There’s something decidedly ephemeral about the work of Pawel Althamer. The Polish artist who, over the past two decades, has created a body of sculpture, video and installation work that consistently toys with formulations of identity and society, collaborative practice and mythology. Works can hinge on a simple conceit, or careful placement of a minimum of elements, often leaving major aspects of the piece unseen or unexpressed. His Black Ebony (??) piece, for example, stands as a testament to an incomplete work, activated by a group of African sculptors he invited to utilize the workstation-like installation to create sculpture during a show.
Massimo Gioni takes Part in Draftsmen’s Congress (2012), via Art ObservedIt follows then, that a museum retrospective dedicated to Althamer would occasionally fall short of the artist’s often ambitious projects, but that hasn’t stopped the New Museum from doing its best, exhibiting the artist’s work across 4 of its 5 floors. Curator Massimo Gioni, who selected Althamer’s Venetians as part of the Venice Biennale last year, and has given the artist full reign over the space.
The result is a broad body of work that combines Althamer’s continued interest in the social aspects and impacts of artistic practice throughout a variety of formats. On one floor, Venetians takes up the full expanse of the space, filling it with slapdash sculptures cast with the faces of Althamer’s subjects from around Venice. One floor up, the artist shows a grouping of earlier works, including a selection of self-portraits, and the expansive Mezalia, composed of an impressive stretch of miniature landscape, viewed by a miniature figure inside a cube of an apartment, toying with delicate modes of pity, longing and beauty.
But where Althamer really excels is in his most socially-engaged pieces. His sculpture Guma, depicting a lonely town drunk, coated in grime and tattered clothes, is an enthralling bit of pathos, lending the subject a certain dignity and pride regardless of his stumbling gait. Nearby, a sculpture created by Althamer and a group of his students, young artists suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, carries a certain power, despite its occasionally rudimentary construction.
The grand stroke comes at the top of the exhibition, on the museum’s fourth floor, where Althamer has covered the full room with white walls, and invited various art classes and students to come each day to paint the space. The blend of sloganeering, pure creativity and scrawls that result on the walls is a fascinating look into Althamer’s practice. Welcome to express themselves in any way, the children’s writing and drawing becomes a portrait as much of the city as it is of the visitors.
Even with the wealth of sculptural material, the show leaves the viewer wanting more. As Althamer’s work often dissolves into the practice that produced it, one finds themselves always searching for more, for a better glimpse of the artist and his fellow producers. It’s perhaps this note that makes the exhibition so frustrating for some, and so inspiring for others.