Thomas Rentmeister

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Leigh Robb: Condition Report

Catalogue essay from the exhibition “Thomas Rentmeister. Objects. Food. Rooms.”, Kunstmuseum Bonn, 19.10.2011 – 05.02.2012; in Thomas Rentmeister. Objects. Food. Rooms., (cat.) Kunstmuseum Bonn and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Cologne 2011, German p. 137–139, English p. 140–142.

To consider the beginning of Thomas Rentmeister’s career as an artist is a productive means to study how his practice has developed over the past three decades. Looking at the central ideas and materials which return and are repeatedly transformed or disordered by Rentmeister allows us to see how he extends but productively perverts the logic of minimalism which his work is often associated with or compared to.

During the late 1960s an interest in grids, modular thinking, series, repetition and systematic processes in art was the subject of much fervent investigation, and was eventually coined ‘minimalism’. It was during this time that Mel Bocher, an American artist and writer working with series, wrote his seminal article, ‘Serial Art, Systems and Solipsism’ which defined serial as a procedure rather than as a pictorial or formal tendency. [*1) Mel Bochner, “Serial Art, Systems, Solipsism”, in Arts Magazine, Summer, 1967, in Gregory Battcock (ed.), Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc, New York, 1968, p. 93.] Bochner identified a discrete difference between working in a series and creating different versions of a basic theme, such as Giorgio Morandi’s bottles or Willem de Kooning’s women, for example. In contrast, Bochner made an example of fellow artist Carl Andre’s gridded, modular system incorporating materials such as bricks, cement blocks, wooden beams as units that were a part of a self-generating system. In the case of Dan Flavin, the eight-foot fluorescent light became the unit that would be combined with other like units, and function as the building block of a system. [*2) James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001, p. 100.] Bochner comments that what was common about a certain type of art being made in the late 1960s and described as minimalist, was that it possessed a ‘clearly visible and simply ordered structure’. [*3) Mel Bochner, “Serial Art, Systems, Solipsism”, in Arts Magazine, Summer, 1967, in Gregory Battcock (ed.), Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc, New York, 1968, p. 93.]

In a later essay published in Artforum in 1967, ‘The Serial Attitude’, Bochner revised his definition of seriality reinforcing that ‘serial order is a method, not a style’. He referenced this particular serial ‘attitude’ by providing Donald Judd’s galvanized iron pieces, Sol Lewitt’s orthogonal multi-part floor grid structures, Hanne Darboven’s complicated drawings and Eva Hesse’s constructions as examples. Bochner articulated his position by outlining a set of working assumptions to distinguish serially ordered works from multiple variables: firstly, the terms or interior divisions of the work are arrived at by means of a numerical or otherwise systematically predetermined process (such as permutation, progression, rotation, reversal); secondly, order takes precedence over the execution; and thirdly, the completed work is fundamentally parsimonious and systematically selfexhausting. [*4) Mel Bochner, “The Serial Attitude”, in Artforum, vol. 6, no. 4, December 1967, p. 28.]

It would appear that many of these processes of ordering are fundamental to Thomas Rentmeister’s outwardly methodical and often monochromatic works. In keeping with Bochner’s set of assertions is that Rentmeister systematically adopts a set of industrially mass-produced domestic materials as units or building blocks, from sugar cubes and cotton tips to Tempo tissues, electrical sockets and whole refrigerators. The construction of self-generating systems is indeed central to Thomas Rentmeister’s practice, however, this is the point at which the serial strategy and restrained minimalist logic starts to literally unravel. Rentmeister’s practice is decidedly unparsimonious, being prone to excess. There is also nothing about the artist’s production that is self-exhausting, rather his individual works and larger practice tend to breed organically, fester, or grow to the point of explosion. Even when an eruption or perilous change in condition occurs, this only serves to provoke a new body of work or family of growths. Rentmeister regularly employs the grid as a starting point that operates as both a formal tool and a conceptual strategy, but takes it beyond a simple reworking of modernist strategies of the 1960s and 70s, to the point of purposefully mishandling the fundamental tenets of minimalism.

One of Thomas Rentmeister’s very first works recently returned to his studio. It had been hung in the hallway of his good friend’s mother’s home for the past twenty years. Untitled (1985) is a 55 × 50 cm in length wooden stretcher with 13 thin strips of domestic Scotch sticky tape running horizontally and 12 strips running vertically.

At first it appears to be a rigorous, simple home-made grid, like the support structure for a painting stretcher missing its canvas. It’s dimensions are slightly out, the frame is taller than it is wide, so as to not be a perfect square. The grid of tape at first looks in perfect order, from top to bottom the lines of tape run evenly, applied with measure, but without a ruler. But then as you count each length of tape, from left to right and reach the edge, the last two strips of tape run very close together, squeezed in side by side, forced to fit – the neat logic of the grid has subtly gone awry.

Turning the frame over to assess the back reveals that the tape is held down along each edge by Rentmeister’s favourite Pattex glue and strips of white rags. The wooden frame he made himself, as any self respecting art student would, from purchased standardised lengths of wood from an art store. The Scotch tape could have been from anywhere or anyone, a ubiquitous household or office staple. But looking closely at the condition of the tape, it has held steadfastly in place for 27 years but has dried out, hardened and yellowed. But like a flytrap, it once caught renegade specks of house dust, dirt and hairs on the sticky side of the tape, so one can look through the aged but transparent tape to see abject specimens of the everyday. There is a randomness about how the detritus collected on the tape, which from a distance appears pristine, but when condition reported is soiled. Untitled (1985) is a fulcrum in the oeuvre of Rentmeister, and a close inspection of its materials and current condition reveal much about the inherent order and chaos which happily coexist across all his practice.

Within a year of his Scotch tape grid, Rentmeister made his now famous work untitled, (1985), a real flytrap. As much a collage as a painting, it consists of 36 flies in six even rows of six, stuck in place on a 30 × 30 centimetre linen canvas, the spaces between each insect filled in hastily with white oil paint. This time lines were measured and ruled up on the canvas, the blue grid of the felt tip pen still evident underneath, a nod to minimalist artists such as Agnes Martin or Hannes Darboven. The collection of flies weren’t pinned down in a careful pattern like in a natural history museum, but are held in place with globs of Pattex glue, an odorous strong, synthetic bonding glue with a distinct yellow hue. The flies are units, but each one represents something that spreads germs and carries disease, itself an organic form that could disintegrate gradually over time.

Whilst Rentmeister is drawn to industrial or synthetic materials such as polyester resin, Perspex, bronze and metal, he is also repeatedly drawn to materials that stay soft or have qualities of softness or blurriness. Penaten baby cream is used as the bond for his fridges (Santo*, 2003); Nutella as the grouting for his Styrofoam blocks (untitled, 2010), or Pattex glue for his set of Diagram collages from 2008–09 which does actually hold together tampons, cotton buds and tic tacs, but looks like soft putty that could melt at any moment. But more subtly, his works often feature evidence of fatty or greasy marks, residual stains from oily fingers or morsels of food are perfect examples. If we look at one of Rentmeister’s works produced this year, it connects explicitly with aforementioned taped grid. Untitled (2011) is a beautifully framed rectangular grid of nine different coloured A4 office folders, well-used and replete with stains, greasy indexes of food consumed while working. Much like the early Scotch tape work, the work is self-generated in the home office, or the artist studio where inevitably working, making art and eating happen together. In a slightly different way, in a work produced in 2007 Rentmeister displays a mounted travel blanket (used for wrapping art works) with crumpled bits of sticky brown packing tape, which appears attracted to the furry surface of the blanket by chance, but in this case were purposefully placed by the artist.

Rentmeister pairs materials and processes from the home and from the art world such that they fuse and accept each other, like bone and metal, the body accepting a foreign object. But under the surface there is something volatile that at any moment threatens the stability of the object and needs to be covered over, plastered, bandaged, sealed, held in place. Things appear in order, but there is often a perceived change, or likely slippage in the condition of the materials Rentmeister uses: surfaces become soiled and can’t maintain their pristineness; an object is about to melt, about to burst, or about to fall apart. The structural integrity of the given work is always under scrutiny – how is it held together, will it hold, will it unravel, is it about to explode?

The objects or materials that Rentmeister repeatedly uses, are always threatening to change condition, and rather than undergoing a permutation or change, are always ‘about to’. His practice does embrace grids, repetition or over time appears to unfold as a series or works, but the physical act or appearance of transformation of these materials is what allows the artist to invent ever shifting personal combinations of objects, materials and spaces. What is most important is that the principle of transformation allows the artist to shift the structural integrity of any given work which is precariously posed between stable and explosive, between order and chaos. Briony Fer makes an astute note in her book in the Infinite Line: Remaking Art After Modernism, that fittingly applies to Rentmeister’s practice, ‘if repetition is a means of organising the world it is equally a means of disordering and undoing it’. [*5) Briony Fer, The Infinite Line: Remaking Art After Modernism,em> Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2004, p. 2.]

Thomas Rentmeister repeatedly makes works that appear unstable but somehow maintain their physical composure. The artist systematically delights in disrupting the airtight logic of minimalism and any totalising assumptions we dare make about materials or his work at large.

© Leigh Robb

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