In some of Atalya Laufer’s artistic projects in recent years, an existing visual reference gets reproduced and dismantled, torn apart and pieced together again through a chain of visual procedures that have it end up in a medium quite different from where it started. That is to say, if Laufer can loosely be described as a collage artist, it would be collage in the wider sense. In her most recent body of work, parts of which she currently presents in a solo show titled Rest at the Keith project space in Berlin, the works are the end products – to date – of procedures that can be traced back to a group of images taken from a book collection of Japanese erotic prints, a sub-genre of Japanese painting and printmaking known as shunga which was in wide circulation in late 18th-century Japan.
Japan’s leading artists at the time produced shunga, and some of the prints indeed stand out by their level of their artistry. Shunga is also highly explicit, but as a sub-genre of what is known as ukiyo-e – paintings of nonreligious themes associated with the rise of Japan’s merchant class – markers of dress, interior decoration, hairstyle and so forth also play a central role. Hence the nude was not always favored, but the genitalia, in turn – typically of heterosexual couples in copulation – were greatly magnified. When she began working and reworking shunga prints some two years ago, one of Laufer’s initial gestures was to mask these sprawling sexual organs. In an earlier series of collages not shown in Rest, double spreads of the book are Xeroxed and selected elements, carefully incisioned from the whole – fabric folds, neatly coifed hairdos, ornate hairpins and the odd spasmatic bodily extremity – are pasted unto genitals and other parts, creating baroque agglomerations that amplify and defer more than they censor; bigger elements sometimes spill over from the general frame.
In a way, the group of works on show holds both ends of the extended process that Laufer underwent with this theme, beginning with a small preparatory drawing done earlier on – a quick study that renders the scene intact, albeit in a sketchy and rather bemused line – and skipping right to the final stages (to date) of the process, with a series of gouaches showing a cluster of irregular shapes with a few recognizable body parts thrown in, the whole hanging vertically on treads; an additional work in plywood is based on the same visual theme. In fact, the paintings depict a mobile sculpture that Laufer, at some stage, produced in her studio, itself based on a painted version of a smaller collage made earlier on, from Xeroxed components of one of the prints.
The early greenish drawing, part of a larger portfolio executed earlier on – when she was beginning to familiarize herself with the contours and compositions, with the patterns and perspectival planes typical of the prints – interferes less with the sex scene as such but masks certain areas with cutouts, for added depth and contrast; cutouts that led, at a later stage, to the collaged versions mentioned above. However, the Xeroxed double spreads would themselves end up in pieces, cut and pasted again on a support of reddish graph paper. A work from this series shows a highly dynamic entanglement of hands, feet, patterned fabrics, with, at the upper left corner of the composition, an open book showing an erotic scene in miniature form. (A mise en abyme, one would say, which serves both as a reminder of the pictorial sophistication of the genre but also an “orderly-mess” of reduced size, to contrast with the reconstructed mess created by the collage itself, from bodily and vestimentary components that are essentially the same.)
A mediumal disarray is at work here, or at least a continued unrest. With breaks and intervals sometimes lasting months, Laufer relaunches the process and launches the results achieved in one medium to a wholly different one. The decisive work from the Draft series on graph paper was twice dismantled: first through an app, draft:ed, developed in collaboration with Robert Bader, which allows users to use “leftover paper cut-outs” to create “an endless amount of collages based on fragmented Japanese Shunga prints… to rotate, enlarge and try to precisely place each piece to create your collage” by swiping the finger on the mobile screen. Burst apart, these arabesque-shaped fragments can travel on the screen and be remade into new collages through a new form of art minor in every way. (Tellingly, and astonishingly, the app was rated 17+ by the Itunes app center, despite containing no private bits whatsoever).
But another bursting occurred. At some point, the dynamic composition of the said collage was made into a painting in gouache on paper, complete with checkered stripes in the background to represent the support of the graph paper underneath. Reinterpreted in painting – and magnified in format – the billowy flesh-and-garb entanglement becomes even more of a caricature. Laufer, again, was not completely satisfied with the result and decided to shift things further, cutting the shapes along their contours; in way, moving the elements back to their former state of cutouts, but painted this time. Where would the parts end up this time? When read in German, the title of the exhibition translates as the singular of ‘remains’. And the remains of the painting, its Reste – a painting which between herself she came to call “the lost painting” – became the hung pieces of an ornately painted mobile sculpture. The two-dimensional makes the leap into three-dimensional in a transformation that, perhaps, thus suspended and exhausted, will temporarily release the energetic load stored in those writhing parts. If only for a while.
Two- to three-dimensional transformations – and back – hold a peculiar temptation. For Laufer, the mobile sculpture was not yet the final step, at least not the one we’re entitled to see here in the show. It was to become the subject matter of a new series of paintings, much more traditional in a sense. Painted again, on paper, against a white backdrop, the mobile becomes still life while its irregular shapes and color fields – front side patterned, by now a distant echo of the fabric they once were, back side in lively uniform colors – are given another life to live in. Locked into a painting made from observation, their treatment has now become noticeably more refined, their edges and the muted shadow play of both the object and the threads it hangs on now telling a different story about the drama of elevating a shape from its background, of selecting, cutting out; of what collage-making entails.
The tension between painted and pasted-on yields results that are not so far removed from a Frank Stella. But tracing the series from start to finish likewise raises thoughts on what the parts, in themselves, went through. The series concludes at a point where a pictorial scene that was once horizontal, essentially, a domestic theater of love-making, ends up depleted, a hung formation, its verticality highlighted by the linear pull of the threads. The parts are recollected. Retaining the peculiar curves and edges of each individual piece, they are pulled together once more, passively, laid to rest.
Written for Atalya Laufer's solo exhibition Rest, at Keith Berlin