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Review of Lutz Bacher: Black Beauty at the ICA, London

Lutz Bacher’s first major solo show in the UK is a well-crafted introduction to an artist whose concerns for identity, sexuality and the body are often concealed by a playful exterior.

It is difficult to resist the temptation to affect a gallop as you walk through several tons of coal slag in the entirely humorous opening gambit of this exhibition, but closer inspection reveals a serious core.

The exhibition’s title, Black Beauty, inevitably brings to mind a host of associations and by taking cues from popular culture in this way, Bacher’s work invites the viewer to look at the construction of the self within society through the lens of shared experience. In this work, memory and thought are approached through the body’s engagement with the external world.

The coal slag installation in the Lower Gallery, Black Beauty (2012), calls to mind a carefully manicured paddock or an ashen beach; although it is visually bleak, with its deep black colour and undulating expanse, it is in the squelching, slipping sensation under foot that its emotional force comes through. Similarly, Black Magic (2013), a new sitespecific installation of black Astroturf hung floor to ceiling along the entire length of the gallery wall, has that dual quality of a certain spectacle to see but an even more enchanting thing to actually feel. In both of these works, it seems as if the message is in the way the body interacts with them, and that message is not prescribed in advance by the artist but is a matter of a very personal reflection by the audience.

The rest of the show reads like a series of very clever jokes, where you never know whether the joke is funny or whether you are simply its unwitting punchline. Horse Painting (2010), an entirely unremarkable picture, might be there to remind one of Stubbs, but without the kitsch or the skill. Is this a loving depiction of a horse known to the artist, or is it a trigger for another series of memories? It is difficult to tell. Another phenomenal delight comes from Horse Shadow (2010-12), where a plywood horse with a cartoon face rotates, casting its shadow into the corners of the room, having the mystifying effect of simultaneously drawing your attention and almost sending you to a gentle slumber.

This exhibition demonstrates Bbacher’s talent for ambiguity: you never quite know what anything means, but you can project meaning on to it; you never know how you’re supposed to feel, but you can’t avoid feeling something. And you never quite get to know Bacher, only her horses and the memories they stir in you. This uncertainty and its paradoxical pleasure, one feels, is the real point of the show, which is about how our differing identities can be reconciled in the universal experience of bodily sensation.

Daniel Barnes

Lutz Bacher: Black Beauty, 25 September until 17 November, ICA, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH. www.ica.org.uk

Credits:

1. Lutz Bacher, The White Horse, 1981. Image courtesy of the artist and Galerie Buchholz and Greene Naftali Gallery
2. Lutz Bacher. Image courtesy of the artist and Galerie Buchholz and Greene Naftali Gallery

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