In a funny way, it is often through our relationships with others that we come to know ourselves best. The collaboration of Kerstin Brätsch and Debo Eilers, two very different artists who have been making work together for over five years, is defined by productive friction. Independently, German-born, New York-based Brätsch may be one of the major painters of her generation; she is certainly among the most prolific. Working at a Warhol-esque pace, she bends art historical styles of abstraction, often in oversize, materially precarious works. Also based in New York, Eilers approaches sculpture with an unhurried and emotional tenor. His work dwells on the populist aesthetic of children’s toys while also hinting at a subjugation of the self. The duo’s recent exhibition in Vienna grounded their usual creative tension in corporeal terms.
“Kaya V” was the fifth iteration of Brätsch and Eilers’s ongoing project with their muse and collaborator Kaya, a teen girl who is the daughter of one of Eilers’s childhood friends from Texas. Brätsch and Eilers have been working with Kaya since she was 14, in the process encouraging her to develop as an artist herself. Their Kaya-related exhibitions are different from either’s individual practice. These collaborations are often unfussy, engrossing and confusing affairs. Presentations in 2013 at New York’s 47 Canal and Los Angeles’s Various Small Fires included performances (a gambling game and a low-stakes art auction, respectively) designed to embroil the audience in theatrics. The manifestation in Vienna’s Meyer Kainer gallery this fall eschewed any such deliberate participatory system, and instead focused on the arrested, unmoving body.
Several gurneylike platforms elevated a cast mold of Kaya’s prostrate, 19-year-old frame, ensconced in layers of thick industrial plastics familiar from Eilers’s solo work. Painted surfaces in Brätsch’s unmistakable hand emerge in the folds of plastic like skin grafts or tattoos suddenly abstracted away from their host. In the onion-esque geology of this work (all pieces 2015) a certain technical flair arises. Plastic threads weave through the layers of resin and suggest analogs to snaking computer cables. Green LED lights pockmark the work, providing a breath of electronic current in the otherwise lifeless, entombed avatar.
A series of translucent body-bag forms hung on the walls, suspended from a network of leather straps fastened to the kind of tubular metal handrails you might find in a spa.These works confronted the viewer as paintings would. Brätsch has often created pieces on translucent supports, and she clearly engaged the sculptural mechanics with explosive vigor, picking up the green hues from the lights and creating currents of pigment that push against the green and black dyes in Eilers’s resin skeletons. Parts of the work are tagged with silver-white marker drawings by Kaya, forms that echo the scrawling sometimes found on the canvas backpacks of American high school students.
The density of the works on display, in their frenetic compositions and breathy exuberance, suggested the dynamics of an underground rave or nightclub, a place where hot bodies crowd to ingest and exude a haze of essence unknown to the isolated figure. The club is also, one might add, an arena of technological groundbreaking: a place where new drugs are introduced to new publics, where an evolving sound culture helps bodies limp along into the coming sunlight (nightlife is nothing if not an eternal becoming).
The walls of the gallery, painted with graffiti-style writing by N.O. Madski—Brätsch’s brother, and the nominal organizer of the exhibition—further articulated an ambience of motion suddenly stilled. In the back of the gallery was the exhibition’s coup de grace: a series of oversize metallic coins created on commission for the French mint, Monnaie de Paris, were suspended, removed from whatever circulation they may have been intended for, and inscribed with drawings and texts by a horde of unnamed collaborators. Even in a world where bodies are restrained by the pervasiveness of virtual experience, it’s the semblance of language (and the tokens of capital) that pulse onward into the night.