The painting at the entrance of the gallery, Elektrischer Stuhl (Electric Chair), 1960, sets the tone for this offering of A.R. Penck’s early work. A baby-faced man sits strapped in an electric chair while an anonymous crowd looks on. In the front row, a woman covers her face with her hands in agony. Hands and heads form visceral motifs in this exhibition, where the artist’s trademark stick figures and symbols are already present as sophisticated visual agents tracing a history of violence.
In Untitled (Group), 1961, a small being is flanked by two towering men. The man on the right, with a distinctly erect penis, is cracking a whip over the tiny subject, while the other man raises an enormous finger, like a shrill pedant. The latter holds up a framed depiction of the scene that the (possibly?) sadomasochistic pair is trapped in, which causes a subtle mise en abyme of confusion and terror. Systembild (System Image), 1966, shows conjoined twins, one of which is writing the letter A, with other beings who display the letter as if it were unimpeachable law.
The darkly political underpinnings of Penck’s pictographs don’t go unnoticed. A room full of his sculptures, many of them named “Standart-Modell” (“standart” being a portmanteau of the words standard and art) and most created between 1972 and 1973, are composed of mundane objects, like aluminum foil, painted glass bottles, and boxes. The materials, seemingly fashioned to highlight their commonness or ubiquity, were the only items readily available to Penck as a nonestablishment maker in the former German Democratic Republic.