Written by Donald Locke, art critic;
Published in Creative Loafing (August 1999)
The Lowe Gallery in Buckhead celebrates its 10th anniversary with a large exhibition by German sculptor Gabriele Schnitzenbaumer. Her name is not well-known in the United States, but this well-balanced presentation of sculptures seems a fitting event to mark the occasion.
Schnitzenbaumer's works, mainly terra cotta but with additions of wood and steel, vary in size from 10 inches to roughly 100 inches in height. The subjects can be described either as large "primitive" fetishes - stylized female figures that stand tall and skinny but ceremonially female in the face of the viewer - or as ritual masks or reliefs that hang a distance from the supporting wall. The best way the viewer can understand the design strategy behind their manufacture is to think of the artist rummaging through the ethnological museums of Europe, making a mental catalogue of the various body parts carved by artists from different parts of the world. Back in her own studio she selects items from a pool of shapes, makes a few changes here and there and reassembles the new components into a new configuration. It can be called an invented ethnography, a legitimate 20th-century genre.
The artist, of course, gives a different account of the genesis of her work. In her youth in Augsburg, Germany, during World War II, she and her family had to scrabble for a living in the midst of constant bombing and destruction. Frequently she was made to crawl into the dust-filled carnage of demolished houses, looking for survivors or anything that could be salvaged and sold. These images and sensations have never disappeared, breeding in her a strong affinity for things crumbling but spiritually stable. The survival of the essential, primordial human in the midst of almost total devastation was a thing that had no nationality, only a universal human face, be it African, Asian or Mediterranean.
That is why we can practically name the individual marble sculptures from the Cycladic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea or the wooden carvings from West Africa from which her motives are taken. This is not robbery Picasso-style, but the attraction of kindred spirits. It is the presence of this "inner secret" that makes these sculptures different from hundreds of similar experiments done in so many ceramic-sculpture studios in colleges and workshops all over the world.
There is also one other important distinction between the sculptures by Schnitzenbaumer and others with a similar approach. She was not 'trained,' and she therefore does not have the inhibitions that many other ceramic artists suffer from. She adds wood and steel with great ease, coloring all the components to look like unfired clay or any bland no-name material. The reason is this: she is not making statements about ceramics or about clay as a material, as potters love to do, but about the poetic quality of ancient forms.
The piece "The One With the Slit," about 9 feet tall, is a metaphoric commentary on matriarchy as a kind of secular religion, if such a thing were possible, and is as finely and as meticulously crafted as are the smaller masks that hang in a row in one of the corridors at the rear of the gallery. It is a ritual or ceremonial tool of some kind but is cleverly put together so that the viewer is constantly off balance trying and failing to pin down its specific function. These so-called 'useless' objects were very plentiful about two decades ago, but today only the most genuinely committed makers of 'primitive' poetry have survived.
Matthias Ostermann on Gabriele Schnitzenbaumer
by Matthias Ostermann
The depiction of
the human figure has always been a constant preoccupation of most
artists throughout all of recorded time. It is the most immediate
representation of not only our perceived sense of physical self, but
also of all those qualities our strengths, frailties and unresolved
issues that are central to our identity and sense of being.
Gabriele Schnitzenbaumer's work is no exception to this rule. The
human figure and what it potentially represents is the thematic
focus of this most recent body of work. One thing strikes the viewer
immediately. This is the strong sense of stylization and a formal
containment of both body language and facial characteristics, very
reminiscent of ancient Cycladic figurative work and African tribal
sculpture. We are not being offered the easy identification of a
figure or a character moving through a recognizable narrative of
drama. These figures are totemic in aspect and the narratives are
indirect and internal. The stories they contain are in fact
archetypal ones and require an effort of self-recognition and
serious introspection of the part of the viewer. Some of these works
are confrontational and they do not always let us off lightly.
Scnitzenbaumer's eclectic use of materials from molded clay to
acrylic paints and incorporated found object and tools reinforced
the confrontational (and occasionally humorous) aspect of these
figures. Although they remain firmly rooted to the ground, immobile
but never static, there is always an uneasy sense that their at
times moveable arms might enclose us in a sharp and uncomfortable
embrace. Worse yet, they might ask us to examine our own arms and
hands and the use we habitually make of them.
For example "The Warrior" displays two scythe-like curved arms which
reach out in a menacing gesture, amplified by the immobility of his
torso. A blood-red line around the thorax could be red as a warning
signal or a display of his own vulnerability. No less menacing is
"Untouchable". Two long, movable and defensive saw-blade arms belie
the delicate slender-wasted female figure. Her expression is fixed
as if expecting contact but not necessarily inviting intimacy.
"Amazon" is an uncompromising study of strength and power. Her broad
tank-like body, massive shoulders and wide-spread stance give her a
sense of great weight and inflexibility of purpose. Her white face
recalls the lime masks of Celtic and African warriors and her broad
lead belt adds a sense of invulnerability. "Split Personality" moves
away from the mask-like stylization of many of the other pieces. The
divided face is disturbingly realistic on the armless and legless
torso. We are left with two possibilities: a disconcerting splitting
apart of what was once whole on the gradual closing up of a deep
fissured wound. "Iron Virgin" is one of the most abstract works in
this series - it is a headless, armless and legless torso shape,
tightly wrapped, the sex covered with a triangular metal plaque. All
desire, all sexuality is contained and repressed. The implied
constraint might be perceived as ambiguous, as form outside or from
Certainly not all of Schnitzenbaumer's works in this series are as
overtly menacing or disturbing. A more vulnerable piece is "Cautious
Observer". Here we see an upper torso and head only with massive
shoulders and raised hands resting on supporting arms and elbows.
The face is partially hidden by the protective hands, and the
slightly anxious eyes are only beginning to observe the world or to
invite any contact in return. "Archaic Stranger" on the other hand
is a supremely confident, well balanced, upright female figure. Her
long, overstretched arms and hands create an almost eternal tripod,
from which stable position she looks out into the distance with a
kind of stoic calm. "Nike" makes allusion to her Greek namesake but
in a perhaps less flamboyant fashion than her dramatic famous
counterpart in the Louvre in Paris. Her wings are small and moveable
and her head is tiny and faceless. Thin, almost bird-like legs seem
to be readily poised for flight as well. She has no other function
or desire; flight is everything. On a more humorous note we meet
"Diva Dora". A well-bosomed and corseted figure pushes forward into
space, balanced by a voluptuous projecting rump. Her face seems to
express a naïve pleasure in her over-gaudy, slightly prickly
necklace and her tangled well-twirled red hair.
"Pop Queen" is the most "contemporary" of all the figures. She is an
icon of the times blatantly overdressed, overhung with fetish-like
jewelry, waving her red lacquered fingers, and insolently (or
covertly) regarding the world from behind the safety of her colorful
goggles. Some of these figures are uncompromising in the political
and moral questions they raise, and yet they remain strangely
impartial and unjudgemental. It is we the viewers that must raise
the relevant questions and provide our own answers, and perhaps even
solutions to the endless unresolved issues that we each have to work
As warriors and Amazons we might be both protective and aggressive;
the "Iron Virgin" might reflect a self-imposed unwillingness to
share love or be a brutal repression of sexuality by an outside
force. The Diva might be the selfish and self absorbed center of her
own universe or simply the happy extrovert pleased to flaunt and
share her abundant charms. There is no single register of meaning in
the works they are multi-layered as we ourselves are. We are all
Warriors and Amazons, split personalities, extrovert and
untouchable. These works are catalysts of self-recognition, and it
is this quality that ensures their power and appeal, and our