Bruno Corà

Christiane Löhr: Forms that Evade the Eye

The memory of the first time that Christiane Löhr's work is seen remains indelible and lives on: in the very moment of perception, the one in which the forms observed seem suspended in a state of epiphany, they in fact evade the eye. Moments and sensations of great wonder which later on return to pose Hamlet-like questions about the entity of the form and space she has originated and realized. more

Certain qualities are revealed and various properties are used in Christiane Löhr's work which, even while being part of nature, she has taken over as her own; after having "discovered" their powers and possible functions, she uses them in order to "form" her own creations. Such a process became all-important and visually overt in humanist and renaissance art, above all in landscape and still-life painting. Evocations of nature and of an indivisible whole are wedded to the air, and light has the task of welding this into a single entity: in other words the space represented by the painting; this is what Christiane Löhr has gone back to work with, as though drawing on an inexhaustible source. But if this is an original starting point which - like imprinting - was typical of the German artist's early work, it must also be said that the aim of her sculptural work, as well as her drawings, is not of a naturalistic kind but quite the reverse: it is to conceive, create, and place forms in space. And what puts us on the right path for testing the truth of what has just been observed is, apart of course from the works themselves, various statements made by Löhr during a conversation.

"The sculpture's common denominator could be defined as the conjunction of separate elements, and from these there is created a single piece which suddenly appears as an indivisible unity. An "organizer" might be the closest description of the function of my intervention in this process. [...] The reason for making sculptures and drawings [...] has something to do with movement in space, with the act of appropriation and the organization of space, the processes of expansion from an interior point which condense in space. The light on the paper and the volumes of the sculptural works follow this vision"(1).

From this point of view we can understand that Löhr's works reveal formal aspects which are to the same extent aimed both at the self-definition of the sculptural whole, and at the relationship it has with the surrounding environment, without, though, ignoring the nature of the place in which it is sited.

In order to remain in harmony with the circumstances of exhibiting in Villa Panza, Löhr's work will be seen in the lemon-house and in the two stables. Because of the function of the two different settings, the artist has planned a particular layout of the works for her exhibition. In fact, both the sculptures in various materials, and the crayon, graphite, and ink drawings will cohabit on the walls in the lemon-house. The alternation of sculptures and drawings is quite free and yet it displays a use of the walls that organizes a particular spatial quality into the room. This is the result of the reaction of the paper to the various kinds of means used to mark it, such as ink or oil, as well as of the sculptural forms on the walls which reveal the force of gravity in relation to their weight, form, and the way they are hung. What is particular about the artist's installation in this setting is the use of the walls to the exclusion of any of the other constructive elements.

The installation of the works in the large stable is different; here, contrary to the distinctive vertical aspect of the hanging in the lemon-house, we can observe that they are arranged horizontally at the same height, the result of the levels of the tops of the plinths supporting the sculptures. We find on various oblong white-painted wooden bases, either separately or gathered in groups, sculptures that vary in their vegetable materials, forms, and sizes. If we imagine looking at the whole installation from above, the works on their bases create an archipelago of spatially fluctuating forms, genuine formal constellations. The effect of the central presence of the forms in the overall setting "pierces" the palpable emptiness that runs through the works and is transformed into a qualified space, one governed by the dimensions of the proportional relationships or by the distances of one work from another.

The verticality and horizontality highlighted by the numerous works present in each of the two settings are answered by the solo part played by the large site-specific installation that Löhr has constructed in the villa's smaller stable. This is a large-scale work made from horsehair and needles. The work is fixed on the two most distant facing walls by a series of needles placed around the circumference of the walls and fixed in them. Various threads of horsehair are tied to them and, knotted together, they produce a tubular form splayed at the extremities and cylindrical in the intermediate areas. In order to obtain such an effect Löhr has tied the form at the centre with tight circles of horsehair which reduce it in comparison to the original starting and finishing points. The construction of this form, which runs across the whole space, reveals the repetition of elementary gestures through the disposition of supporting and anchoring filaments, and also the desire to obtain an elasticity and resistance which can hardly be perceived. This tubular form has in common with rivers a spatial continuity, with music its fluid diffusion, and with air the essence of both being and not being present. But it perfectly shares the general sense of life where we do not see everything, yet it is there and exists.

Löhr's sculptural way of working retrieves elementary acts and gestures that have belonged to art and craft since time immemorial: from paleo-crafted objects to those of the great civilizations in which artistic creation concentrated on carefully realized microscopic details, and to those of certain exponents of the Bauhaus as well as to the work of such artists as Penone, Laib, Tuttle, and Beuys. The tendency to collect remains and to ponder their structure and morphology, which Löhr gained over the years employed in the study of archaeology, together with the revelation she experienced on discovering the protagonists of such aesthetics as those of Arte Povera or Minimalism, in which the relationship between bodies, volumes, and space takes on a new value, have come together in her receptiveness to the various faculties of perception of the surrounding environment and what she finds in it.

Löhr was given an extraordinary stimulus by the lesson of Kounellis's work, in particular by the image of live "horses" in Senza titolo, shown in the Attico gallery in 1969. The interest and attachment provoked by her own horse stimulated Löhr to pay closer attention to the animal's characteristics as well as to its habitat. The traces that they leave during their journeys, the elastic and resistant properties of their mane and tail, often the trap for burdocks whose adherent characteristics the artist observes, increased her meditative tendencies and her studies of the surrounding environment until she had discovered physical qualities whose potentiality she could test and whose logic she could appropriate. It was through such a patient apprenticeship that Löhr arrived at the use of basic materials for her actions: ranging from ivy seeds to those of poppies; from dandelion puffs to burdocks; from needles to networks. In each case the minimal materials and tools used for building up forms have the task of manifesting them in space as though they had arrived there without any external action; that is, as when a swarm of hundreds of bees converges and decides to choose just one point of a habitat that is congenial to it.

All of Löhr's work is involved with time. In the drawings, always aligned on the same level, what stands out is a vertical indication of the spatial arrangement, and from this organically rhythmic lines spread out which underline the receptive articulation. The totality of marks, as a vertebrate linear structure marked out by more or less heavy black lines, can eventually saturate the sheet of paper and transform the linearity into density; in this case the effect is modified and comes to represent the counterpoint between the shadow of the black and the light of the remaining white sheet of paper. For Löhr, forming means knowing the properties of the material used and to act in harmony with its internal logic.

Löhr's additive action leads to placing one vegetable element against another, at times with the aim of retaining the same form of each element though on a larger scale, at others to give a new overall morphology within which, however, we continue to recognize the individuality of the elementary form which, even if repeated many times, has an unusual and unexpected effect. The new unitary form, even though allowing us to perceive a fact that is not unknown and, therefore, giving a sense of recognition confirming knowledge of something we already know, stimulates us at the same time because of the further information given by its new shape, the altered proportional relationships, and the wonder of a new organism never before seen in that form. When she uses seeds, the unity given by Löhr to the organism, even though offering to view a more or less accentuated compactness of forms like cushions, domes, etcetera, always shows a degree of internal lightness due to the greater or lesser coefficient of the cohesion of the parts placed together. Any "emptiness" that might exist between the single elements helps, with its spatial properties, to define the form, though not without adding to it some imperceptible quality which, differently from the material opacity of the vegetable elements, defines its sculptural totality. It is not unhelpful to draw attention to such sculptural aspects which - for many reasons - are also to be found in the work of some Arte Povera artists. In a conversation with Mario Merz in the 'eighties, he urged me to consider that many works by him and his artist friends showed within them, and structurally benefited from, different quantities of "emptiness", inseparable from the abundance of the materials used. In particular, in many of Merz's works this was highlighted by the sculptural quality of the vegetable bundles abutting the panels, heaped into hedges in the construction of spirals, or grouped together to support a canvas stretched on a tubular metal stretcher.

And "emptiness" is also made much of in such works as Catasta, 1966, by Boetti; Orchestra di stracci, 1968, by Pistoletto; Senza titolo, 1967, by Kounellis - a quintal of coal heaped up on the floor of his studio - or Bachi di setola, 1968, by Pascali.

Apart from anything else, in Löhr's work the quality of certain seeds shows a dense and objectively dark and solid part, and a more capillary and light part that is decisive for visually reducing the weight of the totality of the forms each time they are invented and made. To the point that it is the very works based on horsehair that defeat our perception and lead to that effect of visual evasion referred to at the beginning.

And lastly, the use of tiny, dried-vegetable constructions, the forms of which have the geometrical structure of fractals, opens up an area of conjectures about the geometrical quality of Löhr's work, one that is susceptible to developments that are as surprising as they are expected.

(1) Christiane Löhr, conversation with Pilar Baos, in Christiane Löhr - Sortint de l'embull, exhibition catalogue, Espai Cùbic/Espai Zero, 28 March - 31 May 2009, pp. 103-113.