Berlin artist Brigitte Waldach has long made art that was relational: making drawings in series and extending those connections to physical space of the gallery, exploiting the power of groupings, corners, sight lines.
This approach has lent a compelling dimensionality to her work, which consists most frequently of spare, monochromatic drawings of figures set within a large void of white paper.
Lately, the artist has been conceiving of her work in terms of site-responsive installations, whether expanding the scale of her drawings to that of murals or thinking in terms of the works and their rooms inhabiting a unique whole.
Waldach’s latest show, now at the Gallery of the Zodiac through September 10, has turned the “white cube” of this Old Market venue into a dark theater for her latest “spatial drawing,” Instinct: Black Box. It is curated by Matthias Harder, who also organized Drive Drove Driven: Cars in Contemporary Photography, concurrently on view at the Artists’ Cooperative Gallery.
At the artist’s request, the gallery’s walls and brickwork were painted black; ceilings were already this color and the floors very dark as well. Then she ringed the walls with 90 unframed works on paper—approximately 24 x 17 inches each—arranged at eye level in a broken line.
Usually, this kind of arrangement yields a kind of unpleasing bathtub ring effect. But for some odd reason, not so here as the glowing white paper seems to float magically on the walls. Before even discovering the narrative of the show or the contents of each composition, the viewer is immediately engaged for a dramatic experience.
The works themselves are digital prints, each hand-inscribed with a word or phrase in red ink. Most contain a human figure, but these are not portraits. Faces are usually featureless; silhouettes are lost; backs are turned. Hanging in the blank void of the paper, the attitudes of these ciphers skew distinctly pensive, melancholy, withdrawn. Their situations are ambiguous and fragmentary and our human instinct to decode specifics into a legible whole is intentionally stymied.
Yet there is a particular narrative at work. The prints represent a series, meant to be read in linear fashion, from left to right, beginning at the gallery entrance and curling all the way around its spaces.
At the exhibition opening reception, Harder noted that Waldach was inspired by the short play That Time by Irish literary giant Samuel Beckett. Associated with the development of the Theater of the Absurd, Beckett’s writings had a bleak and tragicomic tone.
In That Time, a single actor appears onstage as a disembodied head in an otherwise black setting. The figure’s eyes are closed and a series of three disembodied voices alternate from changing areas of the stage. They weave a fragmented narrative that essentially provides a portrait of the protagonist as told from various stages in his life: youth, middle age recalling childhood and old age. Solitude and the passage of time are among the main themes.
There’s more backstory: The choice of Beckett is also Waldach’s homage to Zodiac gallery co-owner Vera Mercer, who had photographed Beckett in the mid 1960s at his home in Paris. A print of this iconic image hangs in Waldach’s studio.
The Beckett inspiration is deployed in both Waldach’s sequencing of these individual prints and in the inscriptions she’s added to each, which result in a kind of sur-narrative.
Consider the grouping of four images near the beginning of the series. In the first, a shadowed man sits at a counter on which is a darkened oval shape with the word DEEP written on it; the phrase “unheard of…” in red on the right.
In the next, a pair of faceless half-figures reach towards and into a similar hole, “…speechless infant” is the accompanying text. The next panel shows a standing figure adjacent to a wall or doorway, “…wandering in a field.” Finally, we are taken into a room with a stack of books, a suspended bucket and an equation that is part of Einstein’s theory of relativity written on the wall, with the added instruction “…a few steps, then stop.”
In these brief scenes, a psychological tension resonates despite her economy of rendering. Viewing these and other tonally related sections of the series reveals Waldach’s keen ability to illustrate peculiar moments—those weighty interstices in the continuum that makes a life.
Not all of our experiences are memorable nor are they cornerstones to our personalities or biographies. Many are instinctual, reflexive responses to daily occurrences; others are merely incidental.
But whether we stop to ponder our emotions, relationships and motivations, even our place in the universe, we are met with obstacles to concrete definition. The limits of the knowable are reflected into her fragmentary, expressionistically observational sketches. It may be human nature to want to determine our world; Waldach underscores how difficult a project this is.
Literary inspiration and investigation of human nature is consistent throughout Waldach’s art, as she has created series of works responding to such varied writings as those of Franz Kafka, Edgar Allen Poe, William Shakespeare and Ludwig Wittgenstein. She also describes a range of expressionistic cinematic influences, including Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino.
It is interesting to note that the Omaha showing of Instinct: Black Box is related to a larger installation Waldach developed for a 2016 exhibition in Copenhagen. There she arranged 130 drawings wallpaper style in a similarly blackened space.
The walls were covered with her self-described “dreamlike miniatures”, these same gestural fragments of her visual journaling. While they also provided, in aggregate, a similar diary of human emotion from the absurd to the ponderous, the series served an additional, different intention. Waldach intended the floor to ceiling presentation as a manifestation of presence, ending with symbolic absence as the works were meant to be taken home at the moment of sale.
The repurposing or re-imagination of the majority of these drawings for the Omaha presentation has perhaps been to its benefit. The prints work individually and as a cohesive unit that does not rely on the vagaries of audience acquisitiveness in determining its success as a concept.
The overlay of the Beckett theme is, in fact a wonderful confluence of the artist’s abiding fascination with weaving literary themes into her fragile expressions on paper, as much as it is homage to her Omaha connections.
Waldach’s simple but effective manipulation of the gallery as a space to energize and dramatize the tension in her artworks is impressive. A good exhibition depends in more measure than recognized on the dramatics of display. Waldach’s turn of the white cube into a black box theater deserves its debut.
Brigitte Waldach: Instinct runs through September 10 in the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery, 1042 Howard Street. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from noon to 8:00pm and on Sundays from noon to 6:00pm. For further information, please contact 402.341.1877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.