Commonwealth & Council presents Showcase Milan by Nils Schirrmacher, the artist’s second exhibition with the space in which he continues his ongoing engagement with the fictive utopia featured in Roberto Papini’s Decorative Arts and Architecture of the 1920sthrough the medium of photographic collage.
Art historian and critic Roberto Papini’s substantial tome originally appeared in Italian as Le arti d’Oggi: Architectture e Arti Decorative in Europe (published by Casa Editrice d’Arte—Bestetti e Tumminelli) in 1930. As an inventory of the decorative arts and architecture of the utopian city Universa, the volume features over 800 black-and-white photographic illustrations of architecture, interiors and furniture, metal, ceramics, and glass, as well as lace, embroidery, textiles, printed paper and leather. In the preface Universa is described as “a probable metropolis” whose inhabitants and designers have relegated all preceding art and architectural styles to museums in order to found “a new classic order” that nonetheless bears “important similarities” to 6th century BC Greece. Explaining that Universa maintains the sole legal right to the publication of all images of the city and its contents, the author warns the reader that she must be prepared to move forward by means of “approximate analogy.” In place of images of his invented utopian metropolis, Papini instead offers photographs from the showrooms of Europe’s leading designers as stand-ins. The photographic reproductions thus occupy a contested position between truth and fabrication, document and projection.
Schirrmacher’s photographic collages respond to the inherent fiction of these photographic documents through painstaking reconstruction. The artist begins by selecting a photograph from Papini’s tome; in this instance, a wooden showcase attributed to Milan-based architects E. Lancia and G. Ponti. He then sketches the showcase and the surrounding architectural space based on how they appear in the two-dimensional photograph on graph paper and then transfers the measurements to chipboard to create a three-dimensional template of the photographed elements. Schirrmacher fabricates each of the individual elements—i.e. wooden showcase, floor, surrounding walls, backdrop, and tall vase featured on the center shelf—in miniature and in perfect proportion to the original photographed composition. The miniatures are then lit from a variety of angles and photographed individually. At this point, the artist creates “recipes” for proposed compositions, combining the various photographed elements into different permutations. To create the final collage, photographs of each element are printed, sectioned, and pasted onto illustration board following the prescribed recipes and in some cases, retouched with acrylic paint to add modeling and highlights.
The nine photographic collages featured in the exhibition thus represent only a fraction of the possible combinations that could be produced from the elements composed in Papini’s “original” photographic document of the showcase. The illumination of floors, walls, baseboards, and the showcase itself shifts from one collage to the next, and a white vase that appears in one may disappear in another. In this way Showcase Milan becomes an uncanny apparition, fluctuating between unstable contexts and varying interpretations of reality.
Nils Schirrmacher is a Los Angeles artist using scale models, photography, and collage to explore historical responses to the dilemma of consciousness found in utopian and fascist experiments. He received a BFA in Sculpture from California College of the Arts and an MFA from UC Irvine.