The Hermit of Domgasse
At Galerie nächst St. Stephan, Vienna, Manfred Pernice is sculpting with a new name but a familiar hardware reptoire, heaping up double entendres from scraps during a new war in Europe.
Who is OLAFUR panoni (sic), and what’s he got to do with Manfred Pernice? Besides the sculptor’s alter ego – a concourse of Nordic and Mediterranean monikers that are polar opposites on a European map – it’s an allusion, made in hermetic fashion, to the artist’s latest show in the renovated, snug antique space that Nächst St. Stephan has addended to the cobblestoned Domgasse. Its nooks, recessed, arched walls, and sweet proportions are a challenging proposition – there isn’t a straight line in the space. Pernice tailored his installation to the angled confines of the room. As you get your bearings, “Friedi” a store-bought, automated ReadyVac rolls around, keeping the spotless floor spotless, in between bumping into the low-lying “furnishings.” These circular, movable sculptures sit on casters, with holes cut out to allow imageless, projected light to shine through and crisscross the floor.
On opposite sides of the exhibition space, simple, plexi-framed magazine photos or illustrated book pages are displayed in a row of four and a row of six, each hung low across the top of an abstracted shape painted in dark grey directly onto the wall; the forms, it turns out, are of deconstructed tanks, recognizable from one upward-pointing barrel. On one side, four vintage Volkswagen campers in various color schemes evoke the heyday of bygone lifestyles, recalling the dignified simplicity of the vehicles’ design and their power as cultural signifiers. The opposite sextet features a train-station guidebook from the town of Delbrück, near Paderborn, tanks from the Austrian military museum, a viaduct, and houses typical of the region, built with faux-timber framing details.
The hallmark of Pernice is a rudimentary sculptural language of faceted, columnar towers and plinths, or boxy platform structures made from compressed wood and encircled by faux tiles. Their components and constructions are distinctly lo-fi: ‘Linda’ Hocker-Set (3) (2013–23), for instance, is lacquered in mostly flat shades of grisaille and studded with peek-a-boo cubbyhole inserts. Adding to the DIY flavor, these sculptures often have readymade objects (like a small plastic bucket of hand wash) affixed to their sides or tops to shift assumed meanings into banal cultural signifiers.
In Pernice, one finds a rich but unassuming modularity of Unitarian efficiency, his off-grid language mutely exuding a distressed late modernity without calling attention to itself. The familiar materials he builds with are of the production line, often scuffed, apparently recycled from previous use. A pair of wall-mounted chipboards attached with ceramic letters in relief spell out indecipherable words, touching off a hard-to-describe feeling, before a cheat sheet reveals the two works are titled Ersatz and Ersatz (Baustelle) (Substitute and Substitute (Build Site), both 2023). Art-making, under this rubric, is an improvisatorial enterprise, and it is with dour economy that Pernice upcycles his cheap material into art.
As a whole, OLAFUR panoni quietly plays off of polarities and mobility: not only north versus south, but also the false or the artificial versus the real. To say so much with so little, he wisely employs an oblique, albeit concrete vocabulary of blankness, amid a world of sempiternal politicized messaging. The treads of those tanks align nicely with the faceted grooves of Pernice’s industrial totems and rolling cabinets.
Warfare, of course, is asymmetrical; it comes from every angle and all sides, invading the norms of direct communication. A small black table and chair with tourist books complete the hermitic cipher of the exhibition. One text, K. u. k. Sehnsuchtsort Lemberg (Austro-Hungarian Place of Longing, Lviv, 2019), is a guide to the Ukrainian city of Lviv, once the capital of Austrian Galicia and now a vista on the inside edge of an ongoing conflict; the other is a 2022 almanac for Hochsauerlandkreis, a district abutting Paderborn whose capital, Meschede, housed a notorious camp for prisoners of war during World Wars I & II. History repeats itself; territorial games never end. In one detached gesture, OLAFUR panoni can be understood as the split personality of the creator-destroyer temperament, as Pernice altogether disappears himself from authorship with blunted self-effacement.
In a punk gesture, a found object is unassumingly placed in the large storefront window (Stange “panoni,” 2023), a rusted steel bar alienated from use. It’s an outmoded support structure of the kind found welded onto bridges and highways the world over. One day, it will turn to dust. Change will come again. Difference and repetition are prototypical Pernice: Delbrück (the city) and dellbrück (literally: the dented bridge) are near derivations of each other. In English, the wordplay in the title conjures apt metaphors for a lost pastoral (a dell being a small valley with trees) and the disintegrating industrial emblems of our botched Western civilization. In the reverse mirror of two personae rolled into one, we feel the deep melancholia of twin souls bridging the gap between history and the abysmal machinations of current power plays.
MAX HENRY is a writer based in Vienna.
Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder
26 Jan 2022 – 15 Apr 2023