The first impression when entering the Rosemarie Trockel show at Wiels is rather unwelcoming. The opening room is almost entirely occupied by long brown panels that block the view to the next space. Instead of being religiously placed all around the pristine white walls of the ample exhibition space, the artworks – a series of collages the artist has been producing since 2004 – stand in sharp contrast with the horizontal panels on which they are arranged, almost recalling an announcement board. Such a display comes across as fairly unusual: in a way it feels appropriate for the collages (and as a visual statement), while on the other hand it arguably plays down their aesthetic perception.
As for the works themselves, they go beyond the usual definition of “collage.” They are more like assemblages, featuring props as varied as rubber ears and small hand-knit jumpers. The heavy use of abstract expressionist painting for the backgrounds also gives a much warmer feel to the pieces, despite the transparent plastic layers that still separate their surfaces from the viewer, providing an interesting dialectic. The themes revolve mainly around the female figure, with autobiographical references and a few ironic blows to a male-centered art history (see Nobody Will Survive, featuring a one-eyed Francis Bacon).
Rosemarie Trockel, Nobody will Survive 2, 2008, Mixed Media, 68 x 58 x 4,8 cm.; Copyright: Rosemarie Trockel, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012 resp. SABAM Brussels 2012 / Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London.
A series of small ceramic sculptures follow in the next room. This time the focus is on abstract shapes and colors -- if we exclude the big sofa and the cordon installations -- but, in a way, the artworks share the same organic spontaneity of the collages from the previous space (a few titles are funny -- there is one about toilet paper, if I'm not mistaken).
If the exhibition’s first floor showcases more recent and formally warmer works, the spaces upstairs offer a more transversal overview of Trockel's career. Here polished aesthetics prevail over dripping and pasting techniques, but the themes of feminism and male predominance in art history still underlie everything – from the ironically titled Spiral Betty sculpture to the artist's distinctive take on post-minimalism. Among the staple pieces featured are the famous cooking plates (which radiate quietly from monochromatic panels on the wall) and, of course, Trockel's signature wool paintings. We witness a variety of them throughout the floor: there is one made with a spider's web (the artist has always been interested in animals); some machine-knit (detachment of the author is one of these works’ salient points); and a couple of huge monochromes, made with ultra-thick strings. To complete the collection, there is an assortment of foam sculptures, object installations, and an archive of books, booklets, and leaflets, unfortunately all kept behind plastic and impossible to page through.
The exhibition goes up a third level to Wiels' panoramic room, in which Trockel installed an optical wall painting, a couple “witch” heads that she pasted to the wall, and a mirror doubling the view outside of the window. These last pieces honestly felt a bit random to me (especially the mirror, which I didn't recognize as part of the show), but it might have been a combination of climbing the stairs and being over-Trockeled.
Even as a non-chronological retrospective, Flagrant Delight does have a sort of linearity, if anything, because it groups the artworks by medium and feel. Those who are not familiar with the German artist's work get a clear idea of her fixations and tricks on the second floor (Wiels' third), while the experts experience the new stuff from the get go, and find an updated selection compared to the Zurich and Cologne retrospectives (2010 and 2006), of which the Brussels exhibition is a continuation. Plus, regardless of the reverse chronology, there's nothing like a panoramic view to close a twenty-plus-years' climb up somebody's art.
(Image on top right: Installation View of Rosemarie Trockel, Flagrant Delight at WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels, 2012; Photo by Filip Vanzieleghem)