Anyone who has spent time chewing through dense chunks of philosophy can sympathize with artist Andrea Büttner’s complaint about Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of the Power of Judgment.”
There aren’t any pictures.
There he was, the high honcho of the Age of Enlightenment sitting in his study in Konigsberg, Germany, in 1790 and nattering on about the good, the beautiful, the sublime and how to tell the difference. And nary a picture to tweak the imagination.
It reminded her of the way books change between childhood, when primers are deliciously crammed with colorful images, and adulthood, when you’re lucky to get a mingy clump of photos midway through.
Setting out to fix the problem, Büttner pulled together “Kant’s Pictures,” hundreds of old and modern images of things he wrote about — buildings, women, wallpaper, sculpture, kids, trees, songbirds, the night sky. Her “Judgment,” a visually annotated version of his text, was published last year, and 11 big panels of the pictures fill a long wall at Walker Art Center. They’re one of many intriguing elements in “Andrea Büttner,” a new show running through April 10.
A German-born artist who now divides her time between London and Frankfurt, Büttner, 43, comes by her interest in philosophy naturally, having studied it in Berlin before earning a doctorate from the Royal College of Art in London. Although her work is widely shown in Europe, this is her first U.S. exhibit.
Besides the frieze of images, the display includes woodcuts, a bench covered in hand-woven fabric, a moss-covered boulder, abstract etchings and stereoscopic slides. Together the unlikely objects make up a contemporary wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. In Kant’s time, the heyday of such collections, scientists and aesthetes mulled over exotic shells, rare plants, art and antiquities in an effort to understand and intellectually order the world around them. Like Kant, some Enlightenment thinkers worked from theory while others, like Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (who also figures in the show), worked from observation.
Now we google the info we need with the swipe of a forefinger, replacing our predecessors’ analytical gymnastics with cloud computing. Büttner wryly alludes to this in 5-foot-tall etchings, shaped like cellphone screens, on which she’s reproduced the smeary fingerprints left on her own phone. Vastly enlarged, the marks are imbued with her DNA and personality but read as arty abstract-expressionist gestures.
Besides science and art, Büttner is also concerned with religion — broadly defined — as an organizing principle of human life, along with the emotions and psychology it invokes.
The deep blue fabric that wraps several gallery walls is an industrial material commonly used in uniforms worn by German mechanics and service workers. Arrayed in panels 14 feet tall and 40 feet long, it alludes to the 20th century’s history of monochrome canvases (Malevich’s white, Yves Klein’s blue, Franz Kline’s black, Rothko’s mulberry) and the spiritual associations attributed to them. Büttner also intends her blue to echo the robes worn by Mary, the mother of Jesus, in medieval-Christian religious iconography, where it is associated with humility, purity and succor for the poor and downtrodden.
For Büttner, the humble fabric recalled the blue uniforms of the Little Sisters of Jesus, a Catholic monastic community whose adherents devote their lives to service work such as cleaning or clerking in supermarkets. Wrapping the gallery walls with the material “creates this sublime and huge abstract gesture,” but simultaneously “is very important to ground the artwork in ordinary life,” she said.
“We were very keen on the fabric walls being an enveloping gesture,” added curator Fionn Meade.
Elsewhere at the Walker, Büttner’s “Piano Destructions” installation is a brilliant, slyly feminist commentary on the tedious bad-boy behavior of mid-20th-century avant-garde artists who smashed up pianos as a symbolic destruction of bourgeois culture. The installation includes four films documenting 23 such piano smashings performed between 1962 and now; all but two of the smashers were men, including Nam June Paik, George Maciunas and other affiliates of the Fluxus group long championed at the Walker. A fifth film records nine women gracefully playing Schumann and Monteverdi on grand pianos. The films run simultaneously as the soundtrack alternates between the men’s violent blows of axes and sledgehammers, and the women’s serene performances.
Though intellectually loaded, the show is neither heavy lifting nor didactic. Like a wunderkammer, it exists to spark curiosity and contemplation. And Büttner tosses in such visual treats as pink-topped tables because she blushes easily and loves the color. And an aqua woodcut of a man floating skyward. He’s half of a couple kissing in a Chagall painting; the woman is left to our imaginations.
“It’s always nice to have a kiss in an exhibition even if you don’t see it,” she said with a mischievous grin.