Sunday, March 11, 2018

Kader Attia & Jean-Jacques Lebel, L'un et l'Autre @ Palais de Tokyo

The Culture of Fear

Kader Attia is one of the most interesting young artists working today. I first saw his work when he won the Prix Marcel Duchamp in 2016. That said, his latest exhibition, l’Un et l’autre, at the Palais de Tokyo is completely different from the works displayed at the Centre Pompidou in Reflecting on Memory, primarily because it is a joint venture with the older French artist, Jean-Jacques Lebel.
Attia and Lebel with The Culture of Fear
The blurb at the beginning of the exhibition claims that this is an encounter between the two artists/thinkers rather than an exhibition. Although I am not sure of the difference between an encounter and an exhibition, I do think it would be more accurate to call l’Un et l’autre, a document of an encounter. What we see here are theobjects representing the convergence of interests of two generations, one a French artists steeped in the traditions that motivated the radical art of the 1960s, and the other a French-Algerian whose work speaks to today’s most pressing issues: colonization, migration, social, sexual, physical non-conformism, and so on. To me, this exhibition is a visual equivalent to listening to a fascinating conversation between two artists.
L'Un et l'Autre
Display of objects made from found materials, 

The cohering principle of l’Un et l’autre might be the social construction of the other, a concept noted in the title. However, this is both too general and too specific a description of the dense intellectual ideas visualized in objects and images. The exhibition’s centerpiece is a scaffold of steel shelves supporting magazines from different decades of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in which the language and images of violence and evil are revealed through juxtaposition as fully socially constructed. When violence is done to the African other by France, the colonizer, it is understood and accepted as a form of taming the uncivilized. When the Taliban and ISIS strike the western world in the 21st century, a mass violence on a similar scale is labelled and treated as terrorism by the evil. The juxtaposition of the magazines across history, countries and the inversion of perpetrators and victims, paints an all too humiliating picture of the way we have manipulated the story to place us on the moral, political, and social high ground. And of course, the western obsession with categorization, archiving, ordering, documenting is embraced and then turned upon itself in an installation that reveals the mendacities hidden by such practices.

Dan sickness mask
Around the central space, there are objects, objects once used for violence and war that have been transformed into objects for everyday use. For example, a chair made of rifles, a beer mug made of the of ammunition casing, and German coins recycled into ritual objects by the African colonized are now transformed into objects of wonder. And then, perhaps the most fascinating of all the displays are the sculptures drawn from “the archive,” which really means found and retrieved from the oddest of places. There are some really curious objects such as twins from the Christmas Islands in which two heads have one male body and a female sex, confronting us with questions about the apparent progressive sexuality only now being accepted in the West. In this traditional culture the fluidity of sexes and genders is worshipped. In a series of “sickness masks`’ in which the face of the physical or mental condition of the patient is made visual on the face. As the wall text explains, the polarity between the western myth of facial perfection—often constructed by a surgeon—and this culture’s aestheticization of illness, representing the celebration of individual uniqueness.
A Chair made of Knives and guns
Beside each display, a small video shows Attila and Lebel in conversation about the objects contained therein. The video gives an explanation of the provenance of the object, its use, and the reasons for its inclusion. In addition, the discussion ensures there is no possibility of missing the point of the provocative wider dialogue of objects and artists. Ultimately, this fascinating exhibition shows the journey of cultural appropriation—both through objects and people—and critiques integration into our own value systems to create collective memories that are not ours to create. Along the way, we are alerted to the violence of everyday life, the use of things and people in an effort to appropriate power through economic, political, visual and poetic discourses.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Jean Fautrier Matière et Lumière @ Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris

Jean Fautrier, Johanna, 1957
It’s a rare occasion that we are treated to a comprehensive overview of an artist’s entire oeuvre. The Jean Fautrier retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris is a one such treat and offers a number of revelations thanks to its extensive look at the work. What’s unique about this lovely exhibition is the slow unfolding of the artist’s ideas and obsessions over time. It is as though everything he is thinking from the earliest works on is always moving towards the final works before his death. Or put differently, we see the rare occurrence of every avenue explored over forty years converges in the last paintings.

Jean Fautrier, Lac Bleu I, 1926
The early works are rough as he grapples with the human form and visitors will want to skip the early rooms. But he soon settles down around 1930 to start producing the works for which he has become renowned. That said, the early years are not without interest. In his so called black period, Fautrier begins his lifelong preoccupation with the re-animation of still lives. Here we see dead animals, flowers without water to sustain them, and in the dense material thickness of the paint everything is brought back to life. The figure in the middle of these images —in compositions that will remain constant throughout his career—is like a beacon of light radiating its energy against a black background. In the black works we find another hallmark of his work in the form of multi-colored backgrounds that are worked over again and again in order to create a nuanced and dynamic field of possibility for the emerging figure. The fastidious painting and repainting of the background begins early in Fautrier’s oeuvre. Similarly, this background is always agitated, in motion, and overstated, despite the fact that the object in the foreground is always the focus.

Jean Fautrier, Forêt (Les Maronniers), 1943

The sculptural quality of the painted image is another concern that he begins in his earliest paintings. The unique materiality of Les Otages, the series in which he painted the heads of the prisoners of the Gestapo in 1944 are exemplary of Fautrier’s dense use of paint. In these he also begins to use the palette knife to spread plaster onto paper and then push it around into a shape over which he carefully paints the arabesque forms that we saw him develop in the delicate drawings from the 1930s onwards. As I say, tracing these constants and developments throughout the works on display is the joy of this exhibition.
Jean Fautrier, L'encrier, 1948 
I have always thought of Fautrier as an artist with a limited, muted palette, but this is not so. In fact, the more bleak his vision of everyday life, the more open, clear and bright is his palette. The soft blue, that is the background for all the object still lifes after World War II  might deceive us into thinking that he is painting blue skies and sunny days. And yet, while the colours make the works radiate, they are not without sadness and a sense of skepticism towards the world he depicts. The thick plaster surface pulls us up close, but it is not luscious in the way that oil paint can be when it is massaged around a canvas. On the contrary, the thick surfaces are so filled with frantic lines and cracks that we see the roughness, the doubt and depression in the agitated backgrounds.
Jean Fautrier, Tête d'Otage, 1945
It’s also interesting to note that his depictions are never fully abstract. This is another of the Fautrier constants that can only be perceived when studying the oeuvre in its entirety. Without the early figurative works and their gradual formal development we could be forgiven for seeing the later images as abstract. In the earlier works he struggles with the human form to such a degree that when he finally paints a work such as Johanna there is no mistaking the misshapen, doubled over woman’s body in the curves of the plaster. Likewise,  in Paysages, 1957 we recognize the mountain range and lush water filled valley from thirty years earlier – always in the same colours, always in the horizontal form of a landscape. And in keeping with the resistance to full abstraction, there is utter tragedy in the arabesque lines of paint over the dense plaster forms. And in some works, these same lines are infused with life and hope on the dead plaster.
Jean Fautrier, Tête d'Otage, 1945
Layer upon layer upon layer of plaster, paint and colour give the works a sense of time and of memory – there is a memory in the paint itself as well as in the objects painted. Also, the choice to work on paper and then attach paper to canvas creates a layering of materials and time, if only that taken to dry because of the thickness. Thus, the works are a history and a melancholy that accrues in the layers, each one seeping into the crevices of that underneath. There are also times when Fautrier’s works remind us of a Lucio Fontana ceramic, with the shine of the oil on the crustations of paint that have been left behind as the knife moved across the paper.  And so, all in all, there is a lot going on in these sculptural paintings, and their richness of material, texture and meaning is given their full dues by this extensive exhibition.