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When Analysis becomes Form

 

In sculpture negative form – the space surrounding a sculpture or penetrating it –, is almost as important as its positive form – the physical substance of the sculpture. Often negative spaces such as holes, crevasses, slits, or interstices of all sorts make a sculpture an object that can be experienced, that penetrates and forms the existing space. This awareness of positive and negative space and its thorough exploration is central to Alke Reeh’s work.
For some time the artist has been interested in what she refers to as the “analysis of forms” as she calls it: How does form come into being? How do several forms relate to each other? Within which structures do forms emerge and from which point on are shapes identified as a structure? How does a shift of the vantage point change perception? Which roles do symmetry and mathematics play and what determines the fine line between order and disorder, structure and chaos?

The artist’s central focus in the analysis of all these considerations revolves around the seemingly simple form of the pleat and the involved structure of ornament. Inherent in both is the polarity of inner and outer, of negative and positive. And both are capable of enclosing as well as penetrating space. Ornament and pleating occupy a secure place in art history. In sculpture one is immediately reminded of the highly complex pleated garments of Late Gothic sculpture, in painting for example in Vermeer’s magnificent pleating. Ornament appears especially in architecture, particularly in Islamic sacred architecture. (And even in the Late Middle Ages in Europe abstract ornament above a figure stood for a stronger closeness to God as for instance figurative depiction.)

By placing pleating and ornament at the center of her explorations, Alke Reeh not only found the perfect tool for her visual search, but she also arrived at a synthesis of visual and architectural methods that include a natural scientific approach. Alongside pleating and ornament cupolas are a recurring motif in her work and as the pleat surfaces in the most varied forms and materials in the artist’s work, so reemerges the cupola not only as a classical architectural form, but also as a cup, a flower cache-pot worn as a skirt, or as a hybrid of a cup and the cupola of a mosque, covered with ornamental decor. While pleats penetrate and form the space, it is characteristic of the form of the cupola that it encloses space letting this “negative” space that fills it and is considered “empty” appear as a “quasi” compact form. How much this actually unformed inner space can be altered by the form that encloses it is demonstrated in pictures in which the artist has mounted coffee cups instead of the cupola: And although the cups blend surprisingly well into the architecture of the respective mosque or church, the brain nevertheless begins to classify the visible space differently as soon as it has processed the information recognizing that a small familiar ceramic form has taken the place of a powerful architectural structure. Comprehension of the discrepancy between the dimensions and the materials is initially disturbing and changes the viewer’s perceptions.

A particular charm of such montages lies on one hand in the tension of scale and on the other hand in the combination of pattern and language of form, which are perceived as originating in different cultural areas. Here the focus is not on a contribution to postcolonial discourse, but rather on the fact that in her investigation of the order of things Alke Reeh has arrived at a concept of ‘universal forms’ that seemingly share all epochs and cultures and are therefore of special interest to her. While – not least by their ornamental design – it is apparent that the presented forms originate from various cultures, they can nevertheless be recognized as universal forms. The cultural, sacred or secular, classification is therefore not relevant as an indication for a potential reading of the respective image but unfolds its meaning by functioning as a reference within a reference system to which we resort in the attempt to comprehend the world that surrounds us.

Sown Ceiling (2010), almost four meter in diameter, attains its complexity through precisely this artistic awareness of a reference system that underlies our thinking and perception like a matrix. At first glance, Sown Ceiling captivates through its harmonious design, which comprises of a circular basic form and a symmetrical pattern of various pleating. This structural order pleases the eye and perception, and evokes associations of gothic window rosettes – the reduced color not undermining this impression but rather allowing for the reminiscence of an unlit church window seen from the outside. Contradicting this impression is the texture of the soft blanket of which the work comprises.
Sown Ceiling, the assumingly simple name is deceptive for it is alluding to the double meaning of the German word “Decke” which can mean “blanket” as well as “ceiling”. The object can thus be imagined as both a textile and an architectural element. Its texture refers to the former, its structure rather to the latter. In both cases, the horizontal would be the form of presentation that would be expected. “Decke genäht” however is presented vertically, mounted to the wall – that is actually in the most unlikely way.

Made from utilitarian textiles, it does not hide this fact in its appearance. Various elements such as sacred architecture, glass art, utilitarian textiles, handicraft, and a strict order are referred to here which while seemingly incompatible, nevertheless come together as a whole, eventually providing the view onto that which is actually seen in the space: a complex object that despite the familiar forms and materials from which it is made appears new and alien.

In Alke Reeh’s works handcraft or textile-craft not only enters into the awareness as a particular skill, but also in their significance as a multilayered principle of order. Handcraft is not possible without carefully thought-through procedure, a plan, and a sewing pattern. Despite this, textile work is still a comparatively little acknowledged handcraft, which undoubtedly can be explained with its conventional connotation as a “typical feminine” skill. But as little as the consideration of postcolonial discourse would contribute to the analysis of Alke Reeh’s work, so would following the notion of the feminine attribution and role patterns offer valuable information here. Again we are only looking at formal aspects. The softness of the material is opposed to the stringency of the structure, allowing for forms and pleats that develop almost as if by coersion. The sewing process transforms them into a conscientious combination.

In the photographic series Insight – Outlook (2010-11), Alke Reeh has embroidered photographs of interior and exterior spaces – among them familiar German landscapes as well as Indian house façades – with ornamental décor. Some images are covered with little flowers, others with close-meshed, perforated lattice. In part threads are still dangling as though the artist has not had the time to cut them, thus enhancing the ‘handmade’ aspect and contrasting with the matter-of-fact photographs. While the small flowers from Dusseldorf’s idyllic suburbia with its party tents create a link to the interiors of the houses and their potentially stereotypical furnishings, which are not shown, the embroidered lattice fencing corrresponds to the closed façades of locked-up storefronts in India. In both cases Alke Reeh plays with the concept of interior and exterior, and uses ornament as a translucent veil that both covers and reveals. The space between the mesh is as important as the space behind or in front of it, the actual space as relevant as the fictitious space. Rather than providing a hierarchy, Alke Reeh offers a temporary order – the analysis of forms being by no means conclusive.

Dr. Barbara J. Scheuermann

 

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Decke genäht