BASEL.- Kunstmuseum Basel presents today Robert Therrien - Works on Paper, on view through September 7, 2008. Though perhaps best known for sculptures and installations on a monumental scale, such as his 1994 kitchen table and four chairs, his folding table and chairs, piles of plates, pots and pans, spiral beds, oil can, this Los Angeles based artist, born in Chicago in 1947, also creates drawings. Widely represented in American collections, his work is still relatively unknown in Europe. Now the Kupferstichkabinett at Kunstmuseum Basel presents a major exhibition of his works on paper.
In these works, the media of drawing, printing and photography are inextricably linked. Instead of producing works in series, Therrien adds an ironic twist to the dichotomy between original authorship and reproducibility by making one-off prints that are customised by minimal interventions with pencil or crayon, or individually coloured printed forms. As a result, even when his motifs take on an autonomous, sign-like quality that is visually elusive, they nevertheless possess an animated quality that lends them great individuality. For all their potent aesthetic presence, they drift into a narrative mode, enabling allowing viewers to discover new dimensions of association and personal recollection.
Once he has chosen a motif, Therrien does not waver from it. Instead, he varies or transforms it so that it remains recognisable or triggers unexpected associations. These motifs are part and parcel of his personal visual syntax, like idols that have a captivating and very specific significance for him. Therrien is interested in simple forms, in motifs derived from the reality of everyday life, in which they are so deeply rooted that their singularity goes almost unnoticed. They include the outlines of clouds, snowmen, stones, stains, churches, gallow-like beams, cartoon-like physiognomies. At times they may have a certain social significance, such as a specific brand of crockery, simply because they are used, or have been used, on a daily basis by masses of people. At other times, they may be clichéd motifs from the realms of popular mythology, such as the stork that brings the babies. They have their own inherently abstract quality, which Therrien brings to the fore and then heightens still further by means of fragmentation. What is more, he often leaves the motifs shadowless, suspended in the emptiness of the paper, so that their very lack of stability itself evokes ambiguity and multivalence. They take on a life of their own, whereby even inanimate objects become animated or enter into some highly charged interaction with one another.
The visual tradition of the still life, whose compositional qualities are evident in the monumental sculpture of a table and chairs, or the notion of a collection in the sense of some fundamental principle of order, are frequently the underlying common denominator between the motifs. Yet this link remains a fragile one that is often called into question by the artists tongue-in-cheek approach. Ultimately, this is about the notion of transience and mortality that is not only traditionally inherent in the still life genre, but is also characteristic of collections in that the individual component parts have been wrenched out of their original context and artificially brought together.
Therriens motifs stake no claim to original authorship in the sense of being the product of the artists creative genius. Instead, the motifs seem, quite simply, to exist already like the table and chairs. They can emerge from the nothingness of a blank sheet of paper without his involvement, or be engraved into its surface like a tattoo. The hand of the artist all but disappears when he uses stencils or polaroids or printing techniques; his motifs are the product of their own reproducibility.
The exhibition is accompanied by a c. 190-page catalogue published by Scheidegger & Spiess containing an essay by Christian Müller (in German and English) and 50 colour plates.