Wallpaper and Transcendence
Shannon Bool — Excursions into Modernism
Newmann’s legendary sculpture “Broken Obelisk” and the stripper pole in
Pamela Anderson’s living room—Shannon Bool’s excursions take you
through a male-dominated modernism straight into today’s mass culture.
The Berlin-based Canadian, whose works have long been part of the
Deutsche Bank Collection, has just won a Villa Romana fellowship.
Christiane Meixner on Bool’s ironic feminine take on icons and idols of
the 20th century.
||Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk is the icon of an era. Newman, previously known as the grand seigneur of color field painting
but not as a sculptor, first exhibited his sculpture in New York in
1967. The steel pyramid topped with a broken-off inverted obelisk
caused a sensation. In this major late work, the two elements, which
together weigh over three tons, only touch at one tiny point. The work
seems to defy gravity as it conjures up the architecture and death cult
of ancient Egypt. When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the legendary Texan collectors Dominique and John de Menil
planned to donate Newman’s sculpture to the city of Houston as a
memorial for the murdered civil rights leader. It caused a political
scandal when the city turned Newman’s Broken Obelisk down—not
because of the radical nature of the art, but because of its dedication
to King. As a consequence, the sculpture was installed at the Rothko Chapel in Houston.
the 20th century, there are only very few works that are more sublime
or charged with more historical significance than Broken Obelisk. But if you follow the young artist Shannon Bool, more than anything else this sculpture is one thing, which is extremely phallic. Last year, Bool showed her exhibition Inverted Harem at the Bonn Kunstverein and the Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst in Bremen. One part of the show was her installation A Perpendicular Expression of a Horizontal Desire—two rods propped between the ceiling and the floor. In a play on Newman, she titled the object Broken Pole.
The work continues this reference in a formal sense; the rods meet in
the middle like two sharpened pencils, thus imitating the transition
from pyramid to obelisk. Bool’s object also, however, quotes the stripper poles
of the red light district, where women squirm in acrobatic poses—yet
another male-approved form of phallus worship. And as though this
confrontation between the sex industry and purist transcendence were
not enough, the fragile part in Broken Pole suggests that the stripper pole will snap the next time it’s used, that the erotic act will come to an abrupt end.
Yet Shannon Bool clearly understands that the effect of Broken Pole
only really works in the antagonism between the two works. People who
remain unimpressed by the pathos of the historical sculpture will also
fail to understand the artist’s position: her criticism that American
artists have lost all their sensibility for complexity and
contradiction in their concentration on the cult of the genius, the
male hero, and the sublime.
Shannon Bool, who was born in 1972 in Comox, Canada and studied at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design before moving to New York and subsequently to Frankfurt, where she attended the Städelschule,
augments this unilateral, exclusive perspective in her work. And she
doesn’t stop at Barnett Newman, after adjusting his monument to a
female body size and a sexual service. Her research takes her back to
modernism’s beginnings, which marked a break with tradition and role
models. In Inverted Harem, she also shows how tenaciously old
clichés have endured and exert their influence to this day. The
exhibition title plays on the western notion of the oriental harem as a
showroom for young, lascivious women who are always at the ready.
The integrated work Weiße Tünche, weiße Vorhänge, weiße Angorafelle, silberne Frau
(2010) establishes the connection to the 20th century. The delicate
photogram is based on a photograph that depicts a large bed in a
bedroom the architect Adolf Loos
furnished for his young wife Lina in 1903. A soft, feminine, sensuous
place—and an erotic male fantasy. Shannon Bool adopts the motif in her
reproduction and adds the figure of a woman whose body shines with a
hard, metallic gleam. This kind of intervention is typical for the
artist, who introduces minimal changes to found subjects that
nonetheless alter them in such a way that a contrary situation arises.
In the case of Loos, the cold figure, reminiscent of a sculpture, does
not merely leave the bed, but turns away from the plush environment
entirely. A shift of symbolic power—a decade later, the Bauhaus avant-garde still regarded textile design as the one genuinely feminine discipline of their educational establishment.
complex criticism is also directed at Loos the architect, who declared
the ornament to be anti-modern, unproductive, and superfluous in his
famous manifesto of 1908. As handicraft, ornamental work always carried
feminine connotations. Thus, Loos not least delegitimized a field that
had professionalized and perfected itself over the course of centuries.
Yet another reason for Shannon Bool to investigate the ornament
straight through art history and popular culture, even making it into a
strategy. There is a profusion of associations in her motifs; stories
are told in curves, tangents, and repetitions—just as the artist sees
Her Wolfman series also belongs to these non-linear processes. It is based on one of Sigmund Freud’s most famous cases, the Russian nobleman Sergei Pankejeff,
whom he treated for depression. The psychoanalyst quickly interpreted
Pankejeff’s childhood dream of a tree in which a dangerous pack of
wolves was sitting as sexual. The famous dream of the Wolfman is also
one of the most important reference points for the development of
Freud’s theories. He always cited it to prove the efficacy of
psychoanalysis, the great modernist achievement. In contrast with
Freud’s claim that he completely healed Pankejeff of his fears, the
nobleman nonetheless remained in treatment for the rest of his life and
declared Freud’s efforts a failure.
Shannon Bool played
upon this dream motif several times. She drew wolves in a walnut tree,
covered them in an ornamental pattern that spread until it covered
everything, as in Wolf-ness from the Deutsche Bank Collection.
“In this collage,” says the artist, “I selected a very banal wallpaper,
because it deletes all other narrative information and makes room for
Elsewhere, this incongruous element
spreads in a corner of the picture and gradually seeps into the
viewer’s awareness, as in the collage Liquid Pizza (2004). “I
was interested in how digital media could alter everyday readings of
space,” says Bool on this work from the Deutsche Bank Collection. “At
this time, the American architect and critic Sanford Kwinter
wrote about the concept of liquid architecture. This theory is also an
extension of what the Italian Futurists were working out decades ago.
The work is based on the kind of wallpaper you would find in a
pizzeria, and then I worked to make a ‘liquefying’ area in the
In the process, old certainties liquefy as well. In
her drawings, collages, rugs, and murals, Shannon Bool, who has just
won a fellowship to the renowned Villa Romana,
creates a highly aesthetic web of signs that draw on marginal,
suppressed, and forgotten information. The obvious joins the
deeper-lying, is accompanied by ironic interventions, and ends in a
stubborn persistence on the idea that knowledge can only be gleaned
from the combination of high and low: pole dancing and minimalism,
wallpaper and transcendence belong together.
visualize such connections. Like an uninvited passenger, the artist
sits in the sidecar of history and fills in the missing details of the
journey. Thus, according to Shannon Bool, the drawing Ryanair
(2004), also from the Deutsche Bank Collection, is “rather untypically
about a current phenomenon—the ability to jetset around Europe for
almost no money!” Or she constructs complex references, as in the case
of the Wax Tablecloth with its abstract pattern, an adaptation
of an early folkloristic motif the artist found in a Frankfurt flea
market. Adding spray paint, she makes a work of art out of the
tablecloth—by sullying a household article and destroying its pattern.
is a paradox in Shannon Bool’s work: along with the historical
subtexts, she also makes the deeper sediments of popular culture
visible and signalizes that art without some part reality is pure
illusion. Just how dense and multi-layered this emancipated version is
can also be seen in the exhibition Inverted Harem. One of the
three poles was made of brass and nickel, which was often used for the
handmade objects of Art Nouveau. The artist chose this material after
she discovered a pole of the same material in a photo of Pamela Anderson’s
living room. A pole as a decoration in a living room in which an erotic
star practices in private—Bool was just as fascinated by this image as
by the fact that poles have already turned up in sports studios as a
fitness device used to strengthen the muscles of the abdomen, legs, and
buttocks. They have left the red-light milieu, have been reinterpreted,
and now present themselves as “clean” instruments for perfecting the
female body. The fact that the metal poles satisfy this longing now
only confirms Bool’s theory of the cycle of things.