A striking group of creatures have taken up residence at Petzel Gallery’s Chelsea space. Most of them originate from the sea, but a rhinoceros and a hippopotamus are also among the bunch. Inside, the fish rock clothing and accessories. The killer whales engage in learning activities. Other animals poke and pop out of incongruous vessels.
Above the ritualistic circle the majority of them form, tribal-like music plays low from a single speaker and smoke wafts from an enormous, opened can of cat food that hangs from the ceiling. This can is labeled “AUTHORITY PURÉE.” The fat cat for which one might imagine it is intended is not around.
These pieces are the creations of Cosima von Bonin whose work has been displayed in some of the most prominent art institutions around the world, including London’s Tate Britain; the Museum für Neue Kunst in Karlsruhe, Germany; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her current exhibition at Petzel, entitled “WHAT IF IT BARKS?,” is her eighth show with the gallery.
Cosima von Bonin was born in Mombasa, Kenya in 1962. She is currently based in Cologne, Germany to which she moved at the age of 25. As a young woman, she mingled with active members of the city’s notable art scene and there began making her own art. While her work is often compared to that of Jeff Koons due to her similar use of appropriation and animal imagery, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last month, von Bonin cited artists André Cadere, Marcel Broodthaers, Cady Noland and Mike Kelley as her first major influences.
Conceptually von Bonin’s art is often a response to capitalism and its impact on society. In her 2010 show “The Fatigue Empire” and “The Lazy Susan Series” in 2011, von Bonin spotlighted the demand capitalism places on us all to perpetually work and function. In her 2017 show “Who’s Exploiting Who in the Deep Sea?” von Bonin paired various sea animals with man-made beach-related objects, alluding to how, in our capitalist driven culture, we make a profit and find respite by disturbing the natural environment.
While von Bonin’s art makes use of multiple media, she is perhaps best known for her use of fabrics. Her fabric paintings — which she refers to as “rags” — and her soft sculptures are particularly of note. In a 2011 interview with Deutsche Welle TV, von Bonin revealed the rather domestic root of her stuffed animal sculptures. “I have two French bulldogs,” she stated, “and just like Yves Saint Laurent’s bulldog, they get a stuffed animal to tear apart everyday. I thought seamstress, soft toys, and that’s how it began.”
The viewer is met with one of these stuffed animals upon entering “WHAT IF IT BARKS?”. The piece, entitled HERMIT CRAB (2018), features the large, drooping claws of a purple crustacean dangling from the opening of a small, orange cement mixer made of steel. Above and to the left hangs HIPPO’S HOUSE (PROPERTY OF ARNOLD MOSSELMAN, THE HAGUE), which consists of a tiny hippopotamus that has popped out of the top window of a small birdhouse-like structure. The object is similar in feel to a cuckoo clock. The hippo, mouth open wide, appears to shout orders down to the crab below. Behind the hippo hangs a giant can.
Moving counterclockwise through the three rooms the exhibition spans, the viewer encounters the somewhat imposing circle of sea creatures next. This circle includes five plastic fish, four of which stand around 6 feet tall. Inspired by the habits of real-life decorator crabs, the fish don fabrics that look like picnic napkins and chain accessories that resemble fishing tools. However, as these worn elements are paired with musical instruments and surfboards, these fish are punk rocker, wild and carefree in tone. Bulges beneath the plaid tunics of some add a hardcore edge.
The killer whales in the circle appear studious. In KILLER WHALE WITH LONG EYELASHES 2 (SCHOOL DESK VERSION) (2018), a stuffed killer whale — comparable in size to the large fish — is seated at a wooden school desk. Ironically, a small, glass bottle of water is situated on the desk to its left, seemingly so it may stay hydrated for the duration of class. In KILLER WHALE WITH LONG EYELASHES I (RHINO VERSION) (2018), a whale lies over a wooden chair and a small stuffed rhinoceros made by German toy maker Renate Müller. Many of Müller’s toys were intended for therapeutic activities including the balance training in which this whale appears to be engaged.
As for the sharks, only their heads appear poking out of wooden dust bins. In WHAT IF IT BARKS 8 (SHARK DUST BIN VERSION I) (2018), a shark grips a stuffed, plaid patterned rocket between its teeth as if playing a game of fetch. In WHAT IF IT BARKS 9 (SHARK DUST BIN VERSION II) (2018), another appears to be in the act of swallowing the same type of rocket. Those that should be the scariest beasts of the bunch appear docile in one instance and in danger in the other.
The final room alludes most directly to fish farming. In AU PAIRS (2018), what appears to be a wooden changing table bursts with stuffed rockets and rods that are similar in design to Cadere’s sticks. A couple of disconnected, plaid crab claws are also in the mix. A pink sculpture that reads “CUTE” is situated on the floor in one corner of the room. A short, black and white striped pyramid stands in another, bringing to mind dollar bills and prison wear.
With her use of appropriation and recycled materials, her circularly moving shows, and her tendency to remix her own work, there is a decidedly cyclical quality to von Bonin’s art. Walking through the rooms of “WHAT IF IT BARKS?” we are confronted with the artificial, perhaps gruesome life-cycle created by farm fishing. We are in the pool with these large sea creatures. In a skylit room, we are asked to step inside their circle and be trapped and visible as some predatory authority looms above.
WHAT IF IT BARKS?
Cosima von Bonin
February 23, 2018 – April 28, 2018
456 W. 18th St.
New York, NY 10011