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Gabriel Orozco: The Poetry of Everyday Objects and Unwanted Things
An Interview with the Brazilian Street Artists Os Gêmeos
Wallpaper and Transcendence: Shannon Bool - Excursions into Modernism
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Wallpaper and Transcendence
Shannon Bool — Excursions into Modernism

Barnett 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.

Throughout 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.  
Bool’s 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 modernism itself.

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 new interpretations.”

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 wallpaper.”

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.

Bool’s works 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.

There 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.

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