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.

Critical Essay
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 within.

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 through.

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 complicity.


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