Cosima von Bonin

New York

at Petzel

View of Cosima von Bonin’s exhibition “WHAT IF IT BARKS? featuring AUTHORITY PURÉE,” 2018, at Petzel.

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“Cosima von Bonin stages her objects while holding back a lot of information about the meaning of things.” So writes artist Arnold Mosselman in a statement accompanying this show, and he’s not kidding. The objects in “WHAT IF IT BARKS? featuring AUTHORITY PURÉE” were readily identifiable, but quite what they added up to was more ambiguous. Mosselman describes his subject as being “like a foggy cloud,” and von Bonin, speaking with him about her process, admits, “Everything comes to me while I watch British shows and movies, listening to music and things like that. Or I steal it somewhere. I mostly sleep.” But such wry maneuverings aside, there are at least some clear themes in her current work, not least of which is the life aquatic.

Von Bonin’s 2016–17 exhibition at New York’s SculptureCenter was titled “Who’s Exploiting Who in the Deep Sea?” And even if the question wasn’t at the forefront of most people’s minds, the battle it identified worked pretty well as a metaphor for the woeful spectacle of political backstabbing taking place at the time. The show itself was something of a test for viewers, too: how much of von Bonin’s outwardly childlike treatment of an already thorny topic would they tolerate? The presentation abounded with soft toys and cheerful printed fabrics. But while often funny, it was far from comforting. The motifs might have been familiar from childhood, but the artist’s hybridizing and mutating of them could feel teasing, even cruel.

Similarly, “WHAT IF IT BARKS?” was populated by cartoonlike versions of sea creatures, and again the tenor was playful in mocking, absurdist style. In the gallery’s first room, an oversize pair of fluffy purple hermit crab claws protruded from a steel cement mixer, as if belonging to the victim of a new and oddly industrial culinary technique. And in the main space, a circle of sea mammals and fish was ranged around a giant suspended cat-food tin. One killer whale sat at a school desk, while another rested its head on a small chair. Heavily accessorized mackerel, some bearing guitars or ukuleles, teetered on pedestals. A couple of shark heads burst from pails of (plastic) water, with gingham torpedoes in their mouths. The whole crew was periodically shrouded in a pelagic mist issuing from a smoke machine hidden inside the aforementioned tin.

In an adjoining gallery were the likes of What If It Barks 7  (Coffee Pot Version), 2018, in which a dressed-up, enlarged version of the titular vessel is accompanied by a vintage surfboard; the undated Hippo’s House (Property of Arnold Mosselman, The Hague), in which a pachyderm figurine roars from the upper window of a tin tower-shaped bird feeder; several monochrome cotton panels (von Bonin calls them “rags”) embroidered with sketchy abstract designs; and a cardboard pyramid upholstered in striped cotton and wool. Near the entrance to the show hung Enough Romance, Let’s Fuck (2016), a pair of banners that riffs, perhaps, on the ancient “fuck art, let’s dance” meme.

Von Bonin’s artistic heritage—a veteran of the Cologne scene, she picked up her pop cultural ’tude from Martin Kippenberger and Michael Krebber—goes some way toward illuminating her approach. But she’s as much a gleeful maverick as a studious follower-through of art-historical lineages. Having ceased to care much about audience reaction, she does what she likes, and what she likes most is to set out into uncharted waters, fishing pole in hand.