Paloma Varga Weisz’s fourth exhibition with Sadie Coles HQ presents a group of new sculptures and a series of watercolours dating from the 1990s. The exhibition centres on three wardrobe-like cabinets which contain hand-carved sculptures and various found objects. The presentation of objects within a wooden cabinet (or schrank in German) marks a recent development in Varga Weisz’s sculptural practice, while the carved elements glance back to her early training as a woodcarver. The art-historical and literary resonances which pervade her work - German folklore, Christian iconography, Modernist sculpture – are compressed and magnified within these simple, unassuming wooden units. Each cabinet forms a compendium of personal and historical allusions in the fashion of a collection of reliquaries.
Placed on shelves within the rough-finished wooden cabinets, Varga Weisz’s assorted objects glance back to the tradition of the wunderkammer or kunstkammer – the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ which became the epitome of connoisseurship and collecting throughout the Renaissance and into the eighteenth century (containing anything from archaeological fragments to natural history specimens, religious relics to rare books). These encyclopaedic troves – often amounting to entire rooms – were the precursors to modern museums, and marked the development of academic taxonomies and categories. In terms of their sparing arrangements of small-scale sculptures, Varga Weisz’s stand in pointed contrast to the bombast of those historical glory boxes: the wood of the cabinets and sculptures alike is untreated; their doors stand casually ajar; and in one, piles of folded skirts interrupt the sculptural array in a narrow seam – as if at any point, the cupboard might be returned to a mundane domestic function.
Yet each cabinet also constitutes a complex visual anthology which chimes with the eclectic and ranging spirit of the wunderkammer. While certain objects are readily identifiable – a toylike carved bear, a felt riding hat –others defy easy interpretation, for example the oval basket mounted on a wooden stick, or the tablet inscribed with hieroglyphic animals. Many of the carvings closely resemble the imaginary characters and creatures of Varga Weisz’s watercolours, and a series of these dating from almost twenty years ago reflects a similar interplay of architectural, human and animal elements.
The wooden figure in one of the cabinets who dons a broad-brimmed hat and gives a bulbous ‘thumbs-up’ suggests a character from the realms of fairytale or fable, or perhaps a wooden rendering of one of Philip Guston’s paintings. In the tier below, a life-size human hand sits beside a pair of disembodied feet. Hewn from lime wood, these almost suggest classical casts or anatomical models, except for the stub of a cigar wedged between two of the fingers. The jarring accessory succeeds in being both symbolic and bluntly literal (chiming with Freud’s supposed remark – most likely fictitious – that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar").
In this way Varga Weisz’s agglomerations of objects resist any single, totalising ‘explanation’. Each is akin to a Modernist poem in terms of its fragmentary array of subjects and styles, or to medieval altarpieces with their compartmentalised structures and elaborate allegories. Moreover, each sculpture is individually allusive and self-contained: a carved bust of a woman crowned by the head of a baby suggests both a surrealist piece of headwear or a else a spectacle of birth out of the head, such as when the Greek goddess Athena was born out of the head of Zeus, or the Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth, sprung from the head of Seth. In concert, such ambivalent objects express a myriad of different (even contradictory) emotional registers – childlike anthropomorphism, the serenity of archaic statuary, a cartoonish wit, or a strange dolefulness. This metamorphic quality is encapsulated by the face of the artist’s father which bears a benign smile and is crowned by a broad wicker hat.
The cabinets therefore reflect upon the nature of art-making and collecting – there is a tension, always, between the ‘autonomous’ sculptural object and its place within a larger scheme or allegory. Raised on miniature pedestals or hung from the cabinet’s raw planks, the objects remind us of the fact that modes of display – cabinets, plinths or even museums – are a mere matter of historical convention.
Paloma Varga Weisz (born 1966) lives and works in Düsseldorf, Germany. She trained at Staatliche Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf. Major solo exhibitions include Krummer Hund, Kabinett für aktuelle Kunst, Bremerhaven, Germany, and the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (2013); that at Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen, Germany (with Rosemary Trockel); Spirits of My Flesh, Chapter, Cardiff (2011), and that at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (2006). She has been included in numerous group shows including Sculptures from the art academy Düsseldorf since 1945, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany (2013), Exquisite Corpses: Drawing and Disfiguration, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2012),the Folkestone Triennial, UK (2011), Lust for Life and Dance of Death, Kunsthalle Krems, (2010), and the Berlin Biennale (2006).