Born in 1975 in Stuttgart, Germany, Annette Kelm is a photo-based artist with a strong yet subtle practice. She has built a much-deserved reputation as both a talented artist and a critical one — and she has the international exhibition history to back it up. The current exhibition at Presentation House Gallery, which brings together an impressive selection of Kelm’s work from the past ten years, marks her first solo show in Canada.
There are a few words and phrases that are regularly used in discussions around Kelm’s work. Her practice is frequently characterized as post-conceptual. Critics routinely remark on her rejection of digital photographic technology in favor of traditional analogue techniques. And her resulting images are often described as evoking a feeling of the uncanny.
While the West Gallery at PHG displays a diverse group of serial and stand-alone photographs, the East Gallery is devoted primarily to the 2008 series, Caps. Comprised of 19 photographs of baseball caps made of woven straw, the series effectively highlights the uncanny melding of the iconic all-American garment, with the traditional straw sunhat of East and Southeast Asia.
Occasionally, her work is also characterized in terms of its sensuality. The Big Print series, for example, is described by Zoë Gray in “Sense and Sensibility: Pleasure, Pattern and the Picture Plane” as “a riotous display of colour, an indirect portrait of post-war exuberance.”(i) For this series, which is represented by five works in the PHG’s Centre Gallery, Kelm photographed textile patterns from the 1940s by American designer Dorothy Draper. The fabrics are shot close-up, filling the entire picture. As a viewer, you are immediately drawn in, forced to approach the photographs individually with a hesitant intimacy. You need to get close to learn more—to confirm that they are in fact the photographic prints you expect them to be, and not the fabrics themselves.
Yes, the fabrics themselves are decorative, pleasurable, even beautiful. But there is also something cerebral about them. Yes, both the photographs and the patterns themselves are visually stunning and give rise to a sense of luxury. But they are also cold. Through the fabrics that they depict, the photographs point to a time when daily life was decorated with an eye to an intellectual aestheticization—as mirrored by Greenbergian modernism. It is this intersection of the sensual and the cerebral, which the viewer can’t help but get wrapped up in, that easily makes the Big Print series the most time-consuming (i.e. interesting) of the exhibition.
The PHG bookstore currently carries two Annette Kelm catalogues, both of which are worth a look. The first, Lynn Valley #4, reproduces the 19 images from her Caps series. The second is a stunning monograph that includes more than eighty photographs, and three insightful essays. However, I am most eagerly awaiting the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue (forthcoming), which promises critical texts by art historian Tom McDonough and artist Sabine Reitmaier.
(i) Zoë Gray. “Sense and Sensibility: Pleasure, Pattern and the Picture Plane.” In Annette Kelm, Edited by Susanne Pfeffer, Beatrix Ruf, and Nicolaus Schafhausen. Kunsthalle, Zurich; KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; Witte de With, Rotterdam; Koenig Books Ltd, London, 2009.
Vanessa Sorenson works at the Vancouver Art Gallery. She is also a writer with a background in art history and philosophy and is a singer in a new band called Rogue Twinn.