Günther Uecker: Shields
November 15–December 23, 2022
Shields brings together just a handful of new and historic paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by Günther Uecker, creating a petite, elegant homage to the German artist’s 70 years of work. Throughout his career, Uecker’s main materials have included nails, graphite, and paint. He embraces the nuanced associations of nails in particular, considering the industrial use of the material to build and protect. For his newest body of work made in pandemic isolation, Uecker reflects on the layered function of a shield as an object to defend oneself from harm and a marker of self-identification in family crests and personal symbols.
Lending their name to the exhibition title, Uecker’s “Shields ”(all 2022) are the stars of the show. All nine in the series are on view on the gallery’s second floor. Each shield consists of a dense blanket of nails hammered into the canvas and wood underneath. White paint covers the head of each nail and drips down the shanks toward the points buried in the surface. Behind the forest of nail heads, paint pools onto the canvas, spilling over the sides in some cases. The application of paint is loose and free allowing the raw metal and canvas to peek through. Patches of graphite form unidentifiable images that are slowly revealed as the viewer moves through the room. Hints of flower blossoms, whirlpools, swirls, and even faces seem to emerge, yet no code is offered. Instead, the viewer is invited to wonder, contemplating the subtleties of each material and how they interact in such surprisingly different ways from shield to shield.
Though all hammered to roughly the same depth, the partially bare nails trick the eye and appear to be undulating, an illusion amplified by the hints of graphite in the background. The works confuse, intrigue, and spark curiosity as they pull the viewer in to inspect the surface. When seen up close, the canvases appear similar, if not identical, but from a distance, the shields are completely different as the materials form various shapes and tones.
Accompanying these nail paintings is a wall text written by Uecker translated from German that reads in part, “The painting begins where speech fails: in the perception of world [sic] and of violence … recognition of mutual dependency amid shared danger pictorially as revolt, in the mode of a call — to pacify violence and preserve life.” The text points to the shared experiences and changes in life in the pandemic, as well as some of the greater associations of nails, wood, and shields. As a material used to build and join, nails represent strength, protection, and growth. In addition, they can be weaponized and used for destruction. Wood has similar associations, as it provides protection by insulating something from the outside world—a nod to the interiority of life during lockdown. The form of a shield bears historic relevance as a means to display a family crest. The exhibition essay explains Uecker’s personal association of wood and nails with his youth during World War II, a time when his family barricaded windows to protect against Russian soldiers. Similarly, businesses across the world shuttered during the pandemic, which led to plywood covered storefronts becoming a common sight in anticipation of the impassioned and sometimes destructive actions of protesters. Like Uecker’s shields referencing personal emblems, these plywood surfaces also became canvases for self-representation and expression of social and political messages.
Swirls of graphite in Swabs (2022), a large grid made of 42 impressive paintings on paper, mimic the forms that appear in the background of the “Shields.” In reference to the process of collecting DNA samples—something we all became very familiar with to test for Covid-19—the swirls resemble the movement of swabs inside of one’s nostril. In many of the panels, two circular swirls appear, perhaps a nod to both nasal passages. The sheer number of these panels is almost overwhelming, and the repetitive swirling motion is hauntingly familiar as a reminder of the constant testing of the last two years.
This monumental grid is paired with a two-part abstract sculpture from 1967, Kubuskubus. Made of wood, metal, and nails, the work offers a moment to reflect on Uecker’s decades-long dedication to the materials. The two parts take the form of vertically stacked metal cubes. While both towers have solid bottoms, one is topped with a slightly smaller cube that is covered with thousands of nails hammered into the surface in a display that resembles a porcupine. The other tower consists of two stacked cubes with a layer of vertical nails that separates the two and elevates the top portion. Though a more industrial, raw use of the materials compared to the “Shields,” Kubuskubus similarly creates optical illusions and challenges the viewer’s sense of space and perception.
Located on the ground floor of the gallery, Swabs and Kubuskubus are the first works the viewer sees before reaching the shield paintings on the upper level. While it seemed strange to put the centerpiece of the show upstairs, possibly to be missed by visitors less inclined to ascend the stairs or take the elevator, the “Shields” sandwiched with this lower level ultimately made perfect sense to ground the series in the greater context of Uecker’s work. After attempting to scrutinize the graphite forms hidden behind the nails in the artist's “Shields,” one will observe that the comparable shapes on the surface of each panel of Swabs felt refreshingly visible upon revisiting the piece. Moreover, viewing Swabs before and after viewing the “Shields,” created an irresistible urge to climb the steps once more to parse the surfaces of those works. Kubuskubus similarly reframed how to view the “Shields,” as the overall appearance of the surfaces change depending on the distance and angle of the viewer’s perspective.
The works in the show draw the viewer in with their apparent simplicity. Yet, Uecker’s work is far from simple. Materials that seem straightforward explode into a surprisingly nuanced visual illusion. Though consisting of just two works and the series of nine “Shields, ” the show presents a powerful, rich snapshot of Uecker’s long career. It also does precisely what an engaging exhibition should do: left me eager to see and know more.