Birgit Jürgenssen

Yuki Higashino

Yuki Higashino

Birgit Jürgenssen. Galerie Hubert Winter

In. Frieze, Issue 9, April - May 2013.

Four pieces of thin iron bars are welded together to form a neat rectangle (ph937). Matte-coated, the piece has an elegant yet robustly indus­trial look. One can see some rust and damage on its surface, results of the decades it has spent in storage. Rather than a for­gotten minima­list sculpture, this is one of the purpose-built frames from late Austrian artist Birgit Jürgenssen’s photographic series Stoff­arbeiten (Cloth Works) produced between the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The series consists of photographic prints mounted on stret­ched canvases, which are screwed directly to the iron frames built by the artist herself. In place of framing glass, she used thin, translucent fabrics such as gauze or voile (hence the series’ title), veiling the images and giving them a hazy sheen. The photographs them­selves form some­t­hing of a dictionary of experimental photographic processes, including photograms and cyanotypes; solarized and multiply-exposed images. Nineteen suites of one to fifteen pictures from this series are presented in this exhibition.

The sculptural presence of these photographs is striking. The juxtapo­sition of hard welded iron and delicate textile reinforces the tactility of these works, and a fact that is so obvious but often overlooked in theories of photography: that every picture is an object and every surface has its mate­rial support. By employing such an idiosyncratic framing device, Jürgenssen managed to address resolve the ways in which mate­rial conditions influence the recep­tion of an image.

The images comprise a complex amalgam of forma­list abstraction and Surrea­list ico­nography: pictures of flowers, antique statues and female figures are complimented by abstract photographs manipu­lated in the dark room. Jürgenssen’s interest in Modernist formalism is particularly cons­picuous in Un­ti­tled (ph940) (1990), a diptych showing close-ups of a crumpled textile. Framed by another kind of textile, these images of fabric are clearly a commen­tary on the Modernist preoccupation with self-referentiality. Three Jumping Men (ph939) (1988) is a triptych consisting of a colour photograph of a clas­sical sculpture of a male torso, a semi-abstract, double-exposed image showing a cryptic diagram and men exercising, and another colour photograph of a stone floor with a black-cross pattern. This concise suite seems to be a humorous reference to Russian Constructivism and Kazimir Malevich in particular.

These works demons­trate Jürgenssen’s deep under­standing of the forma­list and Constructivist traditions as well as her mastery of Surrea­list visual language. Indeed, much of the works presented here seem to share a close affi­nity to the early Bauhaus period when the Expressionist/Surrea­list and forma­list/Constructivist camps were battling for stylistic and ideo­logical supre­macy. However, this reading does not fit comfor­tably with the conventional under­standing of Jürgenssen’s works which situate her practice squarely within the Femi­nist interpretation of Surrealism and explo­ration of ‘woman­ness’. To comp­licate the matter further, the presence of appropri­ated images reveals an awareness of contem­porary debates on representation and originality – concerns most commonly associated with the Pictures Gene­ration.

The fact that most of the works in this exhibition were previously unshown to the public, and that they are only part of a larger series, gives some indication to the immen­sity and complexity of Jürgenssen’s oeuvre – one shock­ingly neglected during her lifetime. Furthermore, these works expose the inadequacy of the existing debate on her work which disproportio­nately focuses on representations of femi­ninity in her practice. What this series shows is Jürgenssen’s forma­list concern for mate­rial and process, her compe­tence in sculptural production and an under­standing of contem­porary artistic discourse beyond her immediate circle in Austria.