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Earthworks

Christel Dillbohner at Stewart Gallery

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In his classic study entitled Landscape and Memory, British cultural historian Simon Schama talked about the indivisibility of nature and human perception, that "before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind," constructed as much from "strata of memory as from layers of rock." This insight lies at the heart of German-born artist Christel Dillbohner's work. Through a variety of mediums and art forms, Dillbohner evokes a landscape of the mind made visible to the viewer. Her paintings, sculptures and installations constitute a tour of physical places and mental spaces, metaphors for our experience of planet Earth.

Dillbohner is an enthusiastic world traveler and student of cultural practices, having a keen interest in anthropology. She is also an inveterate collector of artifacts, relics and all sorts of "cultural debris" with which she fills her studio and, ultimately, her art, whether it be assemblages of compartmentalized, wax-encrusted wooden boxes holding vaguely recognizable objects and materials, or her larger installations.

A native of Cologne, Germany, where she received her MFA in 1984 before moving to California in 1987, Dillbohner is in many respects a product of the art milieu of 1970s and '80s West Germany. In the statement accompanying her present show at Stewart Gallery, Dillbohner states that, for her, art is a means of "visual research and dissemination...transforming ideas and materials into visual catalysts," and the sociological and ideological implications of this philosophy, along with its emphasis on process, pegs Dillbohner as a disciple of that icon of postwar German art, Joseph Beuys. Beuys' sculptural, installation and performative art was informed by his taste for radical politics, dialectics and Germanic mysticism, and he influenced many European artists of Dillbohner's generation. Although her own brand of political activism is less overt in her artwork than it was in Beuys', she was inspired by his use of those found and unorthodox materials like wax, felt, animal and mineral substances having properties lending themselves to alchemical transformations of the mundane into the exceptional.

Dillbohner's way of fusing the intellectual and the material into warm "contemplative environments" that resonate with the viewer also demonstrates a debt to conceptual artist Wolfgang Laib, and she cites Rebecca Horn, a German artist known for kinetic installations and environments, as an influence as well. But what sets her apart from these artists is her background in painting, and the influence of the other towering figure of contemporary German art, painter Gerhard Richter, a fact underscored by this show.

The timing of Dillbohner's show at Stewart Gallery is perfect as the earthiness of her art echoes many aspects of the autumnal experience. Her exhibit centers on an installation entitled Histologies, which incorporates sculpture and work on paper. Histology is a branch of biology dealing with the microscopic structure of organic tissue, and her works in the main gallery do suggest the building blocks of living form.

Its centerpiece is entitled Green Pool, a sprawling, two-part vegetal work constructed from 365 cone-shaped paper paint strainers, hanging just off the floor, suspended from the ceiling with transparent monofilament. The resulting hovering energy is enhanced by its lightweight susceptibility to air currents, emulating lily pads floating on water that rise and fall to surface disturbances. Crowded together with their circular rims overlapping and hung at varying heights, the cones (which are colored with pigment and coated in wax) are also an abstract mosaic of greens, yellows and browns, creating a dialogue between its two- and three-dimensional aspects. Light reflecting on the monofilament evokes a steady, silent rain.

The cone shape has been a constant in Dillbohner's art for a number of years. It is a metaphor for the human body's social and biological interactions, symbolizing the processing of experiences which are collected and distilled down to memory. But this installation is a departure for her. Whereas in the past, the cones have been presented as individual, enclosed forms, here the work is spread out with a multiplicity of forms, and installing it was like creating a three-dimensional painting--working with expressionistic colors, playing with tonalities and the placement of the elements. Dillbohner is at heart an intuitive artist, and she found the process a focused, meditative one in which shapes, directions and other compositional considerations suggested themselves along the way.

Interacting with the sculptural piece are two 48-inch square wall works which reference the installation below. These handsome all-over abstract paintings in oil and wax on mulberry paper offer two-dimensional perspectives on the cone shapes, one presenting a side view while the other looks down on the circular tops. Materially, they are intriguing as well. Mulberry paper is fibrous, translucent and tough. The multiple layers of wax, oil paint and oil glaze give these works a skin-like archival look much like vellum.

Dillbohner's oil and wax paintings on wood in the show testify to the streak of German romanticism one finds in her art. Thickly layered with an underpainting of oil and dry pigment which is covered in wax, then painted in oils again, these theatrical, melancholy pieces are reminiscent of the Sturm und Drang works in literature and painting in late 18th-early 19th century Germany. Her dark and turbulent five-panel Far North Series are like ghostly, antique daguerreotypes of the storm swept seas and desolate Baltic coastlines we've seen in Caspar David Friedrich's canvases. Kleine Eiszeit (Small Ice Age) is a triad of wood panels that begins as a sort of Dutch landscape with a low horizon line and immense overcast sky, then evolves into an abstract frozen sea that gives us a chill just standing before it.

There are a few disappointments here, too, such as the wood panels where Dillbohner seems content just recreating antiquated surfaces, as we so often see in encaustic today, rather than something more profound. The four unframed "painted sedimentations" of oil and wax layers on paper whose circular patterns suggest a crater-pocked extraterrestrial landscape, but their muddied colors and vinyl-like surfaces don't have much life. Nevertheless, one senses one is in the presence of a unique and restless talent.

Also on view at Stewart Gallery are the figurative paintings of Marianne Kolb. A self-taught artist who works in watercolor on canvas and wood panel, Kolb's mute, shadowy subjects sometimes suggest a crushing loneliness. Kolb doesn't really draw in the tradition sense, but rather manipulates form into being with her hands and various implements. In her prior work, the head and shoulders of her figures filled the canvas. Now there is more of a distance between us and the subject (now in full view) as if the artist was stepping back a bit from the edge of angst. Kolb's colors have also lightened and brightened. Her best pieces are mid-sized ones like Quietly There and Where Do You Start?, in which the artist has left the face without features altogether, giving the works a more abstract, spectral presence.