Lara Schnitger's well-installed third solo exhibition pulled together formal investigations that she has undertaken separately in previous works, but suggested that the two-dimensional format may work best as a sketchbook for her often impressively understated sculpture. Large fabric collages on the walls flanked viewers as they walked among a strange cast of loosely figurative structures spread throughout the vast gallery. An air of Dr-Who-Meets-the-Quilting-Bee pervaded this low-tech work, which combines an exploration of the class and sexual undertones of decoration and fashion with more classically Modernist sculptural aspirations.
Like an oddball couturier, this Los Angeles-based Dutch artist juxtaposes ginghams and floral fabrics with flannel illustrated with pin-up bimbos fishing and hunting; traces of more ethnic designs flirt with camouflage and stuffy Burberry. Periodically Schnitger combines men's neckties with full, vaguely feminine shapes or, in the case of Pedo Pops (2002), cuts a masculine bandanna into a triangular shape and suggestively sews it between two stick legs. These jokey provocations don't work as well on the wall, where they are forced to carry too much pictorial weight, and the sex in the pictures, both overt and implied, overstates what she elsewhere refers to only indirectly.
A few years ago Schnitger made a striking group of video- and photo-based works that now appears central to her practice. She treated her face as sculptural form, torquing its features into bizarre, violent shapes. In certain pieces she collaged photographs together, creating a single, monstrous face manipulated by multiple hands pulling it in different directions. Any facial expressions that the spectator found were thus imposed purely externally. In 1872 Charles Darwin published a now nearly forgotten book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which argued, in part, that we can work backwards, inferring specific emotions from external expression. In these earlier works Schnitger seems interested in contradicting this notion, interfering with the expressive surface of her own face to caricature a grotesque interior - an exercise that proves most disturbing because, like Darwin, we want to recognize fear in her pulled-wide eyes.
Schnitger has since insisted that her art works from the inside out, but this short-changes the ambivalent play she sets up in this show between surface and structure, as well as downplaying her very interesting earlier pieces. Her sculpture here is best understood as an extension of the aesthetic interests set out in those videos and photographs, but also tangentially related to the thrifty, skeletal constructions she has been making along with her collage work. During a residency in Japan the artist again turned to photo collage, this time attempting to create a tension between lascivious cultural imagery and teen girl fashion, two modes of objectification that clash less jarringly than one might think. But Schnitger also came home with Hornament (1999), an ephemeral and kaleidoscopic installation made with tights and chopsticks, as well as some inspired sculptures consisting of cut plaid stretched and tacked over an angular wooden framework. In these, as in all of her fabric constructions, the surface material strains against its internal structure or against an array of tethering strings that pulls from without.
The plaid-clad Pajama Monster (2000) and Prankster (2000) - the latter nestled in the back room - look ready to implode. Patterns are repeatedly excised before they are stretched over their structures, exposing the armatures beneath and the space within, making everything feel precarious. It is two small but similarly airy works, however, that pack the most punch in this show. Almita and Alma (both 2002) hover between growth and containment. Imagine one of those blankets made of small mandalas of wool that are stitched together into a patchwork of little targets. Schnitger blows it apart, pulling the circles of knitted wool across asterisks of dowels with string, creating constellations that seem to be expanding and contracting at the same time. They combine craft, decoration and domesticity with a pulsing energy and levity, the surfaces and structures animating and determining each other. In this deceptively brief moment most of what Schnitger seems to be pursuing is caught and held up to us.
First published in Issue 70