Del Vaz Projects is pleased to present Shell, an exhibition of works by Heidi Bucher (1926–1993), Olivia Erlanger (b. 1990), and Nicola L. (1932–2018), three artists who create home-garment-body metaphors, and often use a literal or allegorical shell to illustrate this constellation. Shell opens on Wednesday, February 16th, 2022, from 12 to 6PM, and a screening of the artists' videos as well as a publication launch takes place on Saturday, April 16th, the closing day of the exhibition.
Despite their opposing qualities—hard versus soft, impenetrable versus porous, stiff versus malleable—Heidi Bucher, Olivia Erlanger, and Nicola L. reveal an interplay of shell and skin. The artworks in the exhibition permit us to enter the flesh of an area, feeling a room as a husk that can encase us, and its walls as membrane we can penetrate. Each work here offers potential ignition for daydream and transformation, reflecting how, to quote Gaston Bachelard, “to change space is to change being.” Through their shared interest in how space is defined in the physical realm, and, more important, in the imagination, each artist builds under the guise of poet-architects.
Throughout her life, Heidi Bucher repeated the words “Rooms are shells, they are skins. Peel off one skin after the other, discard it...,” suggesting an eternal metamorphosis of both the figure and the arena it inhabits. As early as 1974, and already back in Switzerland, she reworked her wearable sculptures Bodyshells (1972), manipulating them into a series of delicate and uninhabited forms. Emptied of its wearer, Bucher dressed the foam cases in garments and swaths of fabric. The Bodyshell on view here (Untitled, 1978-1981), presented for the first time since its initial presentation at LACMA in 1972, dons a women’s blouse with the sleeves outstretched, evoking the vestiges of a sheath from which a dragonfly emerges. The new image became a leitmotif for her, as she later fashioned herself as the insect using costumes and skinning-performances.
Architecture and memory meld in Bucher’s 16 Der Parkettboden des Herrenzimmer in Wülflingen, Winterthur (1979). In her methodical “skinnings,” she would apply gauze and latex onto the walls, floors, and furniture in historically charged locations and pull off the layers when they were nearly dry. In 1978, she revisited her childhood home to complete what is arguably the most visceral and personal of her scaffolded skinnings: that of her father’s office. In Swiss upper-middle class society, the Herrenzimmer, or the Gentlemen’s Study, was a den reserved only for the men of the family, and where Bucher’s father displayed his collection of hunting weapons. The artist, it seems, was determined to confront the social divisions of nineteenth-century bourgeois engineering, beginning with a softening of this male-dominated, patriarchal territory. A year later, she returned to the Herrenzimmer again, this time dissecting the parquet floor into 46 identical tile-skins, number 16 of which is on view here.
In Olivia Erlanger’s newest work, Act I (2022), she erects a dollhouse, cut open at a cross section, split and encased within a large eyelid and plexiglass lens. The rooms in Act 1 are unfurnished, letting us in on a moment of reverie and insight by revealing the most elusive parts of the house along a single corridor: a half-opened door, empty corners, and a staircase. The liminal, nondescript chambers and thresholds in Act I are places of passage, meditation, and contemplation, providing an intimate and shadowy shell for the body to rest, intensely and absolutely. In viewing this piece, we enter it, occupy it, perform in it, and perhaps embody it, ultimately tainting it of its emptiness.
Two planet sculptures by Erlanger, 1.3521, 103.8198 and 39.31037776068422, -123.79876400034462 (both 2022) project an exaggerated suburban topography. Each planet is cast in silicone, coating the patriarchal specters of the suburban neighborhood, which symbolizes a sort of prison for the female gender, in a sensual, erotic, and flesh-like matter. In this respect, the spheres touch upon the similarities between the architectures of the physique, dwelling, and suburb, mimicking their communal anatomy of pathways, circuits, and systems. At the same time, Erlanger’s planets capture the unwelcoming inhumanity of modern houses and suburbs. Like models of the solar system, they allow us to grasp the vast and complex societal and cultural structures of our world, and how we have come to inhabit them like a shell, and to wear them, like skin.
From 1966 to 1969, Nicola L. traveled between New York, Paris, Ibiza, and Antwerp, producing canvases with appendages sewn onto their surfaces, each one painted a specific color and labeled as a different natural element—sky, earth, sun, sea, etc. They became known as Pénétrables, a term coined by art critic Pierre Restany in his 1968 description of entering one as “a journey that’s an organic ritual of penetration and osmosis.” Nicola went on to produce dozens of Pénétrables, using canvas, cotton, or vinyl and playing with size and scale, at times providing a shell for the entire body or just for the head. Featured in this exhibition is a full-body Pénétrable titled Cloud (1974–78), as well as an untitled green canvas mask, or head Pénétrable, from the late nineties. With these wearable paintings, Nicola hands her viewers a second skin, a mechanism to bridge the material and metaphysical; to merge with a Cloud is to domesticate limitless space and inhabit endless time.
When contextualized within a contemporary lens, Nicola’s Pénétrables not only address the discourse around racial inequality and discrimination of the period in which she made them—and which persist today—but also seemed to have set the stage for a nonbinary or genderqueer future. Apart from her gendered functional works, which allude to the subjectification of the female form, Nicola’s Pénétrables prompt us to shed our individual identities in exchange for a share of a collective skin.
Shell is an invitation into these living and breathing constructions, offering a new perspective on the corporeal relationship to space. Whether home, costume, or body, for these three artists, the shell represents a dialectic between memory and fantasy from which a boundless number of possibilities arise. The oscillation between these opposites, however, is frictionless, varying constantly in degrees along an infinite axis: open, half-open, barely open, and closed; porous, semi-porous and impassable; singular, collective and whole.