Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos, New Museum, New York

Half of Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos at the New Museum brims with subtle, sly, shape-shifting work. The other half is hugely dull. You can feel the unevenness in the way that crowds linger then rush, idling around clusters of tiny things and then scurrying through soulless spaces where monumental abstractions hover on the walls. The problem is not that the show is erratic, though; it’s that the most vibrant part of Rosemarie Trockel isn’t by Trockel at all.

At the New Museum, she acts as both creator and sun of her own artistic universe, scattering her work among an idiosyncratic constellation of natural and man-made artefacts. In a bold act of auto-curation, she sets off her yarn paintings, squishy-looking ceramics and surreal constructions against an assortment of biological oddments, 18th-century botanical illustrations, blown-glass models of marine invertebrates and the work of outsider artists. She gives pride of place to a triptych of oils executed by an orang-utan, devotes a chapel-like gallery to a 1912 stop-motion animation of duelling beetle carcasses, and spotlights a 27-pound American lobster that was executed by boiling on May 13, 1964.

This cabinet-of-curiosities arrangement, co-organised with Lynne Cooke, is engaging but treacherous. Place a piece of clever artifice next to an authentic ginormous spider crab, and you’re essentially asking for your creations to be compared with nature’s. This is not a competition most artists can win.

Despite the intimations of hubris, the 60-year-old Trockel is not an attention-grabbing megastar. Her work is not so much varied as all over the place. She toggles among media, leaping from ceramic to wool, video, photography, installation, drawing and painting. She splashes about in dozens of different styles, dipping a toe in surrealism, another in conceptualism, and an elbow in minimalism. She scorns hierarchies that elevate one form of handiwork to the category of art and relegates another to the no-man’s land of craft.

All this would be fine if Trockel’s talents ranged as widely as her efforts, but they don’t. Worse, she places all this versatility at the service of a narrow agenda. OK, she hates being pigeonholed – who doesn’t? There’s hardly an exhibition of contemporary art these days that doesn’t proudly “defy categorisation”, “resist labels,” or “transgress against expectations”. Boundary-blurring art long ago became a category in itself. Perhaps sensing the blandness at the core of her work, the New Museum (or Trockel herself) surrounded it with a rich gallimaufry of cool stuff.

The show unspools from a white-tiled second-floor room given over entirely to Trockel’s creations. In this antiseptic chamber, an upside-down palm tree dangles from the ceiling. Across the room, a roiling ceramic carbuncle clings to the wall. Mechanical and stuffed birds roost inside a caged display. Of all the uncanny concoctions here, “Replace Me” has to be the most ghoulish. It’s a black and white print of the “Origin of the World”, Gustave Courbet’s scandalous (at the time) rendering of female genitalia, which the original owner kept discreetly hidden behind a velvet curtain for the entertainment of his friends. Consumers of art are tougher to shock these days, but Trockel tries anyway, one-upping Courbet and planting a tarantula on the key spot as guardian of the unidentified woman’s honour. What is clearly meant as a sly feminist gloss on men’s sexual fears turns out to be more wan than outlandish.

You can leave the white room through either of two exits. One takes you through a shadowy corridor, past a selection of botanical prints by the scientifically minded adventurers José Celestino Mutis and Maria Sybilla Merian. In the late 1700s, Mutis led a Spanish expedition to New Granada – then a large chunk of South America – and discovered, collected and recorded some 6,700 new specimens, each more fantastical than the last. Some contort into grid-like silhouettes, presaging the geometries of modern art. Others seem to mimic human sexual organs or facial features. After he died, Mutis’s extraordinary cache disappeared into a fusty Madrid archive, and remained interred and forgotten until Trockel miraculously resurrected it. Kudos to her, too, for rediscovering Merian’s renderings of insects observed during a 1699 odyssey through the jungles of Suriname. Merian’s beetles show off their innate fripperies against backdrops of swelling flora. Trockel is clearly riveted by the way keen observers heighten reality to the level of surrealism.

She also admires obsession, and if you take the second way out of the all-white room you find yourself in a large gallery stocked with glass-enclosed mini-environments. Each is a kind of dreamlike conversation between Trockel’s hermetic objects and those of outsider-artists who pursued eccentric compulsions – people such as Morton Bartlett, whose extended family of handmade dolls was discovered only after his death. One of them is here, a plaster ballerina wrapped in a tutu. So are some of the hundreds of photographs he took of them, pictures that throb with Twilight Zone spookiness. Close by are a handful of mannequins made by Trockel including a baby slumbering in a bassinet while a huge, fat fly nestles on its downy cheek.

The show’s energy dissipates as it expands. Trockel’s bland, minimalist yarn paintings compete with a riveting set of obsessive cocoons by Judith Scott. Institutionalised for a combination of deafness and Down syndrome, Scott came to art late, but explosively. She wrapped any old thing in string, thread and fabric, and the familiar forms seem to wriggle and quake beneath their twined wrappings. Trockel uses the same swaddling material to muffle her voice, instead of amplifying it. Scott’s yarn works howl; Trockel’s merely mutter.

Until January 20,

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