Katinka Bock makes parts of her art in an art studio. She makes other parts in other places altogether. Other parts she gathers, like a magpie, acquiring objects that have their own shiny biographies, then combining these bits with her ceramics, bronze casts, and wood carvings. At the Henry Art Gallery, where the Paris-based, German-born artist is now having her first solo exhibition in the United States, the list of materials includes an I beam dredged up from Elliott Bay, an iron ball and chain used to test the depth of actual chimneys hidden behind walls in France, and a soccer ball found on the side of a Seattle road.
You may lose patience with Bock before you even begin if you're a purist, someone who doesn't want the objects mucked with exterior information, stories, realms. Then again, the severe simplicity of Bock's art is, on the surface, not unlike the European abstraction of sculptors going back decades. Especially the wood carvings, human-height sentinels with subtle depressions in their bellies and on their backs that help them balance without pedestals, and make them warm and living. On their skins are storms of hash marks. Drawings of motions. In other words, the objects have presence.
But they carry strong absences with them, too. Le Grand Chocolat is one of the few pieces at the Henry to have been seen before. Bock made it in 2012. It's a patchwork of dusty-black square ceramic tiles on the floor of one of the Henry's galleries, forming a pathway that runs enigmatically down the center of the room, leading somewhere and nowhere. Its title refers to chocolate, as if it were a large chocolate bar broken into squares. But these squares are irregular, especially on their top sides, where the surfaces are rumpled and rough. This is where their absence comes in, in the history contained in the form: Bock made the piece by draping a layer of raw ceramic on the floor of a school hallway in France. She then laid a red carpet over that, and hundreds of teachers and students went about their business, leaving their footfalls in the ceramic, indirectly, more like echoes of footfalls. "You can have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand," Rebecca Solnit wrote, describing the condition of being a writer of words left on a page for somebody else to find, but she could just as well be talking about an artist, and Katinka Bock in particular.
Solnit has also written that blue is the color of faraway, which triggers the longing that distance creates. Bock's exhibition at the Henry is subdued colors, "closeness" colors, ones intrinsic to the objects themselves, expressing something internal about wood (untreated), ceramic (unglazed), iron. The largest work of art is blurry gray and cream. It's a huge furl of fabric hung from the ceiling to form a suspended box; to walk underneath it feels like being in a grave, the fabric above like cloudy sky. The dark marks on the fabric come from frottage, or taking a rubbing. Bock laid the fabric along the full length of a wall in ruins in Rome and lifted an impression of its surface with a pencil, something like a photograph by other means. As at the school, she recorded the ruined wall physically, but indirectly, to be rediscovered from a distance, like the sea in a conch shell.
There is blue in Bock's show, a deep, night-sky blue flecked with even darker blue ink on a stretched panel of fabric. The blue panel sits on the floor and leans against the wall with another object in front of it. It's a slab of bronze with a shape on its top that resembles a little house. On the back side, the bronze slab is bent upward, as if somebody tried to pry it up. In fact, a vandal tore this element off of one of Bock's public sculptures in France twice, the first time making off with the slab and the second time just causing this damage. The public sculpture still stands, a relative of this one. There, she replaced the bronze with a material that can't be melted down and sold, a desperate little hanging fact.
If Bock's pieces are located in more than one place at once, it's a familiar feeling. There's where we are mentally, in our minds, and where we are physically. People are in two places at once, if not more than that, all the time. One of the objects that Bock brought with her was a curved slice of snow-white ceramic just larger than the size of a piece of paper. If you get close to it, you see it has actually had a piece of paper imprinted on it. She didn't know how she wanted to use it when she arrived, but she knew she wanted an object connected to a thinking place: school, library. She found two old school doors at a surplus store, cut a slit in one, and pushed the ceramic through it like mail halfway delivered, a message between two places. One of her other pieces spans three rooms, but you can only see it in one room at a time. It's a metal ribbon enfolding an interior wall like tape around a package. You barely notice it; then, at some point as you're moving through the rooms, you begin to build the whole model of it in your mind. At the point this happens, when you solve the puzzle in the third room, Bock has stretched the ribbon over a dirty soccer ball. It hits like a jolt of punctuation, the game of it, and it made me laugh.
Bock inadvertently taught me something about the Henry. Before she arrived to spend a week making the show, she had never been to Seattle before. But she had an idea in mind about the galleries already, because she found out they faced north, but had no windows at all. This struck her because northern light has special meaning in art. Artists pine for it. Vermeer had it in his studio. Leonardo celebrated its diffuse evenness. Bock saw the Henry's north galleries as like a head with the mouth and eyes shut, the inside of a mind, silent but always telling stories.