"Cosima von Bonin: Character Appropriation" at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum (2011)


Like failure, fatigue is among the more shadowy of great authorial themes, assuming a sideline position to idées fixes more readily identifiable as writ-bold heroic. In this taught and thoroughly untypical survey of work from the last ten years, the pivotal and persistently elusive Cologne-based artist emerges as a flag-waving proponent of the nuances of exhaustion, even if her flag comes in the form of a limply dangling, over-sized bikini. This may sound misleading; a Spring Break girl-gone-wild von Bonin is not. Rather, this languid two-piece (Untitled (Bikini Loop #01), 2007) hovers over the viewer upon entering the gallery like a fractious political banner, post-rally -- its strings curling at the ends, its mid-section slumped. Glancing across the space, one then encounters a dense labyrinth of outsized objects, positioned to be at once confrontational and covetable: a stuffed lobster slumped on a ersatz-Modernist table base; a massive stuffed cartoon shoe siphoned into what appears to be the top seat of a life-guard’s perch; a pair of bald Dunlop tires behind the bars of a narrow cage; a wall of von Bonin’s signature “textile” paintings positioned on large, gift-box shaped pedestals. For all of its disorienting incongruities of scale, the space is familiar: this place looks like a store, jammed-full with glossy product. And this is where the fatigue sets in: how overwhelmingly over-stocked -- with content, with desire -- the world is, and (huge sigh) to what end.

White Mickey Mouse gloves hover in the stitched plaid ether of von Bonin’s Bubbles (2010), a series of textile paintings, appearing like a serial illustration of the artist-as-magician enacting the slight of hand that renders her work at once compulsively appealing and inscrutable to the point of reticence. Like her body of work as a whole, the series could also serve as an enlarged, soft cartoon of Keats’ notion of negative capability -- that Romantic state of productive irresolution, or “being in uncertainty," that (to Keats) characterized the highest art. Consider her exhibition titles, such as Fatigue Empire, for her comprehensive 2010 survey at the Kunsthaus Bregenz, or Juxtaposition of Nothings from this past Spring at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York; they are conundrums of conflicting impulses, suggesting at once relational unity (empire, juxtaposition) and complete dissolution (fatigue, nothing). While bating with seemingly accessible carrots of reference (Mickey as magician; fabric as clothing, comfort and commodity), the pieces ultimately remain slyly out of reach, resisting reductive and finite translation. As a gesture to this very mutability of meaning, hanging from the ceiling on a piece of white rope in the exhibition’s center is a microphone, poised as if to be taken up by anyone who wishes to narrate the show, or “cover it” like a familiar pop song (here, this exhibition’s title is recalled, which was taken from von Bonin’s textile painting Rock Stars (Character Appropriation), 2003, depicting the American 70s pop duo Hall & Oates). Rather than a shaggy dog tale, call this shaggy dog symbolism: work that overtly references pop cultural, art historical and socio-political sources while at the same moment recoiling from them, like a crustacean retreating to its shell. 

Similar to von Bonin’s current traveling exhibition series, Lazy Susan Series, a Rotating Exhibition, in which new pieces are presented at each venue amidst reshuffled selections of existing work, the Kemper’s survey resists the conventional taxonomic presentation model and institutional mandate to define the surveyed artist. German DJ and musician Moritz von Oswold, a collaborator of von Bonin’s since 2010, contributes ambient electronic “loops” (a term that von Bonin borrows in reference to her own practice of re-use and re-presentation) that accompany nearly every work, making a kind of siren song of consumerism that recalls the ubiquitous soundtrack that permeates any contemporary shopping experience. The artist’s hand, here, is consistently evident: audio equipment appears throughout the exhibition, piled on its own packaging or sitting on cinder blocks and construction-grade step-stools, as though just feverishly purchased then abandoned. This equipment invites a participatory dimension into the work while at the same time reaffirming it’s peculiar hermeticism; you may pick up the head phones to listen to von Oswold’s loops, or, they can be left untouched, for the artwork to revel in alone.

In viewing the exhibit’s largest work -- a life-sized stuffed chick, bloated and vomiting on itself as it straddles a massive, glossy rocket (Missy Misdemeanor #02 (The Beige Vomiting Chick, Miss Riley (Loop #02, 2006) MVO’s Voodoo Beat & MVO’s Rocket Blast Beat), 2011) -- the fatigue hits anew and with fresh resonance. Induced by feelings of over-production, excess stimuli or lack thereof, slumped in stupified stasis invoked by entrancing, repetitive beats, the chick is empathetic, resigned to its dull apathy and inability to really do more than, well, just ride the situation out.

Cosima von Bonin: Character Appropriation was on view at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, May 6 - August 1, 2011. This review was published by Art Papers, July 2011.