The recent Spark Art Fair and several new exhibition spaces in Vienna are generating buzz as the winds of change blow in the city.
In retrospect, the fact that the Spark Art Fair Vienna (24 – 27 March 2022) exists at all is a miracle of sorts in the present era. Its sophomore edition commenced on a warm spring day, and with it came a flurry of activity in old Vindobona. The secret to its charms is well-spaced booths arranged in an open geometric formation. Perfect for the flaneur of all things contemporary. The new fair is a winner, so long as it keeps a tight rein on its selection process, weeds out the underperformers, and gains further traction with the international set. Having said that, its joie de vivre opening was a success, and some business was done. From my memory, a few standouts need to be recalled, A-grade presentations that held their own.
Vienna is a city of jewels and whimsical decorative arts, so it’s no surprise that its influence is reflected in many an artist. Sophie Tappeiner featured a single sculpture, Rum #356 (2019), by the underrated artist’s artist, Lone Haugaard Madsen. It’s the fragmentary cast of the lawn. Made of bronze, stones, soil, and twigs, it was innocuously placed on the ground, seated on a white board in the middle of her booth – talk about a spare install. Its form of organic materials and metalwork is a winning combination. It’s surprisingly unique, and the canny collector who bought it recognised its finer qualities. Although Madsen was not a part of the curated section of the fair, her solo piece resonated with good picks by its curator, Fiona Liewehr, who chose multidisciplinary artists working at the interface between fine and applied arts.
This was in contrast to the tight individual focus of each booth. The above-mentioned sculpture corresponded well with a sublime window-like frame of bronze poured into sand by Tania Pérez Córdova, View from a Mass Protest (Contour #16) (2022). Here was a tangential nod to Diego Giacometti, and its large scale gave it a central position. Subtle process art by these two artists were among the revelations at Spark, if you looked carefully. Strong, too, were the “Awning” sculptures by Sonia Leimer, that are like shopfronts anywhere, without a shop to enter, only monochromatic canopies attached to poles set in concrete. They’re colours suggest Pop and minimalism crossed with architectural design, and are her strongest works to date. The aluminium, lacquer, and steel sculptures of Michael Kienzer were a nice contrapunto to Leimer, and far better in person than repro. These works dovetailed smoothly with the late, great Stano Filko’s pyramid and medicine ball sculpture. The way eccentric Filko’s current must-see show at Layr (26 March – 21 May 2022) is a brutal and eloquent reminder that content is everything, regardless of commercial prospects.
The curated three-dimensional works stood on their own strength even as they overcame the cavernous environs of Marx Halle that felt like the works were swallowed whole. One might hope for an architectural intervention in a future edition where the works can be corralled into a tighter install.
Waltzing to and fro, meandering around the fair, one could dismiss a good many derivative or just plain weak presentations in some of the gallery booths. Still, the intrepid viewer was rewarded with a plethora of strong solo presentations (and the premise of the whole fair itself). New paintings by the irascible, misunderstood Adrian Buschmann at Senn, whose lack of a signature style doesn’t diminish the strength of paintings that veer between scabrous abstraction and introspective portraiture, and Crone’s immersive presentation of Daniel Lergon’s optically charged, heavily pigmented, gestural canvases. At Nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Daniel Knorr’s salon hanging of an ongoing series of luminescent automotive paintings, Spare Parts Peel P50 (2022), was eye candy for the viewer. This was a perfect utilisation of the booth that gives each solo presentation its oomph.
Last, but not least, it was a joy to discover the oeuvre and legacy of Franco-Austrian Robert Lettner (1943–2012) at Wonnerth Dejaco. Bullseye. The large-scale paintings from 1972–73 were done in acrylic with a spray gun. It was a time when it became common to use commercial techniques and tools in a fresh manner as a means to an end.
He was a good discovery, and it’s interesting to note he was in the same era a counterfoil to French painter Martin Barré, who also used a spray gun, but to a more minimal, graffiti effect. Lettner’s paintings have bleeding colour gradients and show painterly technical virtuosity. He looked to the mainstream media for his sources. When the pictures were made it was just after the era of May 1968, of Guy Debord’s Situationism, Vietnam, and media spectacle – one can note, today nothing has changed. These blurred pictures are witness to the power of an artist to compress media events into reflections on life and unfolding history in their brief (if tumultuous) sojourn in this languishing world ….
With the newly minted Spark, the winds of change blow in Vienna. Newly opened spaces by Johann König, Eva Presenhuber, and Kunstverein Gartenhaus, will be joined by Phileas, a venue for exhibitions, talks, screenings, and performances. Meanwhile, in galleries proper, a fresh wave of talent emerges and the old vanguard gets critically reassessed.
Her spirit, but declared that she, lived spotless in her chastity. For though the body may endure, befoulment forced, the soul is pure, and never sin hath body shent, when lacked thereto the heart’s consent.
– Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun (Clopinel), Le roman de la rose
The gist of Joanna Woś’s cruel fabulist paintings at Croy Nielsen are not left to casual viewing. Amongst the barbed wire of her Eros-charged phantasms, one can indulge the spectral corporeality of her thin, opalescent colours. Emotionally restrained and arrestingly beautiful, they are not for the faint of heart, but for the connoisseur of the finer points in the glaze of painting. Her star rises. The pictures are odes to a thirteenth-century medieval poem, “The Romance of the Rose”. Hence, the bittersweet title of her debut exhibition, “Precious and Tender”. For a fragrant rose has thorns, and the tendrils of these untitled paintings cut thorugh the psyche. In the vacuum of her Balthusian interior spaces,
Woś is a strange thing, a persona of body doubles in step with the current trend of disembodied figuration. With the efficacy of her subdued palette and brushwork she holds her own. Amorphous and robust figures recede in mise-en-scènes of power dynamics as if set in a dioramic proscenium. Bodiless arms and hands reach out of the ether towards supine and standing figures. Pairs kiss, touch, and then fade away into a miasma of despair. In one, a male crouches by the feet of a laid out naked woman gazing at the viewer (perhaps the artist herself). He’s wearing a puffer coat in confirmation of the contemporary, even though her works are out of time. A dark hand tweaks her nipple, with a pair of copulating rams morph into a face and a second washed out body appears to float out of hers. Woś has a loose mannerism, in which she purges the estrangement of pleasure and emotional pain in a mnemonic technique of allegorical conjuring and mark-tracings. One can wonder, for Woś draws you in with trepidation and a touch of ghoulish shyness. You are her guilty observer. You have fallen through her trap door! And with a quiver, you will know that she knows that crossing the river Styx is no easy task. To forget, she fictionalizes her psychosexual drama and we ingest its hallucinatory narcotic; she plays the submissive operatic ingénue in one moment and the femme fatale in the next. This discourse is all and truly of my own imagination, for I walked through the doors of her apperceptions and came out of her underworld a wandering troubadour; a Dante seeking his Beatrice knowing I had found a Venusian muse. And so, I follow her star in these wicked, beguiling paintings.
Galerie Krinzinger has produced an elegant, museum-quality mini-survey of Walter Pichler’s work from the 1960s and 70s. “Prototypes, sculptures, drawings” are a good primer of his early work. He’s an influential figure who had a MoMA, New York exhibition in 1975. Pichler’s temperament was just as much of an architect or designer, as an artist. You can see the seamless fluency of his lingua franca in the mechanical and aerodynamic prototypes and photographic documents of the period. His works are symbiotic with the human body, epitomising an economy of style and form. Figures in vertical and horizontal poses are often shown in tandem with an architectural element or appurtenance. Handsomely framed, the mixed media drawings on paper are rudimentary, elongated bodies distinguished by their tightly wound, ascetic features.
Fluent in the language of architecture, Pichler was consistent in his syncretism of sculpture and mechanical design, where all things begin and end with the human body. For those with a strong constitution, a floor vitrine, Reliquienschrein (Beschreibung einer Reiseroute) (1971) shows photographic documentation of a performer slitting his wrist with a razor blade then letting the blood stain his tunic. A kind of memento-mori-Shroud-of-Turin artefact is left, as Pichler, like many artists of the time, expressed his solidarity with oppressed people after his travels to the US, Mexico, and Central America. Social critique aside, the young Pichler also had a daffy sense of humour, amplified by his absurdist utopic visions as seen in several late 1960s photographs of the sculptural series “TV-Helmet (Portable living room)”. This was a presage of the adaptives made famous by Franz West, worn over the head to immerse the body into the machine. Without knowing it, Pichler anticipated the hardware of the metaverse with its headsets and fully immersive sensorial experience, as if warning us of the traps of advanced technology. Decompressing from the shocking intensity of his reliquary piece, an unusual phallic sculpture made from hay and metal, and the archaic nature of his model structures, one can appreciate how consistent was Pichler’s art. He was always on point. Most of all, the acute velocity of his intellect never deviated from the earthbound issues at hand.
Max Henry is a writer based in Vienna.