From a show of mixed-media collages by Carol Rama, who died last year at age 97, to an installation involving furniture, video, and fruit by 26-year-old Bunny Rogers, exhibitions of art by women were a silent majority in Berlin’s galleries this spring. While conversations across continents focused on American politicians seeking to harness essentialist concepts of gender and pitting generations of feminists against one other, there was a remarkable lack of fanfare in Berlin about this diverse intergenerational array of female artists. Berlin, a city where women earn more than men, according to a recent government compensation survey, is also an environment where their power is presented confidently and as a matter of fact.
Loose-limbed figuration was one of the few commonalities among these shows. The slinkiest works were the large-scale canvases and drawings from the 1960s by Pop artist Kiki Kogelnik at König Galerie. These featured bodies and body parts adrift among, and subsumed by, the patterns and shapes surrounding them. Her Portrait of an Attractive Man (1964) shows a mass of bodies—each one a single eye-popping color, like lime green, teal, or bubble-gum—being drawn in the same direction, as if by a force outside the painting’s frame. Also from 1964 is Hand from Outer Space, in which a disembodied arm with a fluorescent yellow hand reaches into a petri dish–like object filled with colored dots. Hanging on the gallery’s exposed brick walls, the pieces seemed like portals into a gravity-less, alternate reality where gender-neutral beings float in pleasurable freedom from social, sexual, and political contexts.
In contrast to Kogelnik’s paintings, as well as to her own better known, sexually explicit work (once censored by the Italian government), Carol Rama’s abstract mixed-media canvases at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie said as much about mortality as they did about sex. Most of the pieces here, made between the 1960s and Rama’s death, utilize rubber—salvaged from the artist’s father’s bike repair shop in Turin—fixed to plain gessoed canvases. Austere geometric compositions, they are nevertheless erotically evocative. The 1970 rubber-and-oil painting Spazio anche più che tempo (Space Even More Than Time), for instance, shows an abstract form curling like a penis against a thigh. But the rubber itself speaks about more morbid concerns: the beautifully decaying material in shades of brown and black has cracked and thinned like aging skin. This association was underscored by Bepi Ghiotti’s photographs of the elderly artist in her studio on view at Eden Eden.
Dematerialization is also a concern for Geta Brătescu, whose collages and drawings from the 1970s joined works from the past few years at Galerie Barbara Weiss. Since the 1960s Brătescu has been, in her words, “drawing with scissors.” Stari Cittadine (1971), a moody drawing with collage elements, has the emotional impact of a sketch taken from life. It consists of a paper-clip box’s label and a cluster of crudely drawn men and women set in a dark interior, as if isolated, despondent drinkers in a smoky bar. Equally evocative is the 2006 collage Artistul, showing a stiff, robotic personage contemplating a grid filled with sinuous line drawings, as if it were an album of pictures of himself in nimbler times.
Similarly mobile figures populate the unconstrained paintings of Melike Kara, a recent art-school graduate. “In Your Presence,” Kara’s show of gestural paintings on canvas and glass screens at Peres Projects, featured scenes resembling stills from contemporary ballet. In them, male figures gracefully contort their bodies in otherwise empty space like dancers using their movements to express emotional and social exchanges. In contrast to Kogelnik’s free spirits, Kara’s figures are social creatures placed in absurd situations: one yanks a noose around another’s neck as a conversation continues nearby; one does a backflip as two others embrace. Although their blocky bodies differ from the svelte physiques of real dancers, their interactions recall stark scenes composed by postmodern choreographers such as Wayne McGregor, as well as the situational unease in Brătescu’s drawings and collages. At the same time, the set-like arrangement of painted glass panels alerted viewers to their own physicality as they moved through the show.
At Carlier Gebauer gallery, Australian artist Jessica Rankin’s embroidered maps of the night sky on a personally important date created an emotional push/pull. By charting the stars’ position on a night with strong subjective significance for her, Rankin is suggesting that they aligned for her, yet her private life remains inaccessible to us, the viewers. We are drawn in, only to be rebuffed.
This unfulfilled promise of secrets revealed is mirrored in the group of giant free-standing, inflatable plastic sculptures by the relatively young British artists Anthea Hamilton and Nicholas Byrne that comprise “LOVE IV: Cold Shower” at Schinkel Pavillon. The pair have been collaborating on inflatables since 2012; this most recent group, printed with images from tourist souvenirs, objects from art history (such as Brancusi’s Male Torso, 1917), and everyday things like a bunch of black grapes, evokes an unspoken dialogue between a man and a woman.
The sculptures are imposing but quiver slightly, which makes them approachable. However, the significance of their imagery is opaque to anyone but the duo who created them. In a transcript—with redacted passages—of a meandering conversation between the two artists, they express anxieties about their work and confess to not remembering the meaning of their references. Reading it—and viewing the sculptures—evokes the pleasure of eavesdropping: to feel a moment of stolen intimacy with a stranger without his or her knowledge, and to extrapolate fantasies from whatever tidbit is overheard.
Conversely, miscommunication seemed like the subject of Double Bind (2015), Miriam Visaczki’s sculpture of two interlocked heads in the group show “Sex and the City” at Croy Nielsen. The handwoven felt-and-wire faces both have beards and red lipstick. One puckers up a kiss and envelops the other in a white beard while its green-haired counterpart turns away with an expression of disgust.
Hidden narratives also animated Almut Heise’s tight, cinematic, representational paintings in her 40-year retrospective at Galerie Michael Haas. Some are apparently portraits of real people; others pass for illustrations of characters. Many of the works—made between the 1960s and the present—show couples and groups of women friends in close physical proximity but looking away from one another, clearly adrift in their own private thoughts. Ironically, the most emotionally accessible of Heise’s subjects are the solitary women she repeatedly shows scrutinizing their reflections in bathroom mirrors with interest and calm self-assurance.
Bunny Rogers, whose work often reflects a keen awareness of being young and beautiful, revisited Internet mythologizing of the Columbine High School massacre in her solo show at Société Berlin. (It was also the subject of her previous show at the gallery in 2014.) Rogers’s position as an Internet-savvy artist gives “Columbine Library”—a meditation on collective memory, friendship, and alcohol—authenticity while not limiting her perspective to pure subjectivity. Without any overt discussion of how, or even whether, the personal is political, Rogers and her predecessors explore relationships between bodies, modes of communication, and women and the wider world.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 135 under the title “Around Berlin.”