28 March - 21 June 1998
work in collection
Over the past twenty years Thomas Schütte has worked with techniques and ideas from a variety of disciplines, including architecture and theatre, figurative modelling and life-drawing, in a restless investigation into the condition of art and its relationship with the contemporary world. One of a highly talented group of artists to have emerged from the Düsseldorf Academy at the beginning of the 1980s (Reinhard Mucha, Harald Klingelhöller, Thomas Struth and Katherina Fritsch were amongst his contemporaries), Schütte's work is remarkable both for its range of forms and for its constant inventiveness. He has made utilitarian models and monumental statuary, ceramic sculptures and dramatic installations to create an artistic topography of unusual breadth. Schütte's work negotiates the relationship between everyday experience and artistic tradition and reconsiders the dilemma of the artist as a private person with a sometimes very public role.
The exhibition at De Pont revolves around two of his recurrent concerns - the human figure and the architectural model. Schütte is one of a small number of contemporary artists who have succeeded in taking on the traditions of figurative sculpture and breathing new life into them. His use of the figure was initially tentative. During the 1980s, he often used crowds of wooden cut-outs, or toy figures presented within the context of maquettes or models. The figures were usually ciphers, or schematised representations, sometimes presented in the form of a `mise-en-scène' or three-dimensional tableau (Mohr's Life, 1988, for example). More recently the figures have been given greater independence as individual sculptural forms.
Whilst more grandiose kinds of figurative art fought for attention in the 1980s, Schütte's interest in the figure appeared secondary. Over the past five or six years, however, he has become increasingly preoccupied with the expressive possibilities of physionomy. Using a range of scales from the monumental to the miniature, and drawing on traditions of caricature and the grotesque, Schütte has produced an unusual kind of deformed figuration. His materials range from highly polished aluminum to clay, his formats from monumental to puppet-sized ceramic heads, his strategies from the knowing to the seemingly naïve. In the current exhibition, several monumental aluminum figures (Große Geister, 1996-1998) have been included, as well as smaller groups contained under glass bell jars (United Enemies, 1993-1994), and related sequences of photographs (Innocenti, 1994). Like the eighteenth-century writings of Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels) or recent science fiction films, Schütte's emasculated monuments and distorted physionomic portraits can be both playful and savage. Although they may be motivated by a current political situation, his figurative forms don't proclaim any particular political message. They posture and gesture, suggesting positions both of power and of impotence.
Schütte has also consistently used quite rudimentary wooden architectural models as a way of making a series of propositions and speculations, places of working and living, situated somewhere between the utopian and the everyday: studios and basements, living quarters and headquarters, places to devise strategies, to make work or to disappear. Like the small mise-en-scène of Mohr's Life (1988), many of the models relate to the concerns and pre-occupations of the artist. A sequence of these models dating from Studio I and II (1983) to the most recent For the Birds (1997), prosaic in construction yet alsmost metaphysical in terms of presence, form an important counterpoint to the figurative works in the exhibition.
Recently the model has preoccupied Schütte in another sense - as a subject for life drawing. Drawing has always played a central role in his artistic activity, often as a daily series of notations, ideas and commentaries, speculations and responses to his surroundings. In the past two or three years he has concentrated on a less diverse range of subjects. He has made extended series of watercolors of flowers and drawn the same life-model countless times (Luise, 1996). For Schütte, crude and apparently spontaneous ways of making sketches and sculptures are as legitimate as more crafted and sophisticated methods of modelling and drawing. Technique is always a starting point but it is never an end in itself. There is no hierarchy between the different modes of making in Schütte's world.
The territory across which Schütte travels is at the same time familiar and new. His work oscillates between two extremes of an artistic condition present since at least the beginning of the nineteenth century - the desire to be public, and the wish to remain private. In Schütte's world, the romantic, the sceptic and the pragmatic constantly rub up against one another. Reflexive and restless, generous and jaundiced, Schütte reveals a contemporary artistic predicament whilst excavating some of the less comfortable aspects of the human condition.