Andrea Büttner brings woodcuts, weaving and video to Milton Keynes' MK Gallery

By Mark Sheerin | 08 May 2013

Exhibition review: Andrea Büttner, MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, until June 16 2013

A photo of a theme park in a tropical setting
Andrea Büttner, Little Sisters: Luna Park Ostia (2012). Video still© Andrea Büttner, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012. Courtesy Hollybush Gardens, London
Nuns on roller coasters sound like the ingredients for a laugh riot. But instead the sisters in question, who do indeed work at an amusement park, feature in the most sweetly sober exhibition one might be liable to see all year.

Milton Keynes is the setting for a mid-career survey by Andrea Büttner. The white cube is at its most serene as it houses video, slide shows, woodcut, bronze sculpture and welcoming pine benches with woven fabric backing. These invite you to sit and contemplate the disparate work on display.

The nuns should draw you in. Büttner has discovered a sisterhood working in the Lunapark fairground outside Rome. She films them in the most companionable way, with a handheld camcorder. At times she even hands over the camera to them.

So perhaps fun fairs get a bad rep; words such as tawdry, gaudy, dodgy and risky come to mind. And yet the nuns in this show find nothing but beauty in the colours, sounds and experiences on offer at Lunapark. The ghost train amuses them, rather than offends their spiritual sensibilities.

Their blue habits inspire a fabric installation which stretches the width and almost the height of the large Cube Gallery next door. Two different, seamless shades of blue climb the wall and remind you of the overalls worn by workers as well as the spiritual calmness found in a convent.

Coour woodcut of a tan pebble on a black background
Andrea Büttner, From: Kabul Portfolio, 2012© Andrea Büttner, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012. Courtesy Hollybush Gardens, London.
The well-written gallery notes are really needed to tease out some of the connections this complex show throws up. It is here you learn that the woodcut pebbles refer to the pebbles Saint Francis was said to have begged for. The 20 smallest woodcuts were first shown in Kabul; it somehow helps to know.

Büttner makes all the woodcuts herself. And this expressive, expressionistic medium transmits occasional anxieties about religion, but also a degree of good-humoured calm. Even the veiled beggar, from a sculpture by Ernst Barlach, appears mute and elegant in its black and white simplicity here.

Beggars don’t usually get a look in in galleries. A visit to this show suggests they are the elephant in the room. At 6pm each evening the gallery plays a 113-minute sound installation recorded at a feast which hosted a number of speeches on the subject of poverty.

“No one in this room is poor,” observes a speaker. Along with Christianity, the talks which follow take in Judaism, arte povera, capitalism and payments to artists. As a charming extra, tea and biscuits are served. Plain mugs and plain digestives have both been specified by the artist.

Spend any time in this part of the gallery and you will be drawn to the dated black and white photos which lead you in and out of the space. These show teenagers from several decades past, all looking at work by HAP Grieshaber and, indeed, they were taken by her compatriot. The older artist taught woodcut to Büttner’s own teacher, also a nun.

Hidden under a table, a monitor plays footage of a supermarket cashier. It is a grubby, tiny store and the musty gloom is palpable. We focus on the handling of money and food and learn (once again from the notes) that the assistant shares her name with the Greek goddess of commerce Minerva.

Not so far away, a large format woodcut shows a circle of figures who could well be mistaken for the Three Graces. In fact, they are dancing nuns. This show has a habit - no pun intended - of coming full circle and is not afraid to tackle the heaviest of themes with a deft, light touch.

  • Open 12pm-8pm (11am-8pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday, closed Monday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @MK_Gallery‎.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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