A shifting chimera of an artist, working across genres, applauding and undermining her forebears
• Rosemarie Trockel's Vorstudie, 1989 is one of her typically 'unfinished' works
Rosemarie Trockel: Drawings, Collages and Book Drafts
Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh ****
THERE are several sleeping figures in this exhibition: a young man stretched out dreamily wearing a pair of green socks; a man caught in the abandon of slumber, head back, mouth open; two sleeping children, provocatively named Small devil and Small angel. They seem blissfully disengaged from an exhibition so packed with stimulation that you daren't blink in case you miss something.
This show is the largest ever of Rosemarie Trockel's works on paper, including nearly 200 drawings, collages and book drafts, a coup for the Talbot Rice Gallery which is the only venue to show it in the UK. It is never static, pitching the viewer backwards and forwards through a range of styles, themes and materials, always defying categorisation, challenging perceptions, taking a pop at sacred cows.
Trockel is one of Germany's leading contemporary artists. Now in her late fifties, she came of age artistically in a time dominated by (male) giants of the avant-garde: Richter, Polke, Beuys. She responds to their strong ideologies by being a shifting chimera of an artist, working across genres, applauding and undermining her forebears in almost equal measure, refusing to be pinned down.
All this makes for a disorientating show, as well as an enlightening one. Drawing plays a key role in Trockel's practice, a private space in which ideas are tried, explored, abandoned, reworked. It should bring us closer than any other show to the beating heart of the artist, and perhaps it does, though that heart itself is shifting, elusive, its logic dreamlike. The only clear answer here is that there are no clear answers.
What is clear from some of these works is that Trockel is a highly gifted draughtswoman, though this too she subverts. For every elegant ethereal figure sketched in deft acrylics, and sensitive warts-and-all nude such as Untitled (After Kathe Kollwitz) 1992, there is a childlike scribble in ballpoint, or a cartoonish magazine cover.
Figures are sometimes denied faces, so they withdraw from the viewer at the point of engagement. Small devil and Small angel, by contrast, are heads which seem to stop at the neck, and are no less disconcerting. In Schlafmohn (Opium Poppy) the face is covered by a curtain of dark hair, which also suggests a flower head, perhaps communicating a private addiction. Perhaps not, of course. Trockel isn't about to give us any clues.
Traditionally, in art, drawing was a form of preparatory study, after which a finished painting could be resolved without any doubt or uncertainty. Here, there are no finished paintings, indeed they seem scarcely possible.Uncertainty is Trockel's stock in trade: the more you look at a drawing, the more it seems to shift. These works are not linear; we cannot rely on them to take us anywhere.
Book drafts have long been a part of Trockel's practice: sketched out projects, conceptual covers for unrealised future books. They are displayed under glass, so it is left to the viewer to imagine what, if anything, their pages might contain. She has begun to exhibit these relatively recently (this show has the largest collection to date) suggesting that they are important in the evolution of her ideas. Perhaps there is freedom in an exploration which doesn't have to lead to a finished product.
Many of these, as with many of the works in this show, contain an element of black humour. One bears a pen sketch of figure hanging by the neck accompanied by the words "Meet me half way". Emergency Exit is illustrated by a guillotine. Another invites the viewer to imagine a list of things which could be smaller (America, the past) and bigger (breasts, income, prisons, problems).
A sequence from 1990s combines pencil outlines with washes of watercolour and a heavy dash of irony. Orient Traveler shows two spacemen, Romantic soul a man in a wheelchair gazing at a painting on an easel. She invites us to bring our own narratives. Her sleeping figures remind us that the subconscious is at play here, but she thinks nothing of subverting Freud along with other ideologies.
When I visited, the gallery was busy with students, earnestly studying and sketching individual works. I suspect the elusive Trockel has a lot to say to the current generation of contemporary artists who embrace uncertainty so eagerly. But uncertainty is a difficult knife edge to tread, and most don't manage it with her flair and assurance.
• Until 30 April