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Exhibition of works by Jana Sterbak on view at Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich
Jana Sterbak, Identity, installation view Barbara Gross Galerie, 2016, Courtesy the artist and Barbara Gross Galerie, Photo: Wilfried Petzi.

MUNICH.- Jana Sterbak has been known since the 1980s for her conceptual objects, performances, photographs, and installations, in which she translates complex ideas into trenchant images. At the heart of her work are humans, with all of their diverse emotions and tense relationships to society and their own beings. Sterbak deals with existential themes through cryptic humor, subversively and with occasionally disturbing effects. Material is of special significance: fresh meat, bread, sweat, or human hair unsettle viewers, while directly addressing their senses.

The exhibition Identity gathers works from a period of three decades, and they revolve around a category that is difficult to comprehend: identity. The clothing, objects, and photographs on display raise questions about the transformative quality of things and about human individuality. By shifting materials and dimensions, Sterbak makes everyday objects seem unfamiliar. For instance, she replaces the wooden seat of a stool with a cake (Cake Stool), or makes crutches so large that only a giant could use them (Monumental). By relieving things of their usual functions and expanding their sensory aspects, she allows us to perceive them in new ways.

For the artist who intensively studies the image and function of the body in society, clothing is an ideal medium. The gossamer Chemise de Nuit, emanating a sweet, feminine scent, plays with gender identities. It is only from close up that one perceives the male chest hair that Sterbak has applied to the thin fabric, to break the image of feminine seduction. Mask (2014) recalls a burka, an item of clothing that has been the subject of serious debates recently. But in contrast to the burka, which completely conceals the face and body of its wearer, the coarse stitching in Sterbak’s mask exposes the nude body to public view.

The pressure to conform and the limitations of the individual’s development are recurring themes in Sterbak’s oeuvre. The photograph Generic Man features a man with a bar code tattooed on his neck, referring to the commercialized body. Measuring Tape Cones (1979) – measuring tapes shaped into pointed cones that serve as claw-like extensions for human hands – and Sisyphus Sport (1997) – a rock equipped with leather straps so that it can be carried like a backpack – could be read within the context of today’s increasing compulsion to optimize the self.

As simple and legible as Jana Sterbak’s works of art appear at first glance, their multiple meanings allow them to avoid being pinned down or interpreted clearly. Supposed certainties about people and things dissolve when observing these works.

Jana Sterbak, *1955 in Prague, lives and works in Montréal, Canada. In 2003 she represented Canada at the 50th Venice Biennale. In 2016 / 2017 the Lehmbruck Museum Duisburg and the Galerie im Taxispalais Innsbruck will show her work in two retrospective exhibitions. Solo exhibitions: Museu de Monsterrat, Monsterrat, 2014; Musee Reattu, Arles, 2011; Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Teatro La Fenice, Venezia, 2010; Palais de Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 2006; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, 2004; Malmö Konsthall, 2002; Haus der Kunst Munich, 2002. Group exhibitions: Museum Villa Rot, Ulm, 2015; Museum Tinguely, Montreal, 2015; Villa Arson, Nice, 2014; MuCEM, Marseille, 2013; Palais des papes et La Collection Lambert, Avignon, 2013; National Gallery of Canada, Musée des beaux arts du Canada, Ottawa, 2012; Moscow Museum of Modern Art, MMOMA, Moscow, 2012; MUSEION – Museum für moderne und zeitgenössische Kunst, Bolzano, 2011.

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