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Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Two Artists

You may know the work of Anselm Kiefer. You are unlikely to know the work of Gitl Braun.

Kiefer is the internationally-renowned painter-sculptor (born 1945) who has spent the several decades working on, and working through, themes embedded in, and provoked by, the land and history of his native Germany, producing monumental canvases and instillations layered with lead, plaster, acrylic, resin, terracotta, paint, charcoal, rubber, copper piping , ash, hair, bark, oil, steel wire...the dense physicality and materiality of his work evoking and interrogating what Germany has been and done and suffered and perpetrated over the centuries, and in particular, of course, (and like the writer W.G.Sebald, born 1944), what came to pass in the decade before his birth.

And Gitl Braun, born to Holocaust survivors in 1950 in Haifa and now a ultra-Orthodox mother-of-eight in Stamford Hill, north London, is an artist whose subject matter is informed by her parents’ experiences and silences, and by the stories and layered histories she finds in discarded photos and prayer-books, manuscripts and religious artefacts. A very different kind of artist to Kiefer – and yet her photography and sculpture mirror Kiefer’s preoccupations. And form a kind of midrashic commentary on his themes of loss, decay, memory and silence.

Their work is currently on display a few hundred metres from each other, Kiefer occupying an acreage of space in the new White Cube gallery in Bermondsey (www.whitecube.com) and Braun occupying a corner of a nearby bookshop-gallery (www.woolfsonandtay.com). The contrast in scale between the two exhibitions is enormous – the surface space of all of Braun’s work would fit comfortably (but uncomfortably) within a corner of one of Kiefer’s vast canvases. But the scale of their vision is comparable – and to visit one after the other is a revelation.

Braun’s photographs show sacred books and texts now discarded, yet retaining their numinous aura, their sense of a depth of knowledge and tradition that once lived and inspired the faithful – while Kiefer‘s work continually harks back to figures and motifs from Europe’s religious and spiritual heritage: the Golem of Prague, the alchemical tradition, Paracelsus, the philosopher’s stone, Rabbi Loew and the Jewish mystical tradition, the Knights Templar, Thor’s hammer, the description of God’s chariot in Ezekiel – this latter conceived of humorously as a four-seat bicycle with wheels within wheels, while at the same time being a wry comment on the way in which mystery today has become commodified, and reduced in imaginative scale...

The geographical proximity and juxtaposition of these two contrasting – but complementary – exhibitions is of course coincidental. But ‘coincidence’, as we know, is another way of talking – a secular way of talking – about what the religious adherents alluded to in both artists’ work always understood: that everything is connected to everything else, for all is One. And that meaning is grafted into Creation.

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