We stand in front of a wall and look: a surface of clay, unevenly applied, yields only itself, and its cracks and textures. Beneath the crumbling, fragile surface we catch glimpses of another surface beneath, and traces of colour. We imagine the action of the artist (Julia Pfeiffer) as she (perhaps) slaps, clumps or smoothes her material – the discarded remnants of works realised or failed. These crushed and desiccated remains were shipped from her Berlin studio to London in buckets, and then moistened and re-imagined. This idiosyncratic gesture, and the meaning of her action remains opaque, and we are made aware of the discomforting sensations of not knowing, of not being able to determine or explain. Titled ‘Building the Labyrinth’, the wall is anything but a physical, metaphorical space of openings and closings, passages or dead-ends. As a symbolic or imaginary field it yields nothing but its surfaces: fragile and impermanent. Monochromatic photographic works stage (in the artist’s studio) spaces that render ambiguous the relations between objects and the spatial fields they inhabit. We recognise the perspectives of actual space as we observe the staging of imagined space; and also objects both real and drawn. Vessels, discarded things and fragments refer to useless or usable objects: failure appears to be threaded through Pfeiffer’s relationship to the making of images and objects. Walls as surfaces again reappear: we are told that Pfeiffer paints backdrops (in colour) on fabric or thick paper. And that her photographic practice explores a technique of long shutter speed, recording motion, as she moves through the frame allowing for shifts in light sources and objects. Clay, its materiality and its possibilities, appear in other works – across a wall a series of objects that invoke observation and reflection. We notice the materiality and transformative substance of clay as it is moulded, cast and enlivened through processes of glazing and firing. Elsewhere curious, otherworldly objects invoke the artist’s world: everyday observation, the imaginary constituents of inner worlds, and a subtle, irreverent humour. Marked out on a shield bearing the arms of an imagined German canton, we note the irreverent play on visual symbols: including red lips and Emoji symbols. The figure of a dog appears mythological, and elsewhere on an easel the ceramic figure of a woman, her breasts heavy and bared. We are told she is a reference to a figure on a mug (we imagine its kitsch, bawdy humour, transformed here by Pfeiffer to a figure on an easel). The relationship between women artists and clay – as medium and material substance – is related (in part) to art practices developed by feminist-informed artists countering the master narratives that separate out, and categorise the terms and conditions of what can or cannot be art. We think of Rosemarie Trockel (currently on show at the Serpentine gallery) and her exploration of clay and glaze rendering porous the relationships between nature, art, craft and design. Of course, now materials such as clay (previously excluded by the canon) are now simply part of what is the multiplicity of contemporary practice. Pfeiffer (b.1975) is a younger generation, and it will be interesting to see how her work, and her relationship to her medium (its limits and possibilities) develops.
Review by Yvette Greslé
Julia Pfeiffer Figures of the Thinkable at Maria Stenfors
Through to 6th April 2013 .