Gentle Touch: On Zuzanna Czebatul’s A Gentleman’s Insult / A Gentleman’s Apology at Gillmeier Rech
Review by Kate Brown
The Gentleman is a fluid form. His rules and standards are bound to culture and time and, most obviously, to a decisive separation of gender. The Gentleman–his connotative travels are not unlike the figure of an obelisk; and it was he who built them and then took them. Throughout history, these towering sculptures were repeatedly stolen, relocated, and then given a second birth under new hegemonies; Ancient obelisks were stolen by Romans from Egypt, and then again, conquered by Christians in Rome. London acquired its own more recently, and then Paris, and so on goes their story. Today, these stoney rays of sunshine have lost all of their initial meanings as they tower above Upper West Side joggers and tourists in Central Park, though in the case of Cleopatra’s Needle there, they have kept their name and formality. And the Gentleman? These days, he is of a certain nostlagia or is described point-by-point within Glenn O’Brien’s best-selling “rules” on How to Be a Man: A Guide To Style and Behavior For The Modern Gentleman (1) – the Gentleman keeps his name but shifts the formal qualities that define him.
With relief these symbols and identity are in continuous drift, and taking these on as a female artist no longer carries quite the same shock or weight of rebellious spirit. As Zuzanna Czebatul includes “Gentleman” in the name of her solo exhibition at Gillmeier Rech, A Gentleman’s Insult / A Gentleman’s Apology, she is not asking for us to question her claim to the title. We are moving past the binary, finally. In her large-scale installation, Pivotal Blast, a soft, six-meter sculpture posing as a phallic obelisk (so large, one wonders how it made it through the small door of the female-run gallery), we don’t have to consider her gesture within the binds of gender. As Zuzanna’s “cracked”, fabric sculpture lies with surrender, it bears a ‘masculine’ strength of previous times, and its total essence is decidedly changed. The spirit of the work is ambiguous in its optimism, broken up against the unsettling hue of the acidic yellow floor.
Czebatul’s visual language is charged, yes, and no doubt about power structures. But the power play here is between the material and its subjectivity, between the work, the space, and then viewer attention. With her Neuro Study series of wall works, resin-poured frames are disproportionately larger than the photographs they hold, and their intricacy and careful execution dominate the gentle black and white close ups of the private and personal human figures at their centre. The allusive strength of Pivotal Blast belies the plush material with which it is made: second hand mattresses give the sculpture form within its wool fleece outer layer. The scale of the work and its apparent sacrificial destruction that occurred for it to ‘fit’ within the confines of the gallery, bring the contours of the room into focus, a white cube’s break from its usual disappearing act.
An exhibition that expresses itself so considerately with space and tensions of scale is also then about touch and the senses. The subjects in the images stretch and hold themselves, and the supple image of skin evokes memories of our own. The chaotic condition of Pivotal Blast contains much less for us compared to the cozy quality of its domestic material – it reduces the commanding monument down to the level of feeling against one’s fingertips. Our sensuality was satisfied as we were invited to touch the work. On the back section of the work, the base of the sculpture was tagged with neon spray paint, a modern twist on a hieroglyph, and perhaps the artist’s cheeky substitute for a signature. Historically covered with hieroglyphs, an obelisk extends down from a pointed top near the clouds, a place of the gods, is carved on its side with hieroglyphs, messages from above, down still to a base within the reach of a hand. Pivotal Blast is art historical hegemony conquered, conquered by soft touch and vandalism, a private language scribble on a public structure. Sculptural expression, in this case being the space as a whole, comes together here. Modernist sculptor Barbara Hepsworth once stated of, ”two main sculptural identities–one which comes with the embrace of our hands and arms, and the other which stands free and unrelated to our sense of touch”. (2) Czebatul seems to have brought these qualities into unison, whether from actual touch or through the memesis of documentary image, and she brings both to the forefront with a juxtapositioning of scales. But as Hepsworth continues to point out, scale is a quality that is ultimately connected to our ”whole life – perhaps it is even our whole intuitive capacity to feel life”. (2) And perhaps the success of this in Czebatul’s work is, among other things, the feeling of something that is underlyingly feminine.
(2) Hepworth, B. ‘Sculpture’, in Martin, Nicholson, Gabo, 1937
Courtesy Gillmeier Rech, Berlin