By John Silvis
Religion Unplugged, October 8, 2021
Andrea Büttner: Grids, Vases, and Plant Beds. On view at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles (July 17-August 28, 2021).
(REVIEW) The straightforward title of Andrea Büttner’s recent show at David Kordansky’s gallery — “Grids, Vases, and Plant Beds” — provides a generous insight into the artist's approach and clues us in to the way she invites us to engage with her work. Büttner is not interested in the quick read or the easy answer; her stance in the art world is resolutely one against art consumerism.
Following the course of her previous installations, she presents us with a plethora of objects that elegantly fit together to construct a principled whole: wall paintings and panels, paintings behind glass, large photographs, a hand-built table with glass objects and a collection of fresh flowers.
Fashioned like a minimalist treasure hunt, the exhibition immerses the viewer, its glass vases and verso glass paintings functioning as beautiful clues along the way. True to the cultural dichotomies she addresses, we also discover disturbing markers throughout that compel us to search for a way to escape.
And yet, entering the main gallery is a religious experience of sorts — the sequences of tableaux that punctuate all four sides of the space serve as stations for reflection. There is an eerie absence of the artist’s hand, a removal that is typical of Büttner’s larger oeuvre. In contrast to some of her contemporary German counterparts, her persona is almost completely absent from the room.
The artist's role functions as more of a conduit, an oracular guide to an intellectual journey that smartly dodges the burden of authoritarian meanings. This sacral approach is also evident in the 14 reverse glass paintings that are presented in a grid of two rows. Painted in mostly primary colors, they simultaneously pay tribute to the modernist color theories of Joseph Albers and the history of religious-themed stained glass windows.
This removed approach is continued in the sculpted and painted glass vessels, which are shown on hand-built tables in the center of the room reminiscent of communion tables. The glass objects with globular outgrowths are transparent, while some of the opaque vases appear to be mysteriously painted from within the surface of the glass.
However, lifting our eyes from this magical table of hand-blown glass vases, the viewer encounters the uncomfortable reality Büttner confronts in the exhibition. Surrounding the perimeter of the gallery is a black-painted grid layout that traces the plant beds of the former Dachau concentration camp plantation.
Across from the tables, she has mounted three color photographs that depict the current state of the plant beds that were maintained by the prisoners on the grounds of the camp. The planters are now overgrown and disappear into the ground, leaving us with a lingering dread of the prisoners’ forced labor and the inextricable link between biodynamic experiments and ethnic cleansing that were carried out on these lands.
This thought is fleshed out in her gripping 30-minute video from 2019, “Karmel Dachau,” which challenges us to wrestle more deeply with the horrors of such a narrative. “Karmel Dachau” is the latest documentary in a series of videos Büttner has made since 2007 about the lives of nuns whose midcentury convent occupies a piece of land across from the Dachau concentration camp memorial.
One sister recounts the story of her uncle, who she later discovered was responsible for transporting prisoners to the camp. The video hauntingly interweaves their personal histories, their life of religious devotion and the onerous reality and complicity of living in the shadowed reality of the Holocaust.
Leaving the viewing room, we are catapulted back into the here-and-now to question our own dilemmas and place in the world. How, if at all, has the world changed? Has history taught us any valuable lessons? Witnessing the widespread suffering in Afghanistan and the brewing humanitarian crises all over the world certainly challenge our notion of human progress.
In the press release, Büttner referenced Rosalind Krauss’ seminal text, “Grids,” which proposed there are inherent flaws in modernist grids that are used to mask underlying shame and suffering:
“Now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence. The peculiar power of the grid ... arises from its power to preside over this shame: to mask and to reveal it at the same time.”
Büttner asks difficult questions about devotion, betrayal and how we comprehend the tension between the sacred and the profane. These paramount inquiries stand in stark contrast to the lighthearted entertainment produced by the large Hollywood studios just a few blocks away from the David Kordansky gallery.
Büttner was clearly moved by the selflessness of the Carmelite nuns and their daily routines of devotion to God. Can their example lead us to see more clearly and, potentially, with greater empathy? Their path is a way forward that seeks to balance judgement with generosity and embody a Christological vision of the world that is saturated with compassion for the other, however flawed we might be.
Büttner leaves us with a restorative vision of the future by positioning five oversized buckets filled with fresh flowers on one end of the two tables, their vibrant colors encouraging us to earnestly consider the meaning of faith, hope and love.
John Silvis is an art advisor and writer based in New York City and Berlin. Silvis writes for Artsy, CNN and PARNASS and curates exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Vienna, Berlin and Singapore. He advises international private art collections, including the chairwoman of The Media Project, the parent nonprofit of ReligionUnplugged.com.