Nicole Wermers: Austern mit Senf (Oysters with Mustard)

Galleria S. A. L. E. S., Rome, 6 June – 26 July

By Andrew Smaldone

Auster mit Senf (Oysters with Mustard), 2013 (installation view). Courtesy Galleria S.A.L.E.S., Rome

One could be forgiven for initially thinking that Nicole Wermers is an artist exclusively dedicated to reworking aspects of Minimalism: after all, her work is clean, formal and cerebral. Yet importantly, and invariably, it is also more than just the specific object itself. In any event, the German-born artist is known internationally for sculptures that verge on the functional, and she plays with this modus operandi in her latest exhibition at Galleria S.A.L.E.S., which features works conceived during a year’s stay at the Villa Massimo in Rome.

In the main exhibition room, Wermers has positioned four plinths to bear Abwasch Skulpturen #5 – #8 (Dishwashing Sculptures, all works 2013). Renaissance still-life painting serves as the art-historical reference point for these works, whose arrangements each consist of artfully piled kitchenware, the objects holding each other up and in place, inside a modified dishwasher basket. Here, though, Wermers inverts the format of still life by swapping two-dimensional elements for real objects that contain or comprise animal forms, like a ceramic pink flamingo or lobster, while other objects, such as plates and bowls, feature plant and floral patterns. The figurative elements in the objects touch upon the original content found in the still-life painting referents the artist is pulling from: it’s an involving art-about-art dialogue, but the game doesn’t end there, because the pieces Wermers is working with are found objects.

Accordingly, the sculptures nod to the objet trouvé tradition inaugurated by Picasso. Every piece, as the exhibition title’s reference to foodstuffs might suggest, bears a history of function that precedes its current status as art: a curvy-bladed knife, a mezzaluna, to chop garlic with, perhaps; or a piece of fine china designed for a particular dish. It’s impossible to say with any surety how the object functioned before it became art – it’s up to the viewer to create the context – but it’s clear, at least, that the Abwasch Skulpturen’s functionality was already tested in the past. By contrast, the 51 white readymade wardrobe hooks that make up the installation Restaurant, in the gallery’s backroom project space, haven’t ever been used. This fact, and the contrast it creates, gives the kitchenware sculptures a personal aspect that effectively prevents the entire exhibition from just being an exercise in formal concerns.

In a more subtle way, however, this aforesaid intimacy can also be found through the intervention of the human hand in the wardrobe hooks: each one is covered with several layers of wall paint, giving it a sense of painterly warmth, and as a result, the installation feels intimate rather than cold or industrial. The personal, then, turns out to link the two sets of work in the show despite their differences in form and content. Additionally, the viewer’s uncertainty in relation to the art object’s ambiguous purpose permits Wermers to assimilate seemingly contradictory ideas by overlaying the impression of a single authorial voice.

That said, by no means do these reflections on Wermers’s work indicate a major shift has occurred in her practice. The sculptures, after all, are made up of shapes – ellipses, for example – that resemble other geometric forms she’s experimented with over the past decade. It’s not a matter, then, of an artist changing her vocabulary, but rather of her quietly expanding it.

This review was first published in the October 2013 issue.