Checking his reflection. Leaning in towards the mirror, out, then in again. Walking away, looking back over his shoulder. Testing it. He hops, skips then jumps past, returns with a white hat. Leaning in again, he circles his reflection suspiciously, crossing the surface’s threshold and back again.
Harpo Marx’s bodily imitation of Groucho’s President Firefly in Duck Soup (1933) holds until a third impostor stumbles in on the scene, giving away the game. The infamous ‘mirror scene’ itself has its own doppelgangers pre- and pro-ceeding it – from Chaplin’s The Floorwalker (1916) to Harpo’s own re-enactment of the scene in a 1955 episode of I Love Lucy, to countless cartoons and on to the shattering mirrors of Inception (2010). The figure of the double has, since the Victorian psychoanalysts, been seen as a threat, a wayward other who threatens the self it mimics. But we don’t really need the advice of a literature scholar like Debra Walker King to point out, “the fictional double is always with us.”
Groucho’s circling, entering the space of the mirror before returning to his own, is an interpretative dance, questioning and verifying the presence what he sees. The double here is a necessary entity, a figure that then allows us this act of interrogation. We can can find this same circling, double-take in the work of Maria Zahle. Her sculptures and works on paper remain resolutely abstract, but are moored in the precise, messy particularities of everyday life. On the surface, Zahle’s work might appear akin to the work of the Zurich Concrete artists like Verena Loewensberg and Richard Paul Lohse; colours appearing in self-evident lines, playfully mute. But like in her series of Tape Drawings, it is the tacky red and yellow tape you find at supermarkets and vegetable stalls that inform the drawings.
Zahle’s Foot On the Ground series presented here make no bones about their act as a bodily double, they stumble, pause and lean. Clean plastic feet held to the ground with churned up chunks of stone and concrete. The titles of each work already tell us what they’re doing. But then what? They form an unlikely family, hanging around, or more like some sort of gang of the signaling arms of train semaphores gone astray. But a semaphore implies a use, the sending of a message. These just stand there, like some angular Chaplin-like characters, or made as if Buster Keaton had turned his hand to Constructivism.
The mark of Zahle’s work is self-evident; we know how each piece is made, the imprint acting as its own index. But we still find ourselves inevitably involved in the act of trying to scrutinise, to try and figure things out. Zahle’s work seems to involve a particular back and forth, physically and conceptually swaying, repeating. Hers is a admixture of unique actions and general materials, looking at moments of discrete pronunciation, where the form they are given threatens to become just hollow abstraction and dissolve into an unmoored sign, a floating semaphore. Her practice uses a careful combination of rough, found objects with sleek fabricated materials to place both on an uneasy threshold, where the pure form still has a worldly sense about it, where abstraction can articulate its own precision, and where art might supplant the semaphore.
Text commissioned by Arcade Fine Arts on the occasion of the Sunday Art Fair, October 2011.