Eight Paragraphs for Nina Lola Bachhuber
By Gregory Volk
The first thing one notes about Nina Lola Bachhuber’s sculptures and drawings is how rigorously conceived and rendered they are, how precise, and how acutely focused on formal matters of materials, shape, volume, surface, texture, and color. While Bachhuber juxtaposes multiple and at times jarring materials, like fabric, wigs, cast bones, mirrors, furniture, metal, and styrofoam, she does so with an aura of ultra-control, suggesting that she is not only an heir to Minimalist austerities, but also a young artist uncommonly interested in sculptural expertise altogether. Every step, one senses, and really every decision, from initial conception to finished sculpture, was brooded upon, investigated, tested, and arrived at, in Bachhuber’s alchemical laboratory of the mind, so to speak. Bachhuber is also an adept colorist, with a palette of richly hued monochromes, including dark blues and deep purples, reddish pinks and neon yellows, whites and blacks, which manage to be at once dynamic and contemplative. One can also be certain that Bachhuber’s colors, whether generated by Home Depot house paints or fabrics dyed by the artist (Kool-Aid is one dye she has used), are the exact colors she wants, in terms of their visual power, but also their psychological and emotional equivalencies.
Bachhuber’s cerebral, research-driven, even scientifically-minded approach is also apparent in her drawings, which oftentimes occur in series, and seem like pictorial representations of arcane knowledge and speculative possibilities, What they share with the sculptures is a focus on precise composition, keyed up thought, and constant transformation; a single drawing can conflate strict abstraction with hints of figures, machines, and landscapes, while seeming at once matter of fact and fantastical. Although made by hand, Bachhuber’s drawings have the contemporary look of digital images, while her sculptures, also made by hand, intersect with a contemporary, mass culture world of lifestyle furniture and snappy home décor, as well as with crafts like sewing and crocheting traditionally practiced by women for centuries.
It is also fascinating to note how Bachhuber’s rigorously conceived and meticulously crafted sculptures and drawings easily, and at times alarmingly, cross over into a realm
of eccentricity, mystery, fetishistic obsession, and complex evocation, and this is a big reason why she is such a compelling young artist. Her keen formalism admits a dense array of psychological cultural, and personal concerns, and this includes a nagging sense of sadness, loss, and mortality; a potent (if understated) sexuality; elements of religiosity; magical aspects; and both an emphasis on and questioning of surfaces as limitations and barriers, but also as elastic forces open to myriad influences. In effect, Bachhuber pushes her operative logic so far that her works emerge on the far side of logic, where the mysteries and intensities are.
Consider Wintergötzen (Winter Idols), 2005, a spare, minimalist-inflected sculpture comprising two looming, upright black forms. These structures are made of carved styrofoam, wrapped in sewn calfskin, which Bachhuber dyed a lustrous, inky black. In choosing this particular kind of animal skin, she spent much time and did lots of research in Manhattan’s fur district, ultimately basing her decision on appearance and texture, for instance the calfskin’s velvety and seductive surface, and its many small hairs. This riveting work is a highly ambiguous and combinatory affair, but that’s precisely the kind of territory Bachhuber seeks, when one meaning shades into several more, and when contradictions and tensions abound. Bachhuber’s upright forms signal an interest in geometric abstraction, but they equally allude to sensual (probably female) torsos, animal legs, dreamlike phantasms, and ceremonial or devotional objects. Mortality is present (after all, Bachhuber worked with calfskins, which is a disturbing material) but so too is primal succor—for eons people have wrapped themselves in animal skins during the dark winters. Moreover, this primal work is curiously opulent, it has a frank (if understated) sexual charge, it is willfully freakish, and it involves outright wonderment for the viewer. Strung around both forms near the bottoms are cheesy necklaces made of wooden balls wrapped in aluminum foil; here abject jewelry looks surprisingly bedazzling, especially set against the black calfskin. At once scatological and glamorous, Wintergötzen is a reeling mix of abstraction, the attired and adorned human body, and animal references.
As this exhibition emphasizes, Bachhuber works equally in drawing and sculpture (although her sculptures can also seem exceptionally painterly, given their rich coloration.) Her drawings, thus, are never studies for sculptures, but instead are strong
and independent works on their own. Several of the drawings in this exhibition suggest highly idiosyncratic female figures morphing out of abstractions. While coolly dramatic, these drawings are also fractious and conflicted. Hard-edged geometric forms are entangled with lyrical curves and dance-like gestures. Chunky black structures abut moments of lightness and openness, yielding a contest between things rigid and ethereal. Untitled (sky), 2004, is a systems-based work, for which Bachhuber, using a blue colored pencil and a ruler, drew hundreds of short, diagonal lines on 40 sheets of paper. On each sheet, a mesh of thin lines leads to dense blue clusters, and to one or two empty white circles of varying sizes. The whole work is presented unconventionally, not on the wall, but near the floor, atop a specially designed pedestal. As one looks down, it seems one is looking up, at an abstracted version of a spectacular night sky, replete with pulsating planets, moons, and energy vectors. The more one is absorbed with the whole work, the more its strict geometry gives way to captivating nuances and endless variations, as if it were simultaneously coming together and pulling apart. One looks up close at far off things, down at things which might be very high, and at a sprawling drawing which posits cosmic events and mind-spinning vastness.
Surfaces, including Bachhuber’s mark making and the actual surfaces of the paper, are essential in this work, and indeed are essential throughout her work altogether, often involving a mix of revelation and concealment. Painted sculptures, and sculptures enclosed by fabrics or skins, concentrate attention on eventful surfaces, while making one aware of a hidden inner life, including actual materials as well as layers of possible meaning. Nocturne, 2005, is a cluster of eight totem pole-like objects. Each features a metal rod and foam, covered with segments of purple, black, and white fabric. Intermittent black wigs, conjuring female figures, are both apt and weird. Elliptical metal bases for each structure feature a single silver ball, and the balls seem distinctly precarious. Although these objects look similar at first glance, they are all unique, and myriad associations abound. One is reminded of human figures, a nocturnal forest, perhaps a pagan ceremony from thousands of years ago in Europe. Bachhuber’s mysterious assemblages and her vivid, yet subdued, colors evoke consciousness at the cusp between rationality and dreaminess—a condition when whimsy and harrowing fears, playful exuberance and startling frailty, are completely fused.
La femme, la tête, et son aménagement (The woman, the head, and its management), 2005, is the one work here that most resembles furniture, specifically kitchen cabinets. A plywood construction, set on wheels, could plausibly a modular kitchen unit from Ikea, except for the fact that it is completely dysfunctional, and also completely eccentric. Colors, notably several purples and magentas, are jarring and bold. Instead of a sink with water, there is a sink-like form with a mirror; here contemplation and self-scrutiny happens, not familiar chores. Dyed rabbit skins draped over corners and a couple of leaning, cast femur bones pull things in the direction of vanitas still lifes, which concern the brevity and transience of human life. In compartments where dishes might be stacked, colorful dyed yarn (here’s where Bachhuber’s Kool-Aid factors in) spills out and resembles exposed viscera. This whole “kitchen unit” seems invested with raw emotions, careening thoughts, and corporeal indications. It is no longer a place to do work, but instead a complex expression of the woman who otherwise does the work.
From a sizable sculpture like that, one moves to the enigmatic Tagesscheu, 2005, in which three elongated, irregular forms made of poly foam (based, incidentally, on loaves of Portuguese bread) dangle from the ceiling while enclosed in yellow crocheted yarn. Here the bright yellow crochet wants to act like an illuminating lantern or beacon but can’t quite pull it off. It’s not electric, and it doesn’t have the necessary power. This spare, aerial work is a marvelous combination of obdurate burdens and faltering tries for transcendence. Tagesscheu, by the way, is an invented German word that can’t be really be translated. Approximate translations could be “daily shyness,” or “fear of the day,” or “the day which is itself fearful.” It’s that shyness or fear that the work wants to surmount, but can’t, and so it inhabits its peculiar position between pure light and lumpy fabric, ungainliness and grace. Spanning sculptures and drawings, Nina Lola Bachhuber’s is formally and visually engaging, and also chock full of deeply human inquiries.
This text has been published on the occasion of the solo show ”Yesterday I ate a lizard”
at Space Other in 2006
Gregory Volk is a NYC based writer, critic, curator, and a Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.