“I have got this obsessive compulsive disorder where I have to have everything in a straight line, or everything has to be in pairs.” – David Beckham
Stepping closer to inspect the rouged cheeks of an otherwise black-and-white photograph of Nico, I neglected to notice Sarah Ortmeyer’s diminutive DIABOLUS (PROTECTOR), a cast aluminum sculpture roughly three inches in height, kicking it on its side. After quickly resetting the tiny devil upright, it occurred to me, first, that stumbling over a miniature of a devil may portend bad luck ahead and, second, the lack of response from the gallery’s front desk implied that perhaps I wasn’t the first person to unconsciously enact a David Beckham imitation on the artist’s prized orbs, which proved to be a lot more robust than would be one of the fragile-looking ostrich eggs arrayed downstairs. Displayed beside this displaced Mini-Me on the floor was a scaled-up DIABOLUS, both sharing waxy, crumpled features, definable only by pointed dog-like ears bordering on horns.
Ortmeyer’s exhibition SPORTS CLUB NEW YORK at Galerie Eva Presenhuber consists chiefly of sizable linen canvases in a room dubbed LE LOVE, featuring pairs of digitally transferred photographs. Ortmeyer includes faces of the recognizably iconic: Nico shares a canvas with Andreas Baader, notorious leader of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and a pre-teen Barbra Streisand shares a canvas with chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer. These portraits alternate with the not-as-famous, such as AOC’s brother Gabriel Ocasio-Cortez who is paired with fashion designer Telfar Clemens; Grey’s Anatomy actors Sandra Oh and Jesse Williams are more straightforwardly coupled. Whether young or old, each face is subtly enhanced with pinked cheeks, the only evidence of Ortmeyer’s painterly touch. What accounts for these connections, and the presence of a couple dozen other sort-of notables? Only a few are athletically inclined, but they all figure, presumably, in a personal lexicon of Ortmeyer’s design, her unapologetically jumbled version of the adolescent bedroom wall.
The downstairs section of the exhibition is emphatically votive-like and off-handedly absurd: three joined walls decked with framed photographs of David Beckham, as chiseled and blank as any Hollywood action hero, uniformly scaled portraits looking like enlarged playing cards composed of “pigment and binder on silver cotton on linen.” Imaginatively titled DAVID, earring studs and varying hair length are the main distinguishing characteristics in the original photos, and each is enhanced, like the portraits upstairs, with rouged cheeks. Placed on the floor like light bulbs braced upright beneath each Beckham, the aforementioned swan and ostrich egg sculptures (the MONSTER series) seem only slightly less antic than the horned devils upstairs. The stringent orderliness of the eggs reinforces Beckham as a venerable reproductive success story, an iconic figurehead embodying the irrational brute force of contemporary fame. At the same time, these “monsters” in waiting are an expression of a more foreboding aspect of the gene pool – closer to a Darwinian crapshoot instead of a wondrous genius generator or sports star stud maker.
Ortmeyer’s long-standing passion for chess, alluded to in the Fischer portrait, is admitted outright in a series of chess board paintings interspersed on the walls. With squares rendered in combinations of beige, blue, crimson, and pink, each canvas is titled GRANDMASTER and each (the artist confided in an interview) corresponds to geographic locations and the hues of observed sunsets. These chess boards hardly articulate the “extremities of existence,” as one writer declared, but rather, they correspond to a sensibility that governs the entire exhibit: asserting order and variation simultaneously. Chess is a game of transparency and of perfect information, a rule-bound ritual that culminates in the preservation of hierarchy – the king. Freud observed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that our compulsion to repeat bears a “hint of possession by some ‘daemonic’ power.” For Freud, our instincts are a cosmic force beyond conscious life in the sense that all physical and psychical matter seeks to go back to the original state of affairs, to non-organic life, to that inert chessboard without pieces or players, in other words, the death drive. Chess is emblematic of a universal instinct toward restoration; to repeat, to play again, to stabilize.
Ortmeyer does seem possessed as a collector and purveyor of complicated icons and her beloved, no less complicated game, but to elaborate on the compulsive undercurrents much further would be indulgent, because purposely or not, the laconic, celebrity-infused Warholian blankness of SPORTS CLUB NEW YORK’s imagery, aligned with the canvases’ creamy smoothness, doesn’t yield a sense of conceptual depth. As a reconfiguration of Ortmeyer’s previous displays of gray and beige-hued frivolity utilizing similarly playful tropes, the exhibition presses the viewer to ask: what is she offering beyond her signature lexicon of object-oriented tongue-in-cheekery?
In the array of known, semi-known, and unknowable faces displayed across the gallery walls, Ortmeyer appears to be saying something about the illusory perception of social order, success, and fame, all of which is difficult to untether from the artist’s own ascendant career. This is, as the press release stipulates, her 75th exhibition. It can’t be lost on Ortmeyer that she herself is part of the art world elite, having exhibited alongside Yoko Ono, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Kandinsky, and presented projects in prestigious institutions across the globe. Yet her repeated symbols indicate complacency rather than a nuanced association of the ways art, advertising, and celebrity tend to devour each other in a circuitous fashion. This kind of engulfment in enterprise is something that gets muddled in Barbara Kruger’s work too, as Emily pointed out a few days ago. With the LE LOVE installation in particular, Ortmeyer seems to declare: “These are the people that intrigue me, this is my boudoir of desirables” — though surely that’s not enough to satisfy viewers with their own specific set of idols. What’s absent from this exhibition are the totemic marble and onyx chess pieces, and the brash humor evident in a show like KISH KUSH (Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv, 2014), which featured suggestive pin-ups of female grandmasters leaning over chess boards and seductively dangling chess pieces over their mouths like chocolate. Where KISH KUSH was straightforwardly a parody of fetish, this latest iteration is inscrutable in its intentions and tone. Do we need to read Ortmeyer’s dissertation on aesthetics, chess, and politics to yield deeper understandings about the dialectic among these objects and images? If so, where can I find it? Kant me up!
Any ironic-sincere coveting of high achievement carries a subtext of failure: the have-nots, the plebeians, the unrepresented artists, the bitter critics, the losers who enjoy their loss… Perhaps the show’s most telling connection is the inclusion of a photo of Glenn Gould beside Thomas Bernhard, author of The Loser, a novel narrated by a man who imagines a spiritual bond with Gould and ruminates on his encounter with genius: “I am absolutely not a piano virtuoso, I said to myself, I am not an interpreter, I am not a reproducing artist. No artist at all. The depravity of my idea had appealed to me immediately… If I hadn’t met Glenn Gould, I probably wouldn’t have given up the piano and I would have become a piano virtuoso and perhaps even one of the best piano virtuosos in the world… When we meet the very best, we have to give up, I thought.”
JC Holburn has work in Art Agenda, Art Observed, Blue Arrangements, BOMB, Big Other, Caesura, Drunken Canal, Fence, Hotel, Liber Review, Overland, and others. Her first chapbook—Dribs—was published in 2021 by Pitymilk Press. She is based in New York.