Robert Grunenberg
Losing
My Virginity
By Bianca Heuser
Losing My Virginity presents the work of five emerging artists at the most recent stage of their evolution. For an artist, graduating marks the point at which they become their own standard-bearer. This is accompanied by an unfamiliar fluidity, the result of new-found freedoms and possibilities of self-realisation. It is a process that encourages original and radical forms of self-expression, yet its associated immediacy and purity can rarely be found in an artist’s later works – not least due to a continuing process of artistic refinement. Thus, the end of art school represents the beginning of a transformation: the powerful moment when an artist either applies their acquired academic knowledge in practice or discards it to attain a feeling of self-imparted authority. This pivotal moment is the focus of Losing My Virginity, the second exhibition at Robert Grunenberg Berlin.
 
Berlin-based sculptor Stefan Knauf questions Western symbols, mythological rhetoric and material values in his artistic practice. What does the proliferation of a material say about the taste and sentimentality of the place and time in which it was used? Knauf’s masterfully crafted, technically proficient sculptures combine forms and materials that achieve a delicate equilibrium while at the same time connecting questions of art history and aesthetics. His work “Piazza del Cuore Sviato I-V”, on show at the exhibition, depicts two lambs that weren’t destined to live.  Given the Western conception of the animal, from the “innocent lamb” to the “scapegoat”, the observer is confronted with the question of what would happen if the lamb evaded sacrifice? Who would pay for our sins without the scapegoat? The finiteness of life and the banality we ascribe to it is contrasted by Knauf’s selection of materials: stone and bronze are primarily defined by their longevity and the idea of the inherent, unchangeable nature of their value. In this way, Knauf’s work emphasises the fleeting insignificance of each moment, yet counters it with the imperishability of the work’s source materials. Thus, Knauf interweaves notions of eternity and transience, and simultaneously subverts the fetishization of materials, myths of salvation and our cultural understanding of time and value. The materials he chooses lend his works rigour and severity, which make them no less shocking in their persuasion.
 
The exhibition also features nine new photographs by the American artist Paul Levack. Seven of them form a series based on found 35mm transparencies that he has been collecting for many years. According to Levack, this body of photos was originally conceived as a solution to “inventing” images and “instead turned from a sort of “cynicism of pictorial content” towards a revelry in what already exists”. The slides come from a variety of sources – from waste containers to odd categories of eBay – and span a range of production spheres, from the commercial and the pornographic to snapshots and the vernacular. The works that Levack has chosen to compliment this series, however, couldn’t be more different, both in terms of format and production method: two seemingly intimate, larger-than-life portraits of fellow students at Frankfurt’s Städelschule. They form an unrealised “love triangle” with the artist himself: one subject is a romantic crush, the other is the crush’s former lover. But the aesthetic of these images seems less charged: it makes reference to yearbook photos, actor’s headshots and stock photography; all overly optimistic in their mood and supposed expressive capacity. With a technical precision, Levack captures the expression that aroused his initial romantic interest: an alluring, carefree happiness; an  open-ended, rapturous smile. But he gives the “mutual friend” a chaste, de-sexualised form. Both images create a quest for yearning and debauchery – an integral part of adulthood in a society where not all sexual fantasies can be freely lived out. Levack’s light-hearted and brazen approach, combined with a photographic accuracy, encourage his audience to decipher the clues that hide behind the apparent randomness and anonymity.
 
Before moving to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, Jan Zöller graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts Karlsruhe. His paintings and installation work focus on the energy that Losing My Virginity seeks to capture. Fire plays a central role for Zöller, and symbolises the flame he imagines within his audience and himself – a passion, an excess of energy. His youthful spirit is obstinate: the selective knowledge he took on board during his studies pales in comparison with his personal development in the same period, which stemmed from an interest in a broad cross-section of subcultures.
 
The artist’s maxim is “Never get bored!” Zöller ascribes great importance to shared experiences within his circle of friends. They manifest themselves in the form of a generationally determined, hyper-specific aesthetic that is observable throughout his work: a bold, vivid visual language. Zöller’s work in Losing My Virginity comprises of new paintings and an installation in which an iron bar proclaims “Youth was never boring”. Is that true? Definitely. In the future, too? Yes, if youth stays imaginative – which is of course implicit in both the established notion and the self-conception of youthfulness. This original, irreverent spirit features prominently in Zöller’s colour paintings, but finds its clearest expression in his works incorporating text, in which he pronounces his ambitions as a pizzeria owner and declares his love for the A4 format. The latter is due to the fact that his drawings on this format can be hung anywhere, especially in his hometown of Karlsruhe, where the walls of the bourgeois townhouses are small. Whether for the record or as a punchline, he adds: “You can buy one if you like.”
 
Die Römischen Votzen are a collective formed around the artists Giulietta Ockenfuß and Sonja Yakovleva, who write and perform provocative, lo-fi rap songs. They address social inequalities, are inflammatory, and reflect an anti-authoritarian desire for self-determination. Their song “Frigido”, for example, is about the controversy surrounding unisex toilets. Their refreshingly rational approach: people are uptight and no one is interested in your genitals. The duo’s visual art also unravels social, gender and sexual stereotypes. Among their work featured in Losing My Virginity, Ockenfuß and Yakovleva have created a work that depicts a barsetka – a small men’s leather bag for carrying valuables – on Tiffany glass.
 
After studying at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Giulietta Ockenfuß temporarily turned away from painting and shifted the focus of her work towards anti-institutional actionism. This ambivalent relationship to objects resulted in more transient works, such as her performances with Die Römischen Votzen. Her return to painting partly found its expression on the bonnets of cars; their former function evoking associations with speed, power and dynamism – subjects that, seen from a standpoint of redistribution, particularly interested Ockenfuß. Her figurative paintings seek to restructure our understanding of history and ask whose stories are being told and passed on. By reorganising historically entrenched and binary ideas of gender and sexuality, her vibrant painterly narratives offer both insight and humour.
 
Sonja Yakovleva’s work questions the ideology behind material value and social inequality. Located on the boundary between art and handicraft, she shows paper cuttings of alternative realities that often depict female protagonists. The inspiration for her latest work, on show at the exhibition, was a scandal at a university: as became known in 2013, a professor at a music college in Munich had been giving so-called “private lessons” at his home, or more accurately in his bedroom, along with his porn collection and complicit girlfriend. This abuse took place under the pretence of creativity, as the professor in question was writing an opera based on the writings of Franz Kafka at the time. Yakovleva playfully approaches the scandal with a macabre yet liberating humour. Yakovleva stresses that her choice of material is often considered more feminine than it should be – in reality it is rare that a handicraft is dominated by women. Yet in terms of content her work is full of revealing observations of patriarchal structures and heteronormative power relations.