Sophie Reinhold: don’t get used to it

Paolo Baggi

The coated, fetishistic superficiality in the art of Sophie Reinhold engages a political agency built on a powerful sense of carnivalesque joy and hope

At my arrival at the north Mitte studio of Sophie Reinhold in Berlin, there was a sense of  burlesque arrangement, with carnivalesque and comical figures glancing at me. An arborescent “A” carved out of marble powder applied to the jute pointed to her interest in an extended notion of the folkloric. Presented in 2021 at the Vienna gallery Sophie Tappeiner, six large paintings, each presenting an individual letter, spelled out the threatening MENACE on the walls. Through enchanted ruins and rich foliage, the imagery explored the propagation effect of the fairytale, whispering its shared folkloric codes and moral jurisdiction. In this “A”, a rural character carries a beam of wheat on their back, while underneath comical goofy eyes are abstracted from a face, a graphical trick to enhance an emotion of surprise. The character’s isolation towards the edge of the canvas at the bottom of the big A made me think of Clippy, the facetious paperclip character in Microsoft Office, popping up to offer unsolicited help. This proto emoticon highlights Reinhold’s concern for articulating painting’s history and the weight of its myth to a contemporary argot through inclusions that look more like an easter egg hunt rather than clever insider’s jokes.

sophie reinhold
Sophie Reinhold, MENACE, exhibition view, SOPHIE TAPPEINER, 2021. Image: kunst-dokumentation.com.
Sophie Reinhold, Aporia. Installation View. Fitzpatrick Gallery, Paris. Courtesy of the artist and Fitzpatrick Gallery, Paris. Photo: Romain Darnaud.

A is for APORIA (framing the cul-de-sac, as first and last letter), is the title of Reinhold’s exhibition at Fitzpatrick gallery (2022), again spelled out by six paintings. Aporia is a state of puzzlement, an impasse where any easy solution is unattainable. In those stuck situations, anger can come as an easy relief, echoing the state of frustration and lack of alternatives that seems to be the cause of the rampant attraction towards populist ideology in today’s Europe. The exhibition is heterogeneous in style, a carnivalesque assemblage of figures, exploding the unity of the tale to a repertoire of characters instead. Take Die Allegorie von Amor und Psyche, where both mythological protagonists – the nocturnal lovers – meet. The applied marble powder of the background gives a shiny relief, making them float on sugary streams, seemingly indicating (and tasting) like strawberry and vanilla, recalling the advertisements for ice-cream in German swimming pools. A sweet embrace.

Sophie Reinhold, Die Allegorie von Amor und Psyche (L’Allégorie de Cupidon et Psyché), Oil on pigmented marble powder on jute, 138 x 110 cm, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

The painting articulates itself as a witty play on its mythical stature, the imagery owing more to children’s books rather than Janson’s canonical History of Art: an extensive survey, whose first edition published in the 1960s included no women artists throughout the 572 pages. Outside of any call to a romanticized painting à la Poussin, Reinhold’s pastoral iconography evokes various forms of un-discovering. Their sculptural quality informs this effect: first the jute is coated by several layers of marble powder with pigments, sanded down and carved out in some parts, informing the picture plane as a sculptor would work out a bas-relief. This play calls attention to visual layering, a material but also iconological one: the diversity of the sourced images and the popular accessibility of their original context, from Greek mythology to more arcane imagery. Both concur to suggest that depth is ambiguous.

Sophie Reinhold
Sophie Reinhold, Poli, 2019. Pigmented marble powder on canvas. 140 x 190 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

In 2020, at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin, Reinhold presented another of her many-faced exhibitions. This body of works featured geometric compositions referring to  the visual identities of Berlin’s waste management companies, police, and public transport. Reduced while still being recognizable to anyone having even a slight knowledge of the city’s urban life, those patterns could be understood as visual morphemes, the smallest unit of meaning in a given language. The linguistic play appears clearly in her cutting the word “POLICE” to “POLI”: a reference to the Greek “Polis”, i.e. the understanding of a society as a social body rather than administrative organization. To depart from the mundane police sign for a call to a foundational principle of organized societies is not only a comment on the force’s abuse of power, but also highlights a passage from the ordinary to the elevated that is constitutive of Reinhold’s art: derived abstract entities, their formal simplicity and symbolic content (a cerebrus of Berlin’s public infrastructure) pinpointing a large range of questions related to collective living or societal organization.

Sophie Reinhold, IO NON SONO, Pigmented marble powder on jute, 150 x 150 cm, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

The seemingly overwhelming range of references create a visual potpourri, erasing the hierarchy of taste for a recipe of sublimated leftovers. As a result, Reinhold’s solo shows often look like group ones. Take her 2022 exhibition at Pio Pico in Los Angeles titled the end of here and now: Arabesque paintings shared the space with carnivalesque and grotesque figures, scenes seemingly sourced from 50s Hollywood movies. A west coast-specific feeling was present in other works too: an abstract landscape or the front of a car painted as kind of advertisement recall Ed Ruscha, while a blue and red concentric series of circles evoked a color field, Kenneth Noland picture, albeit in a goofier and less expressive way.

Sophie Reinhold, The Ballad of Lost Hops, exhibition view, Sundogs, Paris, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Sundogs.

As a pivotal moment, Reinhold’s 2019 exhibition at Sundogs in Paris marks an increasing site-specific interest, as she tends to organize her works inside a broader context of reception shaped by the qualities of the space as well as more cultural specificities. A painting formally presenting the grid structure of the opposing window plays on the bohemian cliché of Paris (Sundogs, a private apartment on the last floors of the building, benefited from a typical view of the characteristic city’s roofing made of zinc and small clay chimneys), relating to the artist’s upbringing in East Berlin during the last years of the GDR, where the French capital was greatly idealized. This playful approach highlights the artist’s recurring interest to locate the exhibition inside extended societal, economic or historical structures. The centerpiece of the show confirms this posture: four paintings, each representing a figure taken in physical labor, function as an allegory of the four seasons typically decorating building’s facades in Western and Eastern European totalitarian regimes. In front of them, in what might have been the living room of the apartment, white and rose armchairs rest, vaguely looking like an antique roman seat. (Who’s the member of the Nobilitas waiting to sit on them?) As lavish decorations relating to the paintings, they also offer a way to contemplate forms of authoritative regimes, not necessarily in a painful position, as the sculptures were made out of a sliced bathtub, suggesting a more imaginative act in the comfort of hot water.

Reinhold’s multiplication of a “painterly character” across many exhibitions makes any pretense of strong individuality obsolete, insisting rather on the constitutive relationships between different media, styles, trends, and postulates. This diversification marks how collectivity and individuality are entangled together, refusing a monolithic reading of her oeuvre for the open-source typical of oral culture, and a more embodied interpretation of the works.

While in residency in Florence as the recipient of the 2012 Villa Romana Prize, Reinhold discovered the paintings of Pontormo, a Florentine artist in the first half of the 16th century and main representative of the mannerist movement. His use of metallic colors to depict figures that seem to abandon their status as images struck a chord with Reinhold: Pontormo’s surprising simplicity as a “realistic mannerist” (Reinhold’s words), relating to the way her characters escape their respective picture planes. It is no surprise that Dave Hickey discussed the Florentine painter along with Tom & Jerry, Donald Duck, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, stressing the fact that representations can sometimes exceed expectations, especially when the picture’s sensuality comes into play. [1] Mannerism’s artificiality can also help us grasp the performativity in Reinhold’s picture plane, asking the viewer to further interrogate the technical processes through which the painting has been created: how did the surface come about, and where do those multifaceted figures come from? In making the viewer go back to the processual route, the interest is redirected onto the ethics of production, placing painting back in the collective setting of its making. The return appears even more clearly if we see mannerism as an ethical consideration of art, locating it in a disposition, a kind of habitus. [2] Returning the gaze on its internalized intention rather than the outsider’s idealized beauty, mannerism can help us grasp an ethical focus in Reinhold’s work, setting up the painting’s own horizon in the way images and characters emerge, or in the know-how of telling stories.

Sophie Reihold
Sophie Reinhold, CAVA NO 150 (still), 34 min, 2012/13. Courtesy of the artist.

In Florence, another grounding moment for Reinhold was to visit Carrara’s marble quarries and their monumentally scaled terraces of excavated stone, a confrontation with a rationalist logic of extraction coupled with a striking feeling of beauty and the nature of its environment. For five days straight, the artist polished part of an enormous wall. She produced a short film in the quarry, a static shot of herself facing the stone. Slowly, the camera backs off its long reach zoom, gently unveiling the gigantism. At that point, the artist leaves her position and walks back towards the filming camera, finally entering the frame again at the end of the movie, reassuring our sense of scale in a last shot.

This sedimentation of space finds itself back in her paintings, carved out like so many trenches in a given environment. The canvas holds its own landscape, conveys its own sense of scale to better fit a body, a meeting point between viewer and artwork. Reinhold situates the actions inside of those layering plays, allowing for many acts of participation. The paintings are as much material as illusory, as much representational as abstract, and take on an effect that is, in her own words, “fetishistic superficiality”. Said otherwise, it is “a paradoxical vitality: the result is not only deep, but above all flat”. [3] Moreover, there is a bodily presence in her process: the first touches of the paintings are usually done in Reinhold’s studio located next to Schiefe Zähne, the Berlin-based gallery run by her partner Hannes Schmidt. The rhythm of the changing exhibitions and the discussions with the numerous hosts of the gallery opens up a critical context that informs this initial state of production. The works later move to their second studio where they are offered a new view, leaving the discursive effervescence for a more secluded setup where they might radically change.

Sophie Reinhold, APORIA (A), Oil on marble powder on jute, 140 x 125 cm, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Reinhold’s paintings articulate an ethical commitment that owes as much to the mannerist’s know-how as to a dissociative letting go. Behind the language games and comical figures, the inner mechanism of her works sends them back to a sense of collective agency. It’s their size, mass, depth, gleaming surface, diversity, power, and menacing authority that give them the status of real paintings. Against a short political time and a fixed horizon of expectation, this realness gives them the directness of carnivalesque celebration, a bursting laughter that pierces through aporia with hope and joy.

[1] Dave Hickey, Pontormo’s Rainbow, in: Dave Hickey, Air Guitar, Essays on Art and Democracy, Art Issues. Press, Los Angeles, 1997

[2] Robert Klein, L’art de la technè, INHA, coll. inédits, Paris, 2017

[3] Tenzing Barshee, The Heartbreaking Pattern of the Present or “A Kind of Post-Corona Impressionism”, in: Sophie Reinhold, Das kann das Leben kosten [exh. cat., 20.05-06.2022 Contemporary Fine Arts, Belin], Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin, 2020

January 11, 2023