The complex pictorial work of German artist Agnes Scherer (1985, Lohr am Main) draws from analyses of art history, anthropology, and cultural history. For her exhibition Savoir Vivre at ChertLüdde, Scherer highlights how gender roles and an exploitative attitude towards nature have been interlinked throughout the history of Western culture.
Mobilizing the strengths of the fragile material of paper and breaking narrative frameworks through deliberately placed anachronisms, Scherer brings to light a critique of reality veiled in the idea of Romanticism.
In the exhibition’s first room, a paper bed mimics the artist’s own bed decorated by an Austrian hobbyist painter whose illogical mixture of motifs ranges from St. Nicholas to a detail of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Titled Trousseau dérangé 1 (disturbed dowry 1) (2022), Scherer’s bed displays objects in memory of a bride: parts of a dress, a pair of gloves, a mask-like face, and pieces of hair. The ambiguous enacted presence of the sculpture leaves us wondering whether it is, in fact, a bridal bed or a reliquary, whether the expected path of (young) women is a blessing or a condemnation.
The room is completed with Scherer’s drawings depicting different colorful sceneries on the walls surrounding the bed. These landscapes are charged with enchantment but also with conflict and complication, where nothing is entirely intact or perfectly clear. In one of them, the artist refers to Pisanello’s Vision of Saint Eustace, a painting from around 1438 famous for its richness of details and spatial incongruities. A hunter, Eustace, has a Divine vision when confronted with a deer. He decides to spare it and all other animals. This aspect – a change of attitude toward nature – anticipates the installation in the room to come while Scherer’s drawing, simple and light, celebrates Pisanello and the theme of Eustace without wanting to reproduce it. In opposition to Pisanello’s painting, Scherer remains deliberately ambiguous about the empathy felt at that moment.
The next exhibition hall opens up to a medieval jousting tournament, an installation presented initially at the Heidelberger Kunstverein and then at Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen.
In the center of the scene, two knights duel in a traditional jousting event displaying their prestige and ambition with magnificent equipment. From above, court ladies observe the demonstration of masculine strength and comment on it with ambiguous gestures that defy clear interpretation. Shown as empty shells, where only half their bodies are fabricated, the ladies have a mask-like lack of expression. Representative of how their historical counterparts are not fully three-dimensional in written history, Scherer’s ladies-in-waiting function as a hollow vessel on which to project their roles within the concept of courtly love, serving as an almost dehumanized instigator of the competitions as it was assumed that they were demanding this as a proof of love.
The winner of such competitions was whoever had broken the most lances, which were counted at the end of the tournament. The panoramic painting that frames the scene provides the key to its inherent criticality by showing deforestation for lance production as the background event of the courtly ritual.
Embedded in the flowing landscape, there is a heteronormatively organized society made up of men who produce tournament lances and women who stuff and slaughter geese to produce foie gras. The gross exploitation of natural resources reveals itself as a prerequisite for elitist culture as well as a result of a social dynamic that translates the taming of nature into a kind of ballet of the genders that shows how the fulfillment of male and female-defined tasks constitutes mutual desire. At the right end of the panorama, contemporary businessmen who have stepped out of a Tesla appear as buyers of the lances. They illustrate the continuity of the topic, which extends into the present, as masculinity is still defined by the consumption of the environment – even with the electric car as it too relies on conventional energy sources. This caricature of historical events shows how the exhaustion of natural resources and life for the benefit of a triumphant display of self-proclaimed honor is an inherently self-destructive structure.
By refusing complete historical imitation through the inclusion of elements from various eras, such as a car, a cell phone and an aircraft, Scherer constructs a cross-disciplinary approach that satirizes heteronormative culture and its deleterious division between male and female, as well as that between human and nature.
Agnes Scherer (1985, Lohr am Main) lives and works in Salzburg and Berlin. She studied painting at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf and is currently a professor of Painting at the Universität Mozarteum Salzburg.
Scherer’s work develops unique forms of presentation by inscribing handmade artifacts into holistic theatrical frameworks. With her elaborate operettas and narrative installations, she creates complex pictorial work that resists immediate objectification and commodification, instead demanding from viewers a heightened level of focus and engagement. A persistent questioning that runs through her art-making aims at power relations and their underlying psychologies. Drawing from analyses of artistic, anthropological and cultural history, her work often illustrates the uncanny ways in which historical systems, economies and roles are reflected in the present.
Previous solo exhibitions include Kunstverein Düsseldorf; Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen; PAGE, New York; Kunstverein Heidelberg; 1646, The Hague; Cabaret Voltaire, Zürich; Kinderhook & Caracas, Berlin; Horse & Pony, Berlin; TRAMPS, New York.
Photos by Marjorie Brunet Plaza