Ferns, Furs and the Future of Painting: Klodin Erb at the Swiss Institute in Rome: A Review

Photo by Charlotte May on Pexels.com


By Gavin Gaebe / Contributor || Edited by Ella Schale

The Swiss Institute’s retrospective of Klodin Erb’s career is daring in its scope, diversity of media, and comprehensive treatment of such a prolific and bold artist.

Photo by Gavin Gaebe

On Thursday, March 23, the Swiss Institute of Rome opened a retrospective for one of their nation’s most radical artists, Klodin Erb. The exhibit, enigmatically titled A different kind of Furs, refers to the unconventional uses for materials that characterize Erb’s work and sets her apart from many artists in her homeland. Erb’s continual exploration of painting is driven by “painting further, thinking further, painting with a passion beyond the edges, being curious, remaining open and enthusiastic.” But beyond her painted works, her sculptures orbit the realm of conceptualism, which Erb links to the first Dada provocations in the early 20th century. The exhibition also features new works that have active conversations with their setting: the grandiose neo-Baroque Villa Maraini. The exhibition is daring in its scope, diversity of media, and comprehensive treatment of such a prolific and bold artist.

After climbing the lush artificial hill that snakes around the Villa Maraini, visitors encounter four equally verdant paintings Erb created at the beginning of the pandemic. The large canvases swirl with color, fluctuating between abstraction and figuration, nature and humanity, intimacy and alienation. Losing Head and Heart depicts an apocalyptic vision of the earth with a gaping wound in its center that spills out in tidal waves, streams of vegetation, parades of fauna, and blots of aggressive primary colors. The clarity and immediacy of the earth and its disembowelment is juxtaposed with the misty haze that rings the stratosphere, an undefined space that may not be physical, but rather spiritual, ripe with ambiguity and melancholia.

The exhibition catalog informs visitors that Erb was deeply inspired by neo-Baroque ceilings in churches, with their flowery putti and optimistic ideation of the afterlife. In fact, one such ceiling exists in the very room where her work now hangs, creating a dialogue between these two eras on the nature of the apocalypse both biblically, and environmentally. This conversation with art history continues into the next hall where four of Erb’s textile works, all titled Drunken Angel, blend seamlessly into the ornamentation of the great central staircase. The sewn putti emerge from a woven material that emulates architectural materials such as wood and marble and recalls the four elements, AirWaterEarth, and Fire.

These are not the only textile-based works in the exhibit. The small, but fascinating work titled Second Nature 8 was created nearly twenty years ago when Erb collected scraps of floral patterns from Switzerland, Italy, the United States, and Syria. The result is a multicultural bouquet where flowers defy geography and germinate new ideas.

The adjoining galleries abandon any attempt to present Erb’s retrospective in chronological order, instead relying on material-based groupings that bring attention to the artist’s range. In an arboretum-like room that opens up to a wonderful view of Rome, Erb displays her Plant’s Life series from 1999 which mixes flora with household objects to create a garden oscillating between the man-made and the natural.

As visitors move deeper into the exhibit, they will discover the true breadth of Erb’s career. A large series of portraits depicting real and fictional subjects in her characteristically frenzied style hang alongside a humorous animated short film that tells the story of a “wayward lemon” that escapes a painting and traverses through art history, meeting the famous surrealist Meret Oppenheim in the process. Film and literature appear frequently throughout the exhibit as motifs, from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to James Cameron’s Avatar, which are both featured in her ongoing portrait series recalling a school yearbook.

The true showstopper in the exhibit, however, is the artist’s series of twelve-foot-tall canvases made specifically for this exhibition titled venisinfurs I-VIII. Erb painted the front and back of four free-standing canvases and placed them at irregular angles in the center of one of the largest rooms in the Villa Maraini. The installation creates a maze of swirling colors, sensual figures, and dramatic composition that inspires a wandering eye. Faux fur sensually frames the paintings, again highlighting Erb’s playful materiality and continual exploration of painting as a medium.

The Swiss Institute of Rome’s retrospective for Klodin Erb successfully combines new works never exhibited before with a strong sense of the artist’s career of radical experimentation. The exhibit will be on view until July 16, 2023.