It wasn’t an uncommon sight, for those of us raised in Europe, to spy brightly dressed Americans gazing in rapt concentration at old gravestones in churchyards in search of their “roots.” In the not terribly distant past, when people immigrated to the new world, they truly did uproot themselves, often never seeing their homelands again. The searchers in the graveyards tended to be the next generation or even the generation after that. Nowadays, with social media and ease of travel, immigrants can maintain roots back home – in some cases, even maintain careers. Ilse Schreiber-Noll, a German artist living in Croton-on-Hudson in New York State, is an example of the latter. Born near Kassel, the home of Documenta, Germany’s world famous art exhibition, Schreiber-Noll began her art education at the University of Marburg, one of the world’s oldest universities, and completed it at SUNY Purchase in the USA, where she moved 30 years ago with her husband Klaus. Since then she has exhibited widely in the US, including the Whitney Biennale in 2006 and the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art’s Hudson Valley Artists exhibition in 2012.
When their children were grown, Schreiber-Noll and her husband thought to reconnect to Germany and decided on Berlin, with its vibrant art scene, as a base. They bought an apartment there and began to divide their time between the two countries, with Schreiber-Noll gradually building connections in the Berlin art world. Now she exhibits almost as regularly in Germany as in the US. Currently, through April, she and two other artists, Helga Schuhr and Silke Konschak, are showing work in the Ratskeller Gallery – an art project space in an historic town hall building in the Lichtenberg district of what was formerly East Berlin. The exhibition is aptly titled “Roots” in three languages – French, English, and German – signifying the current residences of the three artists: Schuhr in French Switzerland, Schreiber-Noll in the USA, and Konschak who lives in Germany. There is a fourth component to the exhibition in the form of photographer Bibiana Huang Matheis, from Pawling, New York, who is showing work on the same theme with the title, Roots, in the language of her forebears, Chinese: 根(Gēn) at Galerie La Girafe in the Kreuzburg district of Berlin – venue details are at the end of this article. This November, all four artists will join forces again, but under one roof, when the exhibition travels to the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, New York.
Ilse Schreiber-Noll is a multimedia artist. Her woodcuts, paintings, artist’s books, animated videos, and installations trace their roots back to the fierce writings of Berthold Brecht and others who spoke for the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Other themes that have recurred in Schreiber-Noll’s work are the horrors of war, the threat of ecological disaster and, overall, the condition of the world that we bequeath the future generations. This is particularly true of the haunting animation, Searching for a New Planet, that is included in the exhibition. In her 2D work, she creates densely painted surfaces that can include text, photo transfers, wire, wood, and sand. Often two pieces will be so connected as to constitute one work, such as the painting Burning World, next to the hand-made book Road to Freedom, Book II, which references the plight of refugees. In her artist books, each linen page is pregnant with the weight of layers of meaning in which, one feels, reside the elements and textures of earth, blood, and sweat to which the text may refer. By contrast, a floor piece, titled Neither Rain nor Sun, has a sense of lightness and hope. It consists of a square of saffron painted canvas, with a symbol of life at its center; a set of eight papier maché bowls is placed around this symbol, each of which is filled with sand, representing the passage of time. (Appropriately, Berlin is a city built on sand.) Laid on the sand are photographs from Schreiber-Noll’s childhood. Here we have something that is reminding us of the past but also of the movement forward into the future – the life-affirming saffron color implies an optimistic future. Says the artist: “These works are a reflection of my roots, which have shaped my life and given me sustenance.”
One of the perennial questions that immigrants have is the extent to which they are still of their original country and culture or else of the adopted place. At a certain point, as old roots wither and new roots gain strength, the balance shifts. Helga Schuhr’s roots are also in Germany but, at age 22, she moved to Neuchatel in French Switzerland, becoming a Swiss citizen two years later. It is the lakes close to where she lives that inspire much of her work. Like Schreiber-Noll, she has returned to her homeland to join her compatriots in this exhibition. Schuhr’s work connects to the basic elements of water, earth, air – reflections, she says, of herself.
In the floor piece, La Barque (pictured), she plays with the reflection of the sky on water. A boat, the “Barque” of the title, woven from paper and wire ambiguously offers both a pleasure ride and an escape. Above this, on the wall, is a second piece whose colors echo the blue field (or lake) below on which the Barque floats; the lower end of this wall piece is cut is into strips to indicate roots. Schuhr favors media such as ink and diluted acrylic paint that, like the water she loves, ebbs, flows, and sinks into the fabric allowing for spontaneous and surprising results – some works are reminiscent of Helen Frankenthaler’s stained canvases. She enjoys working on disparate supports from paper to metal. Much of the work in this show is on fleece, which she uses to great effect by painting on both sides, thereby creating a variation in tone and a subtle sense of depth. Schuhr has exhibited widely in Europe and in the USA. In recent years, extended periods in New York have, she said, brought a new expansiveness to her work.
It is hard to return home when the physical home no longer exists; this is where those who remain can act as a bridge. Silke Konschak is originally from Dresden, so although she has lived abroad in the past she is now closer to her roots than either of her fellow exhibiters and, as such, has been a conduit for them on this particular stop on their journeys. In addition to being a participant in this exhibition, Konschak is also the curator. She first met Ilse Schreiber-Noll at an Artists’ Books event so it is no surprise that she also makes books. Like her fellow exhibitors, her work is multifaceted. In this show, Konschak exhibits three distinct aspects of her practice. First, are a number of unique books whose pages of text, watercolor, and ink speak to works displayed on the walls. In some of those wall pieces, Konschak, like Schuhr, paints on fleece for small works in frames. She also applies acrylic paint so that it both sinks into the material and disperses like watercolor – but that is where the similarity ends. Although the pieces have a great sense of spontaneity, Konschak takes a controlled approach to the color application and flow of the paint. Overlaid on the paintings are what, at first, appear to be lines drawn in lyrical gestures or even dripped onto the surface Jackson Pollock-style, but is actually human hair — mostly black hair but, in the case of Poesie der Gefuehie Liebe (pictured above), it is fair hair dyed blue. In Konschak’s third set of artworks, the theme of roots is more overt and, indeed, almost as corporeal as the strands of hair on the fleece is – paintings on x-ray film. Konschak employs the images of skeletal structures on the x-rays, many of them dental x-rays, to inform figurative images painted on the surface of the film. Without close inspection, the bright, almost cartoonish colors on the inky surface of the film belie the smoky photographic negatives in the background. In her eloquent artist’s statement Konschak writes: “We are rooted, but we can also find new Earth.” These artists are pushing the boundaries of the conventional and, artistically, they are pushing down new roots and finding that fertile soil.
Please scroll down for details of the Ratskeller Gallery and we will remind our Hudson Valley readers of the show’s Beacon debut closer to the time.
Featured Image: Ilse Schreiber-Noll, Brennende Welt (Burning World), 2016. Mixed media on Linen, 133 x 192 cm.
“Roots – Racine – Wurzeln” opened on March 21st and runs through May 12th, 2017 at the Ratskeller Gallery, Mollendorffstrase 6, Lichtenberg, Berlin 10367.
Opening hours: Mon – Fri, 10:00 –18:00. Closed on weekends and holidays
Also, “ 根”(Gēn) with Bibiana Huang Matheis opening on March 24 at 7pm, and runs through April 7th, 2017, at Galerie La Girafe, Glogauer Str. 24, 10999 Berlin.
Opening hours are Thus-Sun. 11 am-6 pm.
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication. Claire Lambe’s art work can be seen here: