Born Gottingen, Germany, 1965 / Graduate degree from Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam/ Lives in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
Both comical and strangely melancholic, two small wooden house shapes attached to a wall are topped, incongruously, by sand bags with patches of wooly embroidery. They make an odd couple, like Oscar and Felix: alike yet unalike, dissonant and consonant, together yet separate. At once amusing and serious, they convey a searching spirit that permeates Iris Eichenberg’s work, which often meditates on making home and finding our place in the world. Related in some way to the body, her constructions produce sensorial and emotional effects that stretch conventional boundaries to explore structures of feeling.
The houses are part of Eichenberg’s installation Kein Ort Nirgends (2017), which translates as No Place Anywhere. In it, there are wooly rugs as landscapes and spiky trees that sprout more tiny houses, each isolated from the other. A small house on the floor, lassoed by a red rubber band secured to a wall, seems tied to a distant past. While the band seems to anchor and constrain the cast iron house, the house’s great weight tests the tension of the rubber band. The whole assemblage evokes alienation and dislocation, combined with a sense of yearning for comfort, warmth and attachment.
Eichenberg has been producing objects for thirty years. She began as a jewelry artist, and though her work has largely taken the form of freestanding sculptural objects, she still seeks to get close to the skin. A gleeful sense of almost unbearable intimacy and sensuality is evident in Pink Years Later (2009), including intricately constructed objects that reference delicate body parts in a warm palette of copper, rose gold, pink beads, nylon stockings and other materials. Intimacy is also evoked by the Real series (2015), made of horn, wax, and brass, which offers small, sensual sculptures in dual sets. These, however, are more like uncomfortable sex toys, some with keys or chains, with protrusions and orifices, or held together by brass staples. One still wants to handle them, rub them.
In I Do Not Wish (2017), a title that suggests self-abnegation, a series of objects references hands, tongues, hair, perhaps a clitoris— each bound or burdened in different ways, some combining the warmth of knitting wool with the gritty chill of iron filings and graphite. An emotional charge emanates from her varied and combined materials, often producing a kind of painful intimacy, as when yarn wound around a tongue leaves only the tip exposed.
Her X series (2013) also focuses on difficult pairings. The title evokes Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio of homoerotic desire, pleasure and pain, though “X” may also be a signifier of anonymity or nullification. Heads made of leather are juxtaposed with other objects, such as a precisely balanced and angular wooden head; wooden heads are also covered by nails driven into them, sometimes in pairs, sometimes solo, producing an angry or aggrieved portrait series. Grief is explicit in Strange Birds (2012), which exudes a scorched earth sense of devastation. It includes a beautiful bird painfully trapped in a distorted, overturned cage, a pure black globe, burned nest, and birds impaled on rings, all signaling catastrophe. By deploying bound or hooded body parts, trapped birds, and elusive figures, these bodies of work resonate with feelings of transgression and repression, loss and desire.
Eichenberg’s vision became large-scale for her 2015 exhibition Bend, an unconventional retrospective consisting of new work that addressed her lifelong engagement with forms and materials set in dialog with each other. Monumental steel constructions bend and melt, wooden boxes with mirrored interiors contain intricate structures made of brass rods connected to slowly rotating pulleys that cause a continual collapse and rise, a dance of damage and repair. The works evoke a sense of sadness and isolation, resonating with Eichenberg’s remarks at a Cranbrook lecture for the opening of the show in which she referred to “the longing for belonging” and “the distance one needs to exist in relation to another.” There is courage in those statements, which is evident in the exposure she risks with each body of work.
Willing to operate in a liminal space, Eichenberg’s sensory and emotional explorations, sometimes operating at the edges of awareness, seem to process the embodied knowledge we all produce but often fail to notice in ourselves, or refuse to trust. Eichenberg does not fear abjection, planting the seed of repulsion within the appeal of form, allowing for moments of transformation in which the abject transcends its own limitations to find joy and beauty. This is what gives her work its power and depth.
Dora Apel, February 2019
Copyright Essay’d 2019