Saturday, April 30, 2022

The Delight of Contemporary Art @ Pinault Collection, Bourse de Commerce

Maurizio Cattelan, Others, 2011

I took my friend Harriet to see the new exhibitions at the Bourse de Commerce last night. As we walked along the outside of Tadao Ando's concrete cylinder, laughing at some of Bertrand Lavier's objects in the display cases that have been there since the building's days as the Bourse, marvelled at the fresco depicting trade in the colonies, and the magnificent reflections of the early evening sun shining through the latticed roof of the dome, I thought that this magnificent building should be the mandatory first stop on every tourist visit of Paris. Visiting the Pinault collection is pure pleasure. It is, perhaps, the most comfortable and welcoming modern art museum in a major city. It's difficult to describe how delightful it is to wander the exhibitions and the building itself.

Charles Ray, Boy With Frog, 2009

We stopped in front of a Lavier piece of two crystal vases accompanied by the text "only one of these vases is real" to have a long discussion with two other visitors about which they thought was real. Being the know all, I was convinced as soon as I saw the display that the two vases were identical, and Lavier had simply included the text to keep us guessing. As Harriet pointed out, if only one was real, what kind of real would that be? In fact, whether or not the vases were real or fake was not the attraction of the display, but rather, the point of the piece was its play with our heads and temptation into animated conversation with strangers. This level of visitor engagement is maintained throughout the exhibitions on the first and second floors. 

Ryan Gander, With /.../.../..., 2019

I remember a friend bemoaning that she didn't really understand the Urs Fischer statue in the collection's opening exhibition. However, I am pretty sure that a lot of the art on display at the Pinault is not that difficult to "get".  Ryan Gander's stuttering Animatronic Mouse who has gnawed its way through the gift shop wall, or Marizio Cattelan's pigeons looking down from the third floor railing are exactly what they appear to be. The mouse and the pigeons are intruders into the precious world of art, making fun of its seriousness, showing us all that laughter and wonder are valid responses to art. 

Roni Horn, Dead Owl, 1997

The two temporary exhibitions also encouraged a frolick with art, eliciting physical and emotional responses. Roni Horn and Felix Gonzalez-Torres' exhibition on the ground floor created a lovely dialogue between the two artists. My absolute favorite piece was Horn's Dead Owl, 1997. The two fluffy white owls are both adorable and creepy. Their soft silken feathers make them like dolls sitting on their perches. But the title reminds us, they are dead, stuffed animals. The owl was photographed in Iceland, a country for which Horn has an ongoing fascination. But as an American, I am sure, Horn is aware of their symbolism within Native American culture as harbingers of death. Making the owls even more cuddly and curious, but simultaneously, unnerving is the fact that when standing in front of them, our eyes never rest. We constantly flit between one photograph and the other, comparing them, looking for differences, as if expecting them to reveal the answer to a puzzle. Of course, walking from side to side, the eyes of both owls never leave us, following our every move. Being watched by art works is always the most unsettling experience in a museum.

Charles Ray, Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley, 1992

There is a large Charles Ray exhibition in the level two galleries, complementing the Centre Pompidou's spring exhibition. Ray also has three pieces under the dome in the main circular gallery: a child, himself and an old, reconstructed truck. Ray's works are also unnerving, but unlike my experience of the Pompidou exhibition, my resounding response to the pieces on display at the Pinault was his obsession with naked male bodies, especially his own and those of young boys. It's true that a lot of his works re-conceive religious and classical sculpture, they also play with the traditional display of sculpture. In addition, Ray manipulates spaces and size and makes our movement through the gallery visible through the changing size of the sculpted figures when seen from different perspectives. But these works are not only working on an intellectual level. Ray has an obsession with pubescent male bodies and sexual fantasies, and you don't need an art history degree to get that!

Friday, April 29, 2022

Richard Serra, Transmitter @ Gagosian Le Bourget

Richard Serra, Transmitter, 2020

Last weekend, I ventured out to Le Bourget with my friend Sylvie for an initiation into Gagosian's space in a former airplane hangar. It's quite a trip out to the northern suburbs of Paris by train, and then bike for a few kilometres to the small airport. On arrival, it was a different world, until of course, we stepped inside Gagosian's space. It was like being back in the centre of Paris, surrounded by familiar white walls, skylit space and hip, surly gallery staff. I had anticipated a much bigger space, and surprised to see that the gallery was not so much bigger than Gagosian's London galleries.

Gagosian @ Le Bourget
Serra's sculpture itself was magnificent, of course. The dizzying, nausea-inducing lean of the Corten steel was intense, and the journey of discovery through corridors, opening out onto two circular enclaves where the visitor was invited to rest and relax, only to be pushed out through the sense of instability was unsettling. We wanted to stay, but on discovery that there was nowhere to sit because of the awkward lean of the steel, we were left with no choice but to keep moving. The narrower the corridor, the faster we moved.

As the only visitors to the gallery, Sylvie and I had fun with the echoes and reverberations of sound that must have been Serra's intention, though it's difficult to know if he sculpted the steel knowing the visitor would create echoes and voice modulations. But surely, a work titled Transmitter is designed to create a sound scape? The sonic element made the piece a departure from other Serra sculptures I have experienced: the steel curves, ribbons, caves and canyons becoming a device for transmitting data through sound waves lift sculpture to a whole new level. I could almost feel the sensations of being in a chasm, then a gorge, then in a clearing in the wild, alone, isolated within the space. 


The echos were long and resonant, changing tone, volume, and density as we moved through different spaces, again, dependent on the curve of the steel, the width of the corridor, the lean of the steel opposite where we were standing. As is always the case inside Serra's sculptures, I felt my body transformed, my senses brought alive. It was an incredible experience. Sadly, the wonder of discovery mixed with the disorientation that comes with physical movement in a Serra sculpture was cut short. As we were having fun with our voices, feeling the reverberations as though we were lost in the outback, the young man from the gallery's front desk came running to find us. Apparently, it wasn't permitted to make such noises in the gallery. The irony was not lost on us: as we were engaging with a work titled Transmitter in an airplane hangar stretching the length of a city block, the only visitors in the gallery, that we were asked to lower our voices. I would have thought that our physical responses to the works was exactly the point of it?

And so, not to be defeated by what seemed like the illogical orders of the gallery, Sylvie and I moved up close to experience the weathered, changing surface with other of or senses.
I ran my fingers across the rough metal until they reached its seams, and when I removed my hands, they were orange. We stood back and watched the light streaming in through the roof as it changed the colour of the sculpture from orange to brown, to tan, to a deep dark black when seen from certain angles. Ultimately, the physical relationship struck up between Serra's sculpture and the visitor is magnetic. When our bodies move around, through, up close and away from Transmitter, our senses are so enlivened that, like filings to a magnet, nothing can break the pull and the revelation of being in its presence.  

Saturday, April 16, 2022

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black no. 1, 1871

This single room exhibition of Whistler's works from the Frick, together with the masterpieces owned by the Musée d'Orsay is breathtaking and surprising. The small, but rich exhibition includes three pastels and twelve prints of Venice. The three pastels are among the most exquisite works in the Frick collection. With what seems to be a single sweep of sky-blue pastel across brown woven paper, Whistler captures the light flickering on the waterways, apparently seen from his gondola's approach to the island of the San Michele Cemetery. Most magnificent of all is the austerity and darkness hanging around the island, a mood captured in a few rubs of black pastel. In an more sketchy pastel, the quiet and lazy afternoon along a back canal is brought to life in Venetian Canal, with atmospheric window shutters, gondolas rocking on shadowy water created through more rubbing of pastels. From these Venetian drawings, I have the feeling that Whistler was as interested in time as it is measured by the sun, as he was in the surface of water, buildings, boats.

James Abbott McNeil Whistler, The Cemetery: Venice, 1879

Equally as insightful and filled with the secrets of Whistler's preoccupations in the late nineteenth-century—the same reasons for which he was so criticized by the Paris Salon—were the ocean paintings. Included here is Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean (1866)

James Abbott McNeil Whistler, Venetian Canal, 1880

In this painting from Whistler's time in Chile, we see him dragging his brush horizontally across the canvas to create movement and light on a calm sea. The visibility of the brush strokes produce wispy clouds and sea waves, much to the outrage of the keepers of acceptability in art in the nineteenth century. Most striking of all is the flatness of the painting with sky and sea distinct, yet without depth. The only indication of perspective comes from the branches in the foreground which were apparently painted in at a later date. With this flatness comes a timelessness. Therefore, while the canvas may show the sea at a particular moment in the day, it is also placeless and ahistorical. 

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean, 1866

The same can be said of the Musée d'Orsay's Variations in Violet and Green, 1871. The stamp on the right hand side reminds us of Whistler's debt to the Impressionists' and theirs to Japonisme. Indeed, we can see the compositional dynamics of Hokusai and Hiroshige in Whistler's otherwise natural world. The composition on the vertical, the separation of spaces making the painting appear without perspective, enabling it to engage multiple narratives. Taking pride of place in the exhibition is Whistler's portrait of his mother. For all of the beauty and risk of the sea paintings, the insight into what was most important to Whistler in the Venice pastels, the Arrangement in Grey and Black no. 1 is still the masterpiece in Whistler's oeuvre. At least, it is the most exciting piece on display in this exhibition. The three portrait paintings as symphonies in colour from the Frick collection, said to be in the tradition of Velazquez and Gainsborough, are impressive for their balance between naturalism and modernism. But Whistler's portrait of his mother is the most exciting work, if only for its audacity in breaking all the laws of painting from the period.