GERTRAUD MOHWALD at the Gardiner Museum (111 Queen’s Park), to January 20. $12, stu/srs $8, free first Friday of the month and every Friday 4-9 pm. 416-586-8080. Rating: NNN
Looking at master German ceramicist Gertraud Möhwald’s human figures, it’s hard not to think of ancient myths – from Genesis to the Golem – about sculpting a sentient being out of mud and clay.
Whether it’s just a head or an entire torso, Möhwald conjures the sense of solidity and presence (some might even say spirit) we associate with real people. While this feat alone is impressive, what’s more remarkable (and more interesting in a contemporary, ancient-myth-forsaking context) are related questions about what Möhwald’s own personal Eden or ghetto might be.
It’s clear from Mohwald’s collaged construction methods that her ideas of paradise challenge the airbrushed, Botoxed version we so often yearn for: the surface of her sculptures are formed by a junkyard assemblage of busted plates, mugs and toilet bowls that for all their rawness are incredibly beautiful and unified.
Wall texts also reveal that Western versions of urban utopia were like a prison to her.
After spending most of her life in the war-battered streets and buildings of East Germany, Möhwald couldn’t bear the level of perfection in the West. "People shouldn’t think that just because something [like a fire-bombed Dresden building] looks all right on the surface again, the other never existed."
In effect, Möhwald’s words and deeds dare viewers to embrace the beauty of the broken, the decayed, the unsealed – and not just in the context of softcore “shabby chic” home furnishings and flea-bitten vintage clothing, but in real human lives and bodies.
Though Möhwald herself largely succeeds at this paradigm-reversing endeavour, the exhibition is undercut by unfortunate presentation choices.
The spare white room feels too echoey and overlarge; it needs more of that cluttered, messy, mud-shaded intimacy the artist herself so loved.
The show’s still well worth seeing.
Just make sure you get up close to see every "mistake."