The approach to The Serpentine Gallery is, at present, presided over by two groups of monumental bronze men, peg-legged nemeses eternally tethered to one another for the entertainment of the public. These phlegmatic guardians (known as United Enemies (2011)) offer something of a prelude to Thomas Schütte: Faces & Figures, the Serpentine's first exhibition of the artist's works dealing solely with portraiture and the figurative. The collection includes seminal examples from Schütte's practice over the last twenty years, as well as new pieces fabricated specifically for this partial retrospective. The inclusion of the aformentioned bronzes, behemothic transcriptions of earlier smaller works rendered in fimo and fabric, is a formidable start. Unfortunately, proceedings take a bit of a nose-dive indoors.
In the main hall of the gallery, we're "greeted" by Vatar Staat (Father State), a baronial, rusted steel totalitarian giant on a similar scale to the lawn's United Enemies. This piece, again reminiscent of smaller sculptural work from Schütte's back catalogue, is the sole occupant of the floor space and as such is given free reign to command the hall. His presence is complemented by the inclusion of Innocenti, a selection of close-up photographs of faces constructed from either fimo or wax (both materials, incidentally, equate more appropriately with the capriciousness of facial musculature than the bronze or steel of the larger works) which sojourn on three of the four walls, and at quite a distance - perhaps four and an half metres - from the ground. This unusual decision regarding their placement is not without benefit, as the extra height places them on a par with the head of Vater Staat, and so the effect of being subordinated by these gurning Teutonic overlords is greatly exaggerated and elicits a tension which augments this section of the exhibition. Conversely, it could be argued that a placement closer to the gallery floor and eye level would more succesfully coerce the viewer into a dialogue with the works and more easily facilitate the projection of their own narratives onto these somewhat ambiguous images. Either way, these pieces (each one being half-dessicated capuchin monk, half-grotesque in the vein of DaVinci or Grünewald) are perhaps the most successful aspect of this show.
The rest of the spaces are a lot less engaging. Most of the rooms house one or two sculptural pieces, with the exception of the West Gallery which contains approximately fifteen Wichte (Jerks), portrait busts which are situated on angled plinths and out of the standard purview of observers. Otherwise, the exhibition is dedicated to proffering examples of Schütte's questionable experiments with figurative drawing; self portraiture (Mirror Drawings from 1998 and 1999), and the Deprinotes series, an anthology of portraits of friends and acquaintances made between 2006 and 2008. Each of these groups very occasionally produces something of fleeting interest, but it's never particularly illuminating, and overall one is left with the feeling that he's attempted to emulate Schiele without the requisite potency of approach. The same can be said of one of the works from the small Anna and Katherina series, wherein he has approprated the Renaissance Madonna and Child template and attempted to contemporise it. Sure, I can see the Raphaelite target he was aiming for, but it's a real shame that he misses it by such a wide margin.
In comparison to Schütte's perhaps more visible or recognisable work (his small-scale three-dimensional models of buildings, his Fourth Plinth commission Model for a Hotel from 2007, or sculptural works such as Cherry Column), most of the pieces in this show simply don't harbour the same gravitational pull. This is probably due to a combination of factors: the volume of works on display, the inconsistency in quality, and the fact that a lot of them are paper or canvas-based when two dimensional work simply isn't the artist's forté. Lamentably, there was very little which I found engaging about this exhibition, and being a fan of some of Schütte's early work, such as 1993 - 1997's United Enemies series, I found the experience of this exhibition to be a bit disappointing. I'm not sure of the extent of Schütte's ability as a draughtsman, but a marked proficiency is generally not evident in his portraiture work. As a consequence, being force-fed examples of this genre for much of the exhibition did not lead to my appreciation. Repeated exposure is not going to elevate the merit of the work and won't abet the development of some sort of artistic Stockholm Syndrome.
The Serpentine Gallery will present a survey of Thomas Schütte's portraits. Although the artist has returned to portraiture throughout his career, this will be the first time an entire exhibition will be dedicated to these pioneering works. Using multiple media, Schütte reassesses the figurative traditions of art, presenting emotionally charged observations of the human condition. The exhibition will present key examples from some of Schütte’s most famous series as well as premiering new work.
Serpentine GalleryKensington Gardens
London Greater London United Kingdom W2 3XA