Erwin Wurm: Beauty Business

Melissa Barry
July 25, 2012

Well-known for his deft touch with absurdity, Austrian-born artist Erwin Wurm creates engaging works that play with our expectations and assumptions of materials. Frequently interested in the body and how clothing and performance can alter its form, for the work in his Texas debut at the Dallas Contemporary, however, Wurm focuses on the home and dwelling. In addition to their psychological implications as a place to be, the home and dwelling function much like clothing’s relationship to the body with its ability to reveal, conceal and protect. Bringing together seemingly disparate artworks—all in his characteristic humorous fashion—Wurm investigates the meaning of these facades.

Erwin Wurm: Beauty Business (installation view), 2012; photographed by Kevin Todora; image courtesy Dallas Contemporary.

The show opens with Wurm’s now infamous “drinking sculptures” from 2011. Playful credenzas—furniture traditionally created to stow away the evidence of one’s drinking habits—turned on their sides now act as bars. Wurm brings the household furnishings to life, as his bathroom graffiti-like instructions and drawings inscribed on the furniture interact with viewers, encouraging each to “help yourself get drunk.” Opening the doors and drawers as if a cabinet of curiosity, viewers discover each work stocked with a liquor bottle and a glass or two. If it’s not entirely clear whether Wurm’s prescriptions are sincere or a ploy to fool you into drinking the artwork, the fourth credenza instructs its audience to “do it seriously,” further egging on the viewer pour libations. Imbibe with caution, however; Wurm solemnly reminds us of those who struggled with alcoholism by dedicating each credenza to famous self-abusive artists such as Pollock and Kippenberger.

Continuing his interest in playing with our expectations and assumptions of domestic materials, Wurm explores the plasticity of clothing. Similar to the home, clothing is a second skin that—typically—shelters and veils; yet Wurm’s dynamic sweater sculptures are instead violently stretched garments impaled several times in various directions by crude wooden frames. They look brutal and pathetic at the same time (I imagine it’s how I look in a fitting room when I frantically try to take off a garment two sizes too small, arms and elbows protruding every which way). In changing their intended use, they are no longer cozy and comforting sweaters.

Erwin Wurm: Beauty Business (installation view), 2012; photographed by Kevin Todora; image courtesy Dallas Contemporary.

Scattered throughout the show are several melting or distorted buildings and crudely rendered homes. Placed unceremoniously on Styrofoam blocks, they lean and fall off their pedestals as a result of weak foundations and frameworks. Some works humorously depict the demise of iconic Modern architecture such as Guggenheim (melting) and Mies van der Rohe – melting (both 2005). Neither can the home escape breakdown as one porch façade droops and slides off its Styrofoam base towards the ground. Poetically and satirically, Wurm seems to tell us that regardless of what we see on the face of it, without a stable groundwork and internal structure the home and dwelling are subject to change.

Wurm’s homely sweater sculptures and melting dwellings stand in contrast to the most provocative and conspicuous works in the show, The Bobs. Curious and arresting in their size and stature, the towering polystyrene and acrylic monoliths suggest fleshy folds and orifices of the body. Seemingly unfinished with exposed polystyrene surfaces, these structures are the dismantled fragments of Wurm’s Fat House (2003): a life-size paunchy house. Cut into nearly a dozen pieces and scattered about the gallery, the home is no longer discernable and our imaginations run wild as we interpret windows and doors as sphincters and bowels.

With humor and ironic wit, Erwin Wurm’s work shows us that there is more than meets the eye as he reflects on the vulnerability of the home and dwelling, whether sliced and diced and cut to pieces, melting away, concealing what lies inside, or precariously falling off the pedestal.

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