MANY BUTTONS FOR A SINGLE BUTTONHOLE
Reflections on Angela Lorenz's work
by Miranda MacPhail



By placing intellect at the center of artistic operations, the first exponents of Minimal and Conceptual Art would profoundly influence the following generations. Younger artists would accept conceptualism as a point of departure but set aside the initial rigor of these movements so that they could open up their investigations to include personal experience. This meant that the role of the individual acquired new dignity and was understood to be an instrument of intellect, perception and spirit: a carrier of albeit partial truths. Even today we can observe the tendency on the part of artists to orient their research towards the rediscovery of man's instinctual behavior.

It is in this recent generation of artists that we must place Angela Lorenz and her art. Her works are generated by a Concept that is then filtered through a close observation of social customs and everyday objects. We are dealing here with an eccentric overturning of conceptualist art: the artist's investigation leads her to identify a guiding idea for the realization of the piece which results, however, not in a unitary solution but rather in a compound of multiple possibilities. This way of working is fueled by Lorenz's wish to communicate on different levels, both in a tactile as well as an intellectual sense, and one can't help but be struck by her choice of unusual solutions to achieve her goal. Her cumulative approach, evident in all her "books", can be summed up in a symbol that invests another field of the artist's interests: a single buttonhole (the guiding concept) can be fitted by a number of different kinds of buttons (the solutions) coming from selected sample books.

Any phenomenon can be of interest to Lorenz and become an object of investigation, even some that might be taken for granted at first: from the carpets we stand on to publicly-posted obituary announcements. The subjects chosen reveal several of the artist's personal interests, such as themes dealing with the perception of women, of nomads and the exploited elements of today's society. Another predominant theme, treated in various ways, has to do with recycling.

A paradigmatic example of the artist's way of working is found in Binding Ties which deals with the economic exploitation of Third World countries. The container seems to be a simple necktie bag but when we open it, we discover that the object inside is made of a series of regimental neckties printed on paper and folded up like a fan. The text printed directly on the object refers, in ironic terms, to the international trade of materials such as rubber, silk, cotton and copper. Meanwhile we are invited to play with the object: if we turn it upside down, it takes the form of a stereotypical Native American headdress. In the colophon we read that the same materials of exploitative trade referred to in the text were used in making the piece. Even the "Saville Row" paper on which the work is printed was chosen for its pertinence to the theme: in fact, it takes its name from the London street where the most important English businessmen are fitted out for their suits (and ties).

Once the theme has been chosen and the necessary research carried out, often in socio-anthropological fields, Lorenz compiles a series of examples that show the results of her investigation without imposing a single view of the question. Indeed the operation branches out as each example leads to new openings. The act of uniting different fragments that are able to make us feel the presence of universal values can't help but remind us of the old Wunderkammer, which were simultaneously scientific laboratories and artistic creations. Nearer to our experience we are also reminded of artists who engaged in collecting and categorizing activity with regards to objects and actions, a spirit of investigation that brings to mind artists as different as Marcel Broodthaers, Alighiero e Boetti, Vincenzo Agnetti.

Among the works being considered here, the presence of written text is an integral part of the book-object and it can take any of very different forms: an historical/scientific essay (as in Bologna Sample), verses recalling those Victorian rhymes imparted to children to direct their upbringing (Where's the Button? even takes its name from a children's game), a juxtaposition of single words to form a poem (Noticing Death). Even the titles, which almost all entail plays on words, serve to heighten the irony that informs the work.

Lorenz's approach to the visualization of the concept is developed at the same time as the text. The images should not be considered illustrations but rather parallel commentaries on the same subject. They can be hand-painted in watercolors (Bologna Sample), assemblages of recycled materials (Pandora's Box, the button installations), photographs (Noticing Death) or prints that sometimes represent remarkable techniques that comment on the artwork; for instance in Paper Plates - She's a Dish, drawings taken from Renaissance ceramics are transferred onto paper plates by printing blocks whose surface has been prepared with reliefs made of cooked and molded spaghetti. In the Nomad's Chair a nineteenth-century Kurdish rug is recreated through prints made from bits of carpeting. In this way materials that are considered poor and un-artistic - from chewing gum to latex, from wax to ice and rags - become supports for Lorenz's words.

As a spectator of our world, Lorenz allows us to get closer to her work only one step at a time. The choice of creating a book-object shows her desire to carefully control the individual's experience of the artwork: our visual path is determined by the conventions of reading (from left to right, from top to bottom) and by the structure's development through a layout made of pages. A parade of words and images file by our eyes but the expectations we have of one page is betrayed as we turn to the next. Lorenz works wisely and well with the sense of discovery and surprise; games play an important role not only in the layout of the texts and images but in the very structure of each book: in fact almost every piece offers a host of different possibilities for ways to exhibit it.

It is just this aspect that has encouraged the artist to attempt a new way of working inside the Prato headquarters of the Associazione Grafio. Instead of the usual display cases reserved for artists' books, she has undertaken a much vaster space where she has been able to pull the contents from the book containers and display cases to project them onto the walls. There is only one display case off to the side where visitors can see the containers belonging to each piece in the show: a way of creating a wry commentary in the margins of the exhibition space. This experimental way of hanging the exhibition has allowed Lorenz to experiment the relationship of text and image in what is for her an unusual space. It was a way of verifying works that had already been shown elsewhere (Noticing Death, Bologna Book, The Hat's Up to You, Paper Plates-She's a Dish, Binding Ties) as well as the new works (Where's the Button?, The Nomad's Chair) presented here for the first time.