Work

by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Lotte Gertz at Mary Mary

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At first sight, the work of Lotte Gertz appears rather slight. The pieces on show at Mary Mary all share a washed-out look, with light grey back­groun­ds and a muted palette, torn edges, ap­par­ently apathetic marks made with pencils, crayons or oils, and various bits and bobs tent­at­ively stuck to their surfaces.

Stand before one for a while, though, and it becomes clear that Gertz isn’t in the business of hastily dashing off vague abstracts, but a precise, thought­ful maker of images that take time to resolve. When they do, that first im­pres­sion fades fast. The title of Mr Soph­ist­ic­a­tion (I Am Stage) gives a hint, but look before you read and it slowly becomes clear that the rectangle missing a side is indeed a stage, and the flurry of curved lines above are the curtains that frame it. Its neighbour offers a little more, with zig-zag marks in black wending their way across the paper to offer the barest sug­ges­tion of the pitched roofs of a row of houses, and, with that real­isa­tion, the six little marks on the right become a table, with a sewn-on button com­p­let­ing the picture of do­mest­i­city. And when Gertz edges over the line into outright re­p­res­ent­a­tion, she remains subtle, with clock faces reduced to a circle and two lines, and interior space boiled down to a few angled lines.

This ex­per­i­ence of looking, and looking again, sets up the viewer well: with a few con­nec­tions made, more hove into view, and Gertz slowly but surely exposes her themes, and, perhaps more im­port­antly, her method of making work.

The first clear signal of that method is Gertz’s refusal to restrict herself to a single medium. Every work on show combines collage, drawing, painting and printing, with a few tiptoeing toward the sculp­tur­al. Woodcut prints are sliced or torn then put to use as a surface on which to draw or paint, or, in little slivers, applied in turn to a woodcut surface. Other elements are rendered with everyday objects. Matches, half-un­rav­elled threads, off-cuts of leather and elastic bands are glued over drawings, buttons are sewn onto paper.

These materials are not, though, simply everyday detritus. Many have a common source, clothing, and most are items that we all lose easily or discard with little thought. Buttons pop off shirts and roll away, loose threads are picked at and flicked off, spent matches are dropped to the floor, red Post Office elastic bands litter closes and streets. With these familiar objects, which must be lost for her to find them, Gertz is subtly evoking bodies moving through space and time, building a physical human presence out of the faintest possible traces. And, alongside these dis­t­inc­tly human materials, there are recurring motifs that reinforce the idea of a barely-present body in transit: boxes and con­tain­ers are ever­y­where, and, more obviously, houses and theatres.

To call this shadowy presence a character would be a step too far - you can’t, after all, tell much about a person from a few bits of frayed nylon, the odd button and a hint of an unpacked box - but, as these materials are used again and again, Gertz creates the distinct im­pres­sion that her works are inhabited, by someone.

That someone might well be Gertz herself. Every one of the collaged works on paper in this show bears very de­lib­er­ate traces of the artist who made them. Some are subtle - those woodcut back­groun­ds are peppered with fin­ger­print smudges - others are in plain sight, and delivered with a nod and a wink, as in Blue Box: Match Play, Match Spent, in which the walls and roof of a house are built of crayons drawn with crayons.

If the missing figure is Gertz, her sources and re­f­er­ences are almost absent too. The ar­chi­tec­tur­al forms only-just-re­p­res­en­ted in Blue Box or Standard Houses: History, Her Story have their roots in the houses of Gertz’s native Denmark. More specific still, those clock faces are lifted from a single scene in Cas­ab­lan­ca. The evocative title of To The Roof! With A Couple Of Things That Looks Like Wings is a distorted quotation from a Brecht poem. Few, if any, viewers would catch these allusions, and it is clear that, just as Gertz makes a given piece using a process of revision, layering up elements from what might be called pre­par­at­ory works, only to paint or draw over them, so she lights on a source, turning it over in her mind, dis­card­ing some elements and retaining others, until that first thought or image becomes something else entirely.

And it seems safe to say that these processes of thinking and making are not just similar, they are in­ter­t­wined, with materials sug­gest­ing new thoughts, and re­f­er­ences re­con­sider­ed as the pos­s­ib­il­it­ies of a drawn line, painted smudge or applied object offer new dir­ec­tions. Much of this internal dialogue is, of course, private, known only to Gertz herself, but just enough leaks out to the viewer. The result is a curious mirroring, as gallery-goers seek to tease out the imagery and meaning in these works - are, for example, the two hands of Hands and Graphite Wheel ap­plaud­ing the unseen per­for­m­ance implied in Mr. Soph­ist­ic­a­tion (I Am Stage)? - or consider the intention behind the use of materials, they reflect Gertz’s mode of practice. And so these private, sub­ject­ive works, when they are released into the public sphere of the gallery, become private and sub­ject­ive once more, in the minds of those who see them. It’s an indirect, subtle and almost teasing form of com­mu­n­ic­a­tion between artist and viewer, this, but a powerful one. By never stating her case, and working in whispers and hints, Gertz passes on her ideas with a sort of gen­er­os­ity. By ab­s­tain­ing from bald state­ments she rewards those willing to put in the work required to uncover the ties that bind these pieces together. Gertz cares little, I suspect, whether her audience’s specific thoughts match her own, satisfied that the gentle ex­per­i­ence of discovery her work prompts in the viewer cor­res­ponds with the dialogue between ideas and materials at the heart of her practice.

This review was first published in The Herald on February 22nd, 2008.