Daria de Beauvais, monograph 'Prospect of Perception'
Petrifying: that is the word that could be used to describe Anne Wenzel's works. Her sculptures, petrifying both in their grace and their frightfulness, cannot leave us indifferent. Reptiles that have been turned into statues, they arrest our gaze, transfix it, make it turn back. Petrification generates a world, like Atlas petrified by Medusa and transformed into a mountain. We find the same thing again in the artist's work in her use of ceramics: the friable clay becomes firm, the paint turns into an enamel, and the whole work passes from the constantly renewed gesture of the artist's hand to the eyes of the observer.
Medusa is a tutelary figure for the artist, but also a source of inspiration, in a roundabout way. That is how she comes to make a sculpture after Géricault's Le Radeau de la Méduse (1819), a picture that has a certain continuity with the pictorial tendencies that preceded the Romantic movement, in particular in the dramatic nature of the representation, but making a clean break with the order and tranquillity of Neoclassical painting. Her reinterpretation in white ceramics, Le Radeau (d'aprés Géricault) (2011), a fine example of historical tragedy which she uses to foster her research, is emblematic of her ability to break with the tradition that forms the very bedrock of her practice. To repeat the words of Alexis Vaillant, Anne Wenzel's works (knowingly convey a beauty of disgust, disquiet and menace). 1
For it is between construction and destruction that her creative work lies, as she herself says: "Generally I begin by constructing the sculptural piece from clay. When I've finished, I then begin to destroy it. To pull parts of it off, make holes. Then, with the same care as when I previously constructed it, I still look for the perfect momentum between destruction and construction." 2
That tenuous balance, that dialogue of opposites in a way derive their origin from grotesques; from the Italian word grottesca ('very rich and fanciful mural decoration') which appeared in the 15th century, meaning 'a fresco in a cave', after the decorations in Nero's legendary Domus Aurea (built in Rome in 64 AD), which was discovered in the course of archaeological excavations in the Italian Renaissance period. By extension, the word grotesque is today used to describe the character of what seems ridiculous, bizarre, laughable, mingled with a certain uneasiness. This is in fact one of the aspects - and one of the trumps - of Anne Wenzel's practice.
For more than a decade, figuration and abstraction, beauty and vileness have been intermingled in a body of work where the control of gesture and strength of execution are phenomenal. They conjure up a perpetually evolving organic universe, emphasizing the importance of the initial gesture, the one that will give form.
The Baroque (from the Portuguese word barocco, meaning an irregular pearl) is another movement in art history that seems to have influenced the artist's ideas. At the turn from the 17th to the 18th century, Baroque affected every creative field; its distinguishing features were exaggeration of movement, dramatic effects, tension, exuberance, grandeur and contrast - all characteristics that apply to Anne Wenzel.
The sculpture Untitled (Stag) (2005), while being both appealing and threatening, is also very evocative: from rock art to classical Antiquity, from the Middle Ages to Romanticism, the iconography of the stag has been extremely widespread and varied. Here the artist takes a snapshot of the wounded beast, frozen in eternal death throes. The animal is surrounded by a dark, decaying forest, both a refuge and a tomb. A nod to the kitsch of hunting trophies, the work is undeterred by a sinister aesthetic. The hieratic creature, the king of the forest, is transformed into a shapeless monster.
Furthermore, disaster is a crucial source of inspiration for Anne Wenzel. Natural catastrophes or murderous attacks, among other extreme situations, provide the material for her ceramic sculptures, aggregates of material that are shapeless, yet delicately chiselled. Objects and animals seem to be liquefied and burnt to cinders at the same time; a monument to the dead or game in its death throes look like wreckage from an apocalyptic present. Her works are metaphors for our individual fears, and show that reality can surpass our worst nightmares.
They are also portraits of our sick society, in full meltdown. Requiem of Heroism (2010) presents a series of monuments that have lost their glory. An exercise in style based on monuments to the dead, through the artist's prism this group of works becomes homage to decrepitude, as if memory could arise only in the midst of oblivion. It is an iconography of decline, of pessimism towards the present world that emerges, bringing to mind the 19th century Decadents, Gustave Moreau and Des Esseintes.3 As Philippe Van Cauteren has said, Anne Wenzel "translate[s] the myths of yesterday into the dramas of today". 4 But that very dark vision is perhaps not so much a discourse on the terror that surrounds us as on the terror we carry intrinsically within us.
Moreover, Anne Wenzel's creations are eminently political, indeed militant. A good example of this subtext is Splendid Surrender (2012), a monumental and emphatic sculpture: A large eagle seems to be wounded and pinned to the ground, entangled in flags which are all symbols of a power that is slowing down. The works of Anne Wenzel are both a mirror of our society and the sum total of age-old artistic practices, and are positioned at the exact moment allowing past and present to meet, mixing a fin-de-siécle aesthetic with the idea of an anaemic power.
Her most recent projects highlight degradation and the risks inherent in the use of power. Damaged Goods (2013), a series of large-scale male busts, black in colour, sometimes interspersed with coloured streaks, has its origin in Ernst Friedrich's Krieg dem Kriege (War against war, 1924), a book presenting a photographic record of the horrors of war. The flesh here has been melted, holed, battered, or is missing - resulting in works that are almost abstract, far removed from simple illustration.
The artist's thoughts about a very dark contemporary situation, mingled with powerful references to art history, also call on cinematographic influences. With the series Attempted Decadence (2013-2014), Anne Wenzel conjures up the ghost of the dead Rebecca whose presence haunts Manderley House, as adapted by Hitchcock. 5 With this series Anne Wenzel also turns to a traditional format that she revisits: the vanitas. In the form of allegorical composition that special category of still life suggests that earthly existence is empty and futile, human life precarious and not very important. The large ceramic floral compositions in this group which is still 'work in progress' as of today display a slow decay, frozen in time. But the great strength of Anne Wenzel's works ultimately lies in their timelessness: "Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages. Why then give a date to this story I have to tell?" 6
Daria de Beauvais is a curator at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris
1. Alexis Vaillant, "De L'Intérieur", in Le Voyage Intérieur, Paris-Musées, 2005, p.20.
2. Anne Wenzel, in conversation with Isabelle Doleviczényi, performarts.net, 2010.
3. Des Esseintes is the main character in the novel A Rebours [Against the Grain] by Karl Joris Huysmans, 1884.
4. Philippe Van Cauteren, "Letter to Anne Wenzel", in Anne Wenzel. Sweet Life, Veenman Publishers, 2008, p. 5.
5. Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca, 1940. Based on Daphne Du Maurier's novel by the same name, 1938.
6. Edgar Allan Poe, "Metzengerstein", in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, Penguin Books, 2006, p. 159.