Europeans in Houston

by Rachel Cook February 15, 2007

Currently in Houston there are two exhibitions featuring some rather
obscure European artists. Interestingly enough, gallery owners Sonja
and Anya Tish are showcasing artists from their respective home
turfs: Roesch is originally from Germany, and Tish is originally from

Agnieszka Sandomier...Self-portrait with Poker...2006...Egg tempera on canvas...47 x 63 inches

I decided to ask Catalina Montaño, a writer in Houston, about the exhibitions.

Tish chose a young Polish artist, Agnieszka Sandomier, for her gallery’s 2007 debut exhibition. What first caught my eye about Sandomier’s work as I clicked through her website was how young and attractive she is. She poses fairly provocatively ⎯ akin to models in the pages of any fashion magazine ⎯ with her dog and a gun in most of the paintings. Tish first spotted Sandomier, a recent graduate of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, one summer in 2004 while she was visiting the Kuzminski International Business Academy. Sandomier’s work shows the distinct influence of pop culture (Vogue magazine, “American Idol,” Madonna, etc.) and engages in a somewhat “late” conversation with Larry Clark’s Tulsa and Andy Warhol’s silk-screens, as well as Elizabeth Peyton’s paintings.

Roesch, on the other hand, chose Berlin-based artist Dirk Rathke to open her 2007 season. Roesch is notorious for showing mature artists who carefully navigate this image-overloaded world with a quiet, elegant focus on line, color, shape and light. Rathke is no exception: his curved, shaped canvases delicately trace the perimeter of the gallery space, while his incredible neon orange tape drawing fills the back wall, floor to ceiling. While referencing the modernity of Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Mangold, his stunning object-paintings read more like colorful sculptures that emanate from the wall. Rathke’s conversation with Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings is evident ⎯ both artists are attempting to liberate the traditional drawing from its two-dimensional constraints into an art form that is able to exist in and transform a three-dimensional space. Rathke has stripped his drawing of any form or content, presenting us with a pure outline, which demonstrates the power of line and its ability to define shape.

Dirk Rathke...Room Drawing for Houston...2007...Tape on Wall, Ceiling, and Floor...36' x 11.5' x 24.6' feet

How do you think Rathke’s work relates to the current Hélio Oiticica show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston?

Although Rathke says he was not directly influenced by Oiticica, it is very interesting to note the similarities in their work. In some instances it’s almost as if Rathke has picked up where Oiticica left off, perhaps rearranging some of the ideas and concepts posed by the other artist. Rathke’s choice of color for his wall drawing at Sonja Roesch Gallery is evidence of the power he sees in color. What makes that drawing so stellar and commanding is the fact that it is in bright neon orange, generating a certain dynamic that the same drawing created in a light violet would not achieve.

Both Oiticica and Rathke are preoccupied with creating work that hovers between sculpture and painting. A dialogue between Rathke’s twisted, oddly shaped canvases and Oiticica’s white paintings can certainly be established. I am, however, much more intrigued by the conceptual relationship between Oiticica’s sculptural installations, such as his Nuclei or Bilaterals, and Rathke’s wall drawings. The way each artist has decided to manifest his intention to redefine space through art interests me most ⎯ which, I guess, brings us back to the commentary on the correlation with LeWitt and the power of line. To be admired is the simplicity in the work of both artists and how work concerned with formal elements can really sometimes say much more than a canvas crowded with visual information. – Catalina Montaño

Dirk Rathke...T# 62, 57, 59, 60...2006...23.6

I had a similar response to the power of the line in Roesch’s space. Rathke sustains and holds the space simply by elongating a parallelogram shape onto the ceiling and the floor. I found myself just standing in front of it and staring, totally captivated by the bright orange color against the white background. Roesch understands the power of her space as an architectural environment and the way the light comes in from the windows onto the perimeter of the ceiling. For each show she carefully chooses work that looks as if it has fallen naturally into place in the room, which is something I admire. I can’t quite articulate the physical sensation I felt when walking in there.

As for Rathke’s relation to Oiticica, I saw the connection in Oiticica’s early work and the hanging colored objects. Particularly with some of his grid-shaped drawings, Oiticica moves the bright blue blocks around, while Rathke actually has the colored, shaped canvases lifting off the wall. The one point I have to make about Rathke’s work, if nothing else, is the technical ability of his paintings to function as sculptural shaped canvases and still have such a smooth and pristine surface. I am almost impressed with myself for taking the time to notice these formal elements because normally these are not why a work excites me, but in this case I was truly stunned. Staring at the edges of each canvas, I wondered how they were built ⎯ how he stretched the canvas around the edges and still made it smooth without ripping a hole in anything.

Rathke’s color palette complements Oiticica’s with its use of vibrant blues, super whites, intense reds and bright yellows. Ranthke has done a number of wall drawings in other environments that capture the essence of some of Oiticica’s smaller works in their motion, but they still look more like the wall drawings of LeWitt or the string pieces of Fred Sandback. Each has a strong sense of color and line, and how to activate it on the wall or page to create motion. I literally felt the shapes flying out at me or sucking me into the frame. I have never felt such a physical response to a mere line or shape. –Rachel Cook

Agnieszka Sandomier...It’s Better to be Beautiful and Rich...2006...Egg tempera on canvas...47 x 63 inches

How do you see Agnieszka Sandomier’s work in relation to the current discussion around feminism?

The work is definitely contributing to, if not departing from, a feminist theory discourse addressing female sexuality and challenging gender inequalities. The abrupt physical nudity and mental undressing with which Sandomier paints herself suggests an in-your-face sort of female superpower.

From a more psychological perspective, it is interesting to note Sandomier’s fascination with her own introspection. In this new body of work, she has concentrated on depicting images of herself with a voyeuristic eye. – Catalina Montaño

Everyone is talking about the new “third wave of feminism,” especially given the timing of the recent Museum of Modern Art panel discussion, which is dovetailing with a larger exhibition called WACK! soon to open at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA . You are right that Sandomier channels a feminist superhero, but she also represents a youthful, almost cunning “sexy girl.” Her use of a gun and her straightforward stance recall the kids in Larry Clark’s Tulsa. Those kids push the threshold of danger and still make everything look sexy and enticing. I am not sure if Sandomier’s work is taking a feminist stance or if a girl who grew up in a communist country is pushing the boundaries of the culture and, in turn, exploring her body and its own sensual nature.

Agnieszka Sandomier...United Colors of Benetton...2006...Egg tempera on canvas...16 x 16 inches

For example, in United Colors of Benetton, Sandomier stands facing the camera with a Benetton shirt on, her finger in her mouth and a gun slightly pulling down her pants. It reminds me of watching Kids, at the point where I was uncomfortable because these young kids were so open and aggressive with their sexuality. Maybe this is just me or maybe this is my sheltered upbringing. Or, better yet, maybe this is really my own discomfort with people expressing their sexuality in such an open and clear-cut manner. The pose screams enticement the way fashion ads would, the way a rebellious teenager would pose in front of her boyfriend, or they way every teenage girl in Photo 101 takes provocative self-portraits.

The brightly colored paintings look more like a combination of fashion ad and decorative wallpaper than they do some sort of conceptual stance on feminism. They mimic Andy Warhol’s silk-screen portraits with their bold colors, metallic paint, the black outline of the figure and the floral print background. In some strange way, they reference Elizabeth Peyton’s paintings, too, although Peyton’s are much more delicate and tasteful than Sandomier’s. Peyton paints people from her world: friends, models, and movie stars. The same goes for Sandomier except that her world consists of her sitting around with no underwear on in her apartment.

There are so many other things to pick apart in the paintings, but what piques my curiosity are the provocative poses that, on the one hand, feel like a sexy fashion photo shoot and, on the other, feel like a casual evening of dress-up with her dog in front of the mirror, posing in a G-string or with a motorcycle helmet and a furry coat on. –Rachel Cook

Agnieszka Sandomier...I Don’t Like to Show It I...2006...Egg tempera on canvas...28 x 28 inches

Do you think female and male audiences perceive the work differently?

Yes, I think Sandomier’s work addresses the female viewer and invites her to join in the dialogue ⎯ almost encouraging her to pretend to be the artist and slip into her shoes for a moment ⎯ whereas the male audience may perhaps feel sexually confronted and directly challenged. -Catalina Montaño

I am not sure if the difference in gender changes the perception of the work. As a woman viewing the work, I do feel invited to join in the dialogue, but I also feel her performing for me the same as she would for the male gaze. This performative nature comes from the photographic nature of the paintings. I will say it made me feel uncomfortable standing in front of the painting for too long. –Rachel Cook

Images courtesy Sonja Roesch Gallery and Anya Tish Gallery

Rachel Cook is the editor of Glasstire and Catalina Montaño is a writer living in Houston.


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