Julia Pfeiffer

Maria Stenfors, London 27 February - 6 April

By Martin Herbert

Animal Vessel (Figure of the Thinkable) 2013.

Julia Pfeiffer’s show ends on a messy note: a wall entirely smeared with clay. Peeking through cracks in the blistering grey gunk, patches of warmly coloured underpainting glimmer with potentiality. Preceding this are 11 ceramic works and four c-prints; but Figures of the Thinkable (titled after a book by Greek/French theorist Cornelius Castoriadis) could be telescoped down to that feat of clay. The Berlin-based artist’s work exists simultaneously in the anterior, posterior and present: something has happened that speaks of something about to happen, which results in something else – the artwork – happening right now. The ‘thinkable’ of the title, it would seem, is the vectored range of thought that the artwork opens onto.

Pfeiffer’s second solo exhibition at Maria Stenfors, then, proceeds by making a reflexive subject from receptive processes. That’s established straightaway via eight circular glazed ceramics collectively entitled Iris Study (all works 2013), resembling eyes and ranging from blue to green to flecked with brassy-coloured islets. These stare fixedly across the room at a quartet of black-and-white photographs wherein Pfeiffer has staged situations in her studio with wet clay, painted backdrops and found objects: still lifes composed of boots, pots, a smartphone, a ketchup bottle, pipes, painted spectacles... Primarily, though, in these (as in her 2011 show here, Hope Creeping out the Jar, which referred to the myth of Pandora’s box), she employs the motif of a tipped and spilling jug. Pfeiffer no longer uses the long-exposure image to record her fleeting ghostly presence, but the sense of things being in play and unresolved remains palpable.

In one photograph the ceramic jug is dog- shaped, tipping sideways and spilling gloop above some beakers. It seems to be tipping because its pendulous testes wouldn’t allow it to sit flat. Sitting in the gallery is Animal Vessel (Figure of the Thinkable), a startled-looking ceramic version of the same canine figure in white, with blue liquid spilling out of the aperture at the top of its head: the dog sits on blocks that allow its balls to dangle. The ceramic has already been glazed, and so feels fixed, but it’s kind of ridiculous, perhaps associatively ridiculing the very concept of the immutable.

Where is this going? Beyond overtones in Pfeiffer’s work that technology is not an unqualified boon – think of the techie overtones of Pandora’s box, of the artist’s resolutely old- school materials, of that errant smartphone – one doubts that the reference to Castoriadis is made lightly. He was a revolutionary theorist, promulgating autonomy and imagination. A 1986 book of his was titled Crossroads in the Labyrinth; Pfeiffer’s clay wall is titled Building the Labyrinth. I’d have to read a fair bit more Castoriadis before being certain of how closely the artist’s thought echoes the philosopher’s, but Pfeiffer evidently sees art as a practice space for autonomy and the imagination that ought to have effects in the social. Untitled (Canting Arms) is a shield decorated with images of three jugs: one cracked and reassembled, another festooned with equations and a third inverted, spilling pale blue liquid and decorated with a pair of lips so that it resembles a face. ‘Canting arms’, says Wikipedia, are ‘heraldic bearings that represent the bearer’s name in a visual pun or rebus’. Maybe if you can’t see Pfeiffer’s name in Untitled’s little labyrinth, you can travel inward and find yourself at the centre.

This article was first published in the May 2013 issue.