Karin Sander: Burnett Miller Santa Monica, California

During the past several years, Karin Sander has receive considerable recognition for her wall polishings—ethereal, highly reflective works installed directly on the walls in a given location, two examples of which were recently shown in New York at a group exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery and a permanent example of which can be seen on the second floor at MoMA. As much s these refer to paintings per se, they are technically made by the removal of paint, and this removal—this absence, or emptying-out has its own austere connotations. While seemingly effortless, and also suffused with an increasingly rare kind of visual humility (they do not call attention to themselves, nor do they seek to impose a dominant aesthetic vision on the site in question) they are labor-intensive to the extreme requiring the kind of active, hands-on devotion that one would normally associate with much more muscular, repeatedly, and somewhat obsessively, polishes the surface to achieve her desired effect: a mirrory sheen that, depending upon one’s perspective, withdraws altogether into a near-invisibility or is startlingly reflective and glimmering.

Sander’s exhibition at Burnett Miller was an especially good example of how effective, challenging, and also simply gorgeous, these works can be. Upon entering the gallery, one’s first impression was of nothingness and emptiness, a space devoid of objects altogether. Only gradually did one discover a large (10’x 6’) polished form on the wall, and this fresco-sized rectangle seemed charged with an almost impossible sensitivity, a hyper-alertness to the vicissitudes of light, to the motions of the viewer, to anything whatsoever in its vicinity. Still, despite its large scale, it seemed to dissolve from a distance, only to intensify when one approached it up close, especially from an angle. And it took even longer to discover another similar polished form installed on the opposite wall.

Both works nevertheless had a profound impact on the space, concentrating light on their surfaces, catching and displaying external events as fleeting imagery, mirroring each other across an empty expanse, enlisting not only the immediate architecture but the entire volume of the room. One loomed into view while the other retreated; from the middle of the room both appeared apparitional, or as traces only dimly perceived. Here, size was an issue. A monumentalism reminiscent of soaring Abstract Expressionist works was stripped of its imposing connotations and rendered as something fragile and ephemeral.

As paintings—actually as extremely unorthodox paintings made without a brush, canvas, or paint—Sander’s wall polishings don’t project meaning or self-contained visual events to the viewer, but instead function as screens upon which reality itself is presented and transformed. They literally allow for what is outside to enter the work as visual forms and indeed it is difficult to imagine works more thoroughly open to, and inclusive of, the surrounding environment. While it is possible to approach them as radical variations on the tradition of monochrome paintings, this is only a limited reference, at best. Far from continuing the monochromatic commitment to a one-color ground devoid of imagery as a fit zone for rich contemplation, Sander’s works are filled with endlessly-changing visual phenomena, and they have much more to do with multiplicity than with uniformity. There is also something expressly sensual about how they function in a site, something suffused with a cool and understated erotics, which has little to do with transcendental exaltation. Sander’s highly polished, fantastically smooth forms tend to interrupt the stolidity of the surrounding architecture, subverting its containing and defining heft altogether. As much as they can dissolve into the architecture, the architecture in turn dissolves into them, into their palpable undulations and glassy tactility.

Sander’s wall polishings also involve some difficult and challenging conceptual elements, if such words can be applied to works that otherwise are majestically, almost heartbreakingly, delicate. For one thing they completely rearrange the normal orientation between viewer and artwork. Rather than being presented with a particular artist’s personal vision, one discovers a hybrid arena which is simultaneously an art object, a section of the normal architecture, and a visual field filled with immediate (and not made or invented) occurrences, for instance one’s own reflection. What is common to all of Sander’s work, ranging from wall polishings to large-scale installations to drawings on paper, is a principle of simultaneity in which quotidian materials (such as the found architectural structures in a given location) retain their usual roles and function while there is always the tug of the mundane, bringing things down to earth. For the viewer, one constantly moves back and forth between normalcy and transformation, between the space as it is and the space reconstituted as art. This experience, while illuminating and invigorating, is also unsteadying, for it involves a high degree of self-consciousness. One is caught up in her works, while at the same time one is persuaded to examine, and reexamine, one’s own role as a viewer, with its corresponding expectations and biases.Gregory Volk

Brooklyn, New York

1995