Memories of Sculptor Martin Honert

Consequence of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s highly publicized, at times contentious, effort to relocate has been distraction from what it does so well: programming that mixes the work of local artists with populist blockbusters and Canadian debuts by international contemporary practitioners. While the recent Art Spiegelman retrospective combined the latter two categories (resulting in a bump of 20,000 extra visitors), Martin Honert‘s show, just opened, is merely the first museum exhibition in North America by an artist known for his infrequent output.

The Düsseldorf-based Honert, 60, is a maker of meticulously rendered “realistic” sculptures that are difficult to forget. Also known as a memory artist, he takes it as his mission to “explore things that may well have happened a long time ago but that continue to exist for me as an image.” Those memories are neither vituperative nor sentimental but the product of a post-war West German childhood he describes as “just as dull and boring as anyone else’s.” Remembered from schoolbooks, drawings by his own hand, and photographs taken by family members, these personal materials have for the past 30 years inspired works that play as much with scale as with viewers’ ability to locate themselves in relation to his sculptural form.

The results are at times unnerving. In Riesen (2007), two unkempt men in jeans and hoodies stand in the middle of the gallery floor, as if taking a breather from a long trek. One, looking down, leans on a wooden staff; the other holds a knapsack, gazing up in the opposite direction. Over eight feet tall, these trekkers make for imposing figures, giants in contemporary garb. Are they mountain hikers, like those Honert might remember from a kindergarten adventure story? Yet from their cracked nails and smudged clothing they could just as easily be living rough on the streets of Vancouver, the staff less a walking stick than a binner’s pole or a weapon of self-defence, their knapsacks filled with salvaged or stolen goods. Keep reading…

The medieval figures in Children’s Crusade (1985-1987) are painted before rolling green hills on a wall-mounted canvas, as well as emerging from that canvas as life-size versions of the figurines one might paint and play with as a child. Like the giants in Riesen, the lead figure in Children’s Crusade has come to a stop, as if to assess what lies ahead. This stop might well reflect the young Honert pausing to look up from his schoolbook to consider what it meant for 13th-century European children to march across the continent intent on ridding the Holy Land of Muslims, particularly in light of a more recent conflict that had the Nazis attempting to rid Europe of her Jews.

If Children’s Crusade mixes wall work and sculpture, River Landscape (2006) is a work of sculpture set inside a wall. In this instance, a miniature three-dimensional re-creation of the lush Rhine River Valley. Here, a train exits a tunnel at five minute intervals, its second appearance deeper in the landscape. The difference between the first and second appearances is not only distance but scale, with the second, smaller train creating a “forced” perspective that, through exaggeration, allows a bucolic setting to enter the uncanny.

These touchstones-the uncanny, childhood, memory-are not new to the exhibition’s co-curator, photo-based artist Jeff Wall, who has explored these themes in large-scale tableaux that appear to be as much sculpted as montaged “cinematographically” from numerous shots. One such picture, A Ventriloquist at a Birthday Party in October 1947 (1990), has prepubescent children seated around a “dummy” and its operator. While the scene brings to mind a potential memory-maker for Honert, Wall refers to this work as an “accident of reading,” where what you think you remember from a book is simply your imagination. No accident here that Wall should see in Honert what he does so well himself.