Take It Right Back: Works by Paula Doepfner

The exhibition Take It Right Back shows works by Berlin-based artist Paula Doepfner. In her graphic and sculptural pieces, Paula Doepfner uses natural materials including flowers and ice alongside industrial materials such as iron and glass. The multifaceted – and often ephemeral – materiality of her works, such as sculptures of melting ice and dried flowers, as well as their textual references allude to universal stories of fragility and transience, violence and resistance, depth and hope. Doepfner’s works show that new strength and complex narratives develop, despite inevitable changes and coercions. Doepfner’s works such as those of the series Congealed (“Geronnen,” 2012) explicitly reference the classic art historial theme of vanitas associated with the symbolism of still lifes popular since the 16th century. At the same time, Doepfner’s works are also unapologetically precious fine art objects that address the modern conflict between the meaning of the object of art and consumer objects within their own parameters. Beauty is ephemeral and can be brief, but it holds power even if for a fleeting moment.

Doepfner broaches issues of fragility and transience, but also violence and resistance, through the complex manipulation and recontextualization of materials that mutually heighten their natural and, respectively, artificial qualities: fragile dried flowers are carefully placed on precious Japanese paper – and pressed in to frames with deliberately scratched glass. Under floral arrangements, traces of raw pigment run down large shattered glass panes. Subjecting natural materials to delicate or aggressive processes such as decay, destruction or corrosion does not destroy but rather transforms them. Resilience is also an option: destroyed or frozen plants might continue to live and grow. Resilience manifests itself in her exhibition Try My Dear (2012), in which Paula Doepfner showed, among other objects, dried orchids and filigree drawings, the glass frames of which had been pierced by bullet holes from a gun Doepfner had used to shoot at her work. Doepfner’s artworks go beyond a futile romanticization of nature, illustrating how in spite of and sometimes due to perpetual change, new contents and aesthetic forms develop.

Doepfner’s artistic practice of alienation and manipulation of organic materials allows for an augmentation of cultural connotations of nature and culture, and therefore an explicit intellectual and material juxtaposition of two seemingly opposed poles. This oscillation pulsates aesthetically and rhetorically between poles of soft organic forms and cold geometrical strictness analogous to the tension and expectations of complex topics. Doepfner carefully chooses the materials she uses to produce objects with regards to their social and political connotations. The dried flowers she incorporates into her works, for instance in the work Early this morning, when you knocked upon my door (2015), are mainly grown by Doepfner herself. For her 2013 installation in a New York City subway underpass, Rollin’ High and Mighty Traps, Doepfner used brushwood from the Bronx Botanical Garden to create an artificial thicket within the white-tiled, neon-lit space in which large-scale ink drawings were suspended.

The large glass panes Doepfner uses are always sourced locally. In Berlin, a traditionally working class metropolis of 3.5 million inhabitants with a home ownership rate of only 15%, Doepfner usually uses glass panes from new, high-priced condominium complexes that are shattered due to vandalism by opponents of gentrification. In Washington, DC, the vast number of new developments that are not affordable to a large portion of Washington, DC’s 650,000 residents are rarely vandalized. Burglary rates in Washington, DC, however, are about 40% higher than in Berlin, and the cause of many broken panes. Hence, the broken pane used in Early this morning, when you knocked upon my door is from a barber shop that was burglarized.

In her quest to capture and convey intimate, subjective experiences, Doepfner often references titles of songs she has strong personal connections to: The title of this exhibition, Take It Right Back, is the title of a song by Bessie Smith, the most influential blues singer of all time as well as the highest-paid black entertainer of the 1920s. Doepfner’s large-scale ink drawing I woke up this morning with an awful aching head (2013) also references a song by Bessie Smith, Empty Bed Blues (recorded in 1928, shortly before Smith’s death). Smith’s songs Take It Right Back and Empty Bed Blues express existential phenomena such as emotional pain and the experience of betrayal as well as sexual pleasure and self-determination. The drawing I woke up this morning with an awful aching head (which is similar to There was a time when you let me know what’s really going on below (2014), depicted here), consists of thousands of tiny dots that form clusters analogous to representations of nerve cells. Applied on a large sheet of Japanese gampi paper, a very thin and translucent but strong paper made from plant fibers and suspended from the ceiling, the drawing appears to be alive as it slowly moves through the spectators’ presence.

The irrevocable presence of materials in the world now or in the past, their transformation and their meaning, are made evident by Doepfner. This is true for the found objects she uses as well as those she creates. In Doepfner’s drawings on gampi paper, such as I guess you got troubles, too (2015), Doepfner copies citations from publications on neuroscientific and philosophical subjects in microscopically small print – transforming them from text to graphic element. The title of the small drawing I guess you got troubles, too is an adaptation of fragments of Woody Guthrie’s song Baltimore to Washington (recorded 1944), in which he sings from the perspective of a gambler: “I guess they got troubles too, I guess the police they’ve got their troubles, too.” Doepfner has copied a text fragment from philosopher David Chalmer’s paper “Consciousness and its Place in Nature” in which he discusses aspects of consciousness and subjective experience. Juxtaposed with a dried foam flower, the fragment is only legible upon very close examination; texts become graphic representations and in their form express another, subjective, aspect of scientific research and writing that results from Doepfner’s strong concern with questions of consciousness. What is the relationship between the brain and our mind? How do we physiologically experience our environment and what is our subjective experience? In materially working through these texts by painstakingly physically rewriting them, Doepfner defines and creates her own subjective relationship to science and theory and a new physical manifestation of this activity.

Just like Early this morning, when you knocked upon my door, the piece So happy just to see you smile was produced during a residency in Washington, D.C. in spring 2015. Early this morning, when you knocked upon my door is a citation from one of the most widely covered blues songs, Robert Johnson’s Me and the Devil Blues (recorded 1957). So happy just to see you smile draws its title from the Bob Dylan song New Morning (1970) and consists of blades of Japanese blood grass as well as a sheet of paper with a poem transcribed in ink by Doepfner that is enclosed within a large block of ice. The poem by poet Fernando Pessoa Sometimes I Meditate (As vezes medito) expresses many of Doepfner’s central themes: “What is reality? What defines us as humans, and our experiences? How can we comprehend and convey these abstract phenomena of being?” (Doepfner).

Over the course of the exhibition, the ice block will slowly melt, the grass blades will continuously shift, the ink on the paper will smear, and the paper will descend into an iron trough within which it rests until it finally dries – resulting in an inexorably changing object that expresses the tragic and at the same time magnificent state of worldly impermanence.


Take It Right Back exhibits works produced by Paula Doepfner during a residency in Washington, DC, as well as pieces from a workshop with the youth group Culture Keepers, an international program of the Prince George’s African American Museum & Cultural Center led by arts educator Chanel Compton that engages youth in current social and political issues through the arts. The workshop collaboration is based on a poem by Nikky Finney, “The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy.” Students worked with Paula Doepfner to produce art works related to the poem with materials such as water, paper, plants, and pigments to express personal narratives. The workshop addressed questions related to materials, processes, aesthetics – as well as the social construction notions of the environment, nature, the city, and beauty.

Kirsten Weiss
May, 2015

Text for the exhibition ‘Paula Doepfner – Take it right back’ at the Goethe-Institut, Washington, D.C.