Sabine Moritz-Exhibition Review
Limbo, Sabine Moritz at Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris
Limbo, the state of being suspended in time, between past and future, repose and action, is the title of Sabine Moritz’s solo show at Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris, her first with the gallery. Spread over two floors, the exhibition includes eighteen oil on canvas paintings and over sixty drawings, a dense body of work started in late 2001. Moritz, who lives and works in Cologne, Germany, was on her way to New York City on September 11th when the plane was diverted up to Nova Scotia. For three days she was stuck in this remote landscape, with thousands of other displaced travelers, watching the events and its aftermath unfold. This period of waiting and disconnect, gave her time to reflect about the changing nature of borders, conflict, and the technology of war.
Most of the work in Limbo is based on press clippings after 9/11. But this is just the starting point. Apart from the occasional title, we cannot make out where the image is from or what nationality the people, but we know the signs. Helicopters, soldiers, planes, warships, destruction, chaotic landscapes; the references to war are clear but it’s not a specific war, not a specific news story. Through copious layers of frenetic, linear brushstrokes Moritz deconstructs the photographic reference and focuses her acute perception on isolated moments, hovering objects, figures at rest. She is not interested in showing the violent, graphic images of war, preferring those intimate moments of pause, of limbo. Occasionally we see traces of figures or objects that have been erased, as if they disappeared just before we arrived. There is a feeling of unease, tension, uncertainty, but there is also a sense of calm.
In Sleeper, 2010 a lone soldier rests on his side. He seems at peace but when we try to take in his surroundings we are blocked. Are those missiles behind him? Barbed wire? We have the same feeling of unease with In the Forest, and Flight both 2012, which show figures sitting or laying in a dreary landscape. Are they escaping, hiding, or about to attack? We see traces of smeared, red paint at the feet of one figure and another in fetal position. It can’t be good. Moritz reinforces this unease through the piercing brushstrokes that cut across their bodies and into the dense forest behind.
A recurring motif for Moritz is the helicopter. Planes, drones and warships are also well represented but it’s the helicopter that fully demonstrates her rigorous practice as an artist. The helicopter serves as the emblematic image of recent wars and military engagements-from Vietnam, to Black Hawk Down, to the raid on Osama Bin Laden. In Dust, 2008 or Parade 1, 2007 the helicopter is placed as the central figure, hovering above a landscape. Is it a rescue mission or on its way to attack? In Kandahar, 2004 two helicopters, one on top of the other, are shown towards the bottom of the canvas and about to emerge from a large white flurry of dust or smoke that takes up most of the canvas. One arches up or maybe is about to crash. A couple of small figures are seen below. Outcome uncertain for all. In her series of drawings, whether charcoal, oil stick or graphite, she repeats the force of the blades in motion, the sweep of the body of this crucial wartime aircraft.
The images we see feel timeless or as if they are suspended in time. Painted mainly in muted, earthy tones of green, gray, brown, dark blue, with occasional spots of yellow or red, there is almost the impression that a veil is covering the canvas. Nearly out of focus when looking up close, we only begin to take in the overall picture from a distance back, when the layers and textures of brushstrokes start to reveal their subject matter.
We can’t look at this body of work without thinking about Moritz’s upbringing in East Germany. Born in a small town near the border in 1969, she grew up amid the anxiety, economic hardships, and isolation of the cold war regime. She experienced first hand the atmosphere of threat, fear, and displacement like the figures and moments she captures in paint. Limbo is unspecific and because of this it resonates on many levels. Old or new, we don’t need graphic images to understand the suffering, fear, loss that comes with whatever war it may be.
Originally published in Art Observed, April 2013
image courtesy of marian goodman gallery