For many of us, freeways are a means to get from point A to point B, quickly. We don’t often consider the structure of the thing we’re zooming across (or by) unless we find ourselves stopped on it, wandering under it, or contemplating either its construction or demolition.
But Berlin-based artist Gwenaël Rattke has crafted an entire show around the shape and function of freeways, drawing inspiration from his experiences in Paris, Frankfurt, Berlin and Mexico City. The exhibition, his sixth at San Francisco’s Romer Young Gallery, has the delightfully compound title of Stadtautobahnmeditationen, which translates literally as “City Highway Meditations.”
The show is a series of framed screenprints and collage works, hung one by one at first, then in a dense cluster of two rows. Like a film’s establishing shot, the works on paper move from a bird’s-eye view of a dense metropolis to recognizable individual structures, and finally, to more abstract compositions of fluorescent color and geometric shapes. These last pieces resemble circuit boards, blueprints, or the vast expanses of psychological space.
Inside sleek silver frames, the works in Stadtautobahnmeditationen show traces of Rattke’s careful approach to combining layers of information. Sometimes that evidence is as immediate as a ripped edge. In other places, it appears in cut and pasted slivers of paper, or the gentle wobble of a not-entirely-flat surface. Rattle’s work is graphic, but it is also handmade, just as the world of printed materials was in the days before desktop publishing. Instead of seeing the “final” version of these collages—something photographed and flattened, infinitely reproducible—we get to see the labored-over cut-ups.
Some of the most enticing moments in Rattke’s work come from hints of text. In Refuge (After Manuel Felguérez), a blobby figure hunches beneath an angular, cast concrete sculpture set against a desert landscape. Framing the composition are strips of paper that bear the name and addresses of a company called “Tecnocreto,” its product: “aditivos para concreto” that boast “fillers without shrinkage.” Elsewhere, in Novocreto, a block of magenta, vermillion and off-white text seems to be advertising copy for construction materials (likely more concrete). This is a show about the built environment that is also made from the things that make that built environment. Like a ring road, it’s satisfyingly circular.
In Mexico City, monumental abstract sculptures dot the landscape as things meant to be seen only from cars. But linger long enough in Romer Young looking at Rattke’s work and co-director Joey Piziali will tell you a story of how the artist convinced a taxi to drop him off at a sculpture’s traffic island. There he stayed for hours, surrounded by lanes of speeding cars, in strange communion with an artwork well beyond human scale.