|Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2014|
As I wait for the big autumn exhibitions to open in Paris I have been going around some of the smaller galleries, and my pick for the weekend is the small, and sumptuous Trio at Galerie Lelong. It’s an interesting choice to call Arnulf Rainer, Jannis Kounellis and Antoni Tàpies a trio. That said, my one reservation about the exhibition is not always obvious connections between the work of Kounellis and Tàpies, and that of Rainer’s aggressive and dramatic paintings. While both Tàpies and Kounellis are concerned with history and the grand moments that make life painful and require starting again, Rainer’s work is more concerned with himself, the tormented artist. But this is a small disappointment in an otherwise provocative installation.
On the left as we enter the first room, the first striking piece is an untitled work by Kounellis in which ink stained cloth is hung over a steel support. It sets the tone of the exhibition. As in this first piece, the exhibition is bathed in sadness, anger, violence and the residue of trauma. When Kounellis applies paint or ink to cloth or canvas and then places the stained fabric over steel, the steel is softened to the point where it becomes a witness to heartache. And yet, the steel also retains its danger and resilience when the fabric is read like a bandage, the dripping ink interchangeable with blood covering the inflexible steel support.
The wornness of the materials in exhibition overall i evoke a sadness and melancholy. We see in Tàpies’ Cadira (1983), something like a chair that sits on a pedestal in the middle of the first room. The sense of charred material, incised with a tool, the reminiscence of decay made me imagine the fire or the blast through which this chair has survived. And on Quatre draps (1997), four frayed pieces of fabric that mark the edges of the wooden support covered in what looks like dirt have been attached such that they could be the tape that will turn the front side of the painting into its backside to be put against the wall. We feel the unvisualizeable on the face of the image we do not see. Surrounding the four fragments of fabric, the thick reddy brown surface of mixed media becomes old and ambivalent.
There are always a lot of visual and conceptual associations when looking at Kounellis’ work. The pieces are about art, about trauma, and history, they are about the coming together of art and industry. In a very provocative piece, hessian bags of coal encircle a mound of broken plaster casts of faces and scrunched up newspapers on the floor in the second room. Because Kounellis is as interested in the fabrics of construction as he is in the fabrics of art, this piece invites us to imagine the pain and vulnerability of miners down the shaft in search of these materials that are supposedly in the interests of human comfort and the ease of human life. The piece which resembles the fragments collected by someone after the fact, reeks of hardship, disasters and a trauma that cannot be spoken of.
In my favorite piece/s in Trio, three Untitled Kounellis works from 2014 occupy the farthest wall of the gallery. They are titled and documented as three separate pieces, but it’s impossible not to see them as a triptych hung side by side. Their variations are significant, but their principles are related. Thick black paint is drawn across a white canvas that is mounted on steel. Steel girders, some rusted, some coated are placed on or near the edge of each canvas, once again, reminding us of the inseparability of the material of construction and that of art. And, in all three images, we see Kounellis push both steel beyond its definition as an intransigent material of modern rationalization, and painting as the object of beauty. In the three panels, art and industry bleed into each other, and in turn, with a history of art in which the altarpiece has related the redemptive mysteries of faith. Together with their complex materiality, their multiple symbolic meanings, make these three pieces irresistible.