Imagine a painting of the sea. A full moon partially hidden by thin clouds. The inky sky reflected in the expansive ocean. The image is completed on both sides by a rocky crevice that frames the image leading the eye from foreground to background. This crepuscular scene — a symbol of a certain type of escape — is an idea of the rural reduced to a signal. It is landscape as road sign, to be read quickly and recognised at distance. This is a common strategy within the work of Danish artist Ditte Gantriis. Think of a candlestick. What does a whicker basket look like? Now imagine them scaled up. What would these objects look like in a cartoon? The archetypal becomes astronomical and absurd.
Think about the film Honey I Shrunk the Kids and the shrunken protagonists negotiating an unfamiliar landscape of over-sized domestic appliances. The home suddenly becoming weaponised. What happens when the familiar and at hand are suddenly estranged? Gantriis’ work similarly offers an adjusted sense of the everyday, forcing us to look afresh. Looking at the artist’s work is like being prescribed glasses for the first time with the world brought into sharper focus. Groceries lie on glass table tops. Aubergines, courgettes, fennel and salami made with coloured and blown glass, made in collaboration with a master glass maker. While their forms signal sustenance, their ever-ripe surfaces remain inedible. The artist defers the satisfaction of consumption, instead presenting a type of mirage — in sight but perpetually out of reach. This is food to be chewed in the mind rather than the mouth.
Running through Gantriis’ work is an investment in the idea of cliches and archetypes. How can one courgette stand in for all the others? The artist originally studied printmaking, and one can see these objects as a type of cast. Similarly to a screen print, a vegetable is both singular and repeatable and, with only minor variations, you know what a potato is going to taste like. The term cliche dates back to the printmaking studios of the 19th century where it was used to denote a printer’s stereotype block (the metal typeface used to print from). A cliche is repetition with only incremental change. If we think about Gantriis’ landscape painting we can say that it aggregates complex and nebulous ideas of the rural and flattens them. Imagine every picture of the sea ever taken and now superimpose them over the top of each other — the hazy lines start to consolidate, forming a composite. This image may start to look a bit like Gantriis’ painting. Stereotypes, archetypes, cliches and caricatures — they each articulate an attempt to simplify — it is the image, rather than an image. One can think of a cliche as a form of overplayed pop song, its obvious charms rendered numb through over play. Gantriis’ adjusts the frequency, foregrounding the melody over the din of the static, and reminding us of the song’s original potency.
Similarly, we can see the homogenising effect of mass production very clearly in the flat pack Modernism of IKEA. From Malmo to Newcastle, Berlin and Mumbai, one piece of furniture starts to look much like any another. Yet Gantriis’ work resists the thematics of flat-pack personalisation, her work is too lovingly crafted. Often working with specialised fabricators, her practice elides various aesthetic registers. The rugged authenticity of artisanal processes often meet gaudy decorative flourishes. Elegance abuts the garish. Her work, like the world around us, is formed of fictions and hybrids. I’m reminded of how Chow Mein is an American approximation of Chinese food, a result of migration and translation between geographies and communities. I think about super market apples that are genetically modified and waxed to make them shinier and more desirable. At a point where even our food is designed, the authentic and synthetic are increasingly conjoined.
Gantriis focuses on how visual lexicons are upended and repurposed. There is a slipperiness to our visual world that the artist embraces. One can think of the mock tudor facades of millionaire footballers and the faux-Classical facia of Regency architecture (most of the centre of London is designed like this). In both instances, a historical style is commandeered to validate new money. It’s the same story on the East Coast of America. Washington is architectural karaoke, aping Roman and Greek motifs to fictionalise a historical legitimacy. All design has genealogies and, as such, is often instrumentalized towards social and political agendas. It can be camouflage and signal, be a tool of oppression as much as emancipation. The surface of objects and images are containers for messages and meaning, and to read them means developing a visual literacy in the broadest terms. Gantriis’ work reminds us that making is a form of rereading, sentizising us to the signs around us.
Issues of taste are more broadly about questions of access. Think about the pejorative terms for falsified luxury and privileges that are perceived to be unearned. Ostentation, adornment, extravagance and bling — new money tends to flaunt its wealth, while older money maintains a dignified modesty. It’s a common narrative and accusations of bad taste are often gendered, class bound and racial. People that want power, or feel underrepresented, tend to speak the loudest because silence is often a privilege of access. Of course, if you don’t agree with a prescribed narrative you can reject it — you can form your own language. The decorative and domestic are of interest precisely because of their historical marginalisation. Lets remember that beauty is a contested value and not the privilege of a few. Strategies of visual seduction, enjoyment (and humour), so often labelled as kitsch within Modernity, are common strategies within so much contemporary practice. Gantriis even names her new exhibition Sexual Feeling, explicating this desire for a certain sensuality. Taken collectively, the exhibition asks the question, why should pleasure be denied?
Text by George Vasey
Sexual Feeling by Ditte Gantriis
Through December 23
Courtesy Frutta, Rome
Photo: Roberto Apa