of earth. Dietz's two included etchings confuse things further, with the steel and earth sculptures reproduced on paper with the stone sections, now gray, represented by what appears to be photographs; the steel loses its sheen when it is reproduced as a drawing.

While the formal aspects of Dietz's work are interesting in themselves, her embrace of two divergent materials gives her work a conceptual complexity. The "earth" she uses is not dirt, but earth that has been selected, processed, and turned into form. By setting this earth against steel, processed raw materials that enabled architects to work more quickly and on a grander scale than ever before, Dietz undermines the utopianism of geometric abstraction.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Dietz's ironically titled 2006 piece "Time to Go." A steel rectangle, shaped like a coffin, is covered with earth--only this time, the earth isn't made into bricks or given any other form. Instead, you see rock-like clumps of earth and dirt. Drawn in the dirt is another rectangular shape, again with the bottom edge removed. Light shines through, implying that the coffin is in fact filled with light, not the darkness a steel coffin would imply.

As Adams convincingly argues, Dietz's work is not land art, but it is invested in permanence and a deeper, more historical engagement with formal and aesthetic questions. Unlike many artists working today, Dietz and Sauermann concern themselves with old, unanswered questions about the relationships between forms, materials, and efforts to remake how we think about the world.

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