Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Carol Bove, Vase/Face @ David Zwirner

Carol Bove, Vase/Face, 2022

Steel is one of those materials that surrounds us. Yet, despite or perhaps because of its ubiquity, we tend to ignore it. At best, we dismiss it as dull, sterile, uninspiring. Steel is the fabric and function of industrialized life, and therefore, it bears no more thinking about. Once we have seen John Chamberlain's crumpled steel sculptures, and learnt of the expressive possibility of the material, we probably won't look at steel in the same way again. Chamberlain's steel sculptures fly in the face of everything that steel is meant to do. It is meant to be stalwart and unflinching, cold and repellent. And yet, for Chamberlain, steel creates puzzles, it is an enigma, an idea without weight. 

John Chamberlain, Opera Chocolates, 1994

Carol Bove's current exhibition at David Zwirner's Marais gallery does something different again. Something that we would never expect steel to do. Bove makes steel into a warm material, filled with emotion, a sense of play, a material that even has the innate tendency to exude tenderness. In Bove's sculptures, steel is everything it is not meant to be. 

Seeing Carol Bove's new steel sculptures on exhibition around the corner from John Chamberlain's familiar crumpled cars at Karsten Greve makes Bove's work even more peaceful, delicate, and emotionally charged. The cynic might want to say that Bove couldn't possibly do anything new with steel, that Chamberlain took steel to its ultimate beyond. But Bove's work is different, made in a different moment, speaking to a different world. Unlike Chamberlain's, Bove's sculptures are not in conversation with abstract expressionism and the fraught energy of brushstrokes by the likes of De Koonig and Kline. Her curious lengths of manipulated tubular, painted steel might be in conversation with painting. The pink, yellow and orange pieces, bent, turned, folded and scrunched together might be hung on walls, but unlike Chamberlain's, Bove's sculptures do not use the language of painting. Rather, they remind us of animated stick figures and squiggles, always about to jump off the walls and change their shape. If Chamberlain's meticulously worked, spray painted piles of steel make sense in an era when images were influenced by a need to move away from representation, Bove's connect to an era in which images are technologically determined.

Carol Bove, Vase/Face, 2022
David Zwirner

Again in a refusal of the deterministic nature of the image today, Bove makes works that are intensely physical and material. They are strikingly sensuous - not something that can easily be said about steel. The smooth matte paint, evenly applied, bears no trace of gesture or the artist's thoughtful application (unlike the rainbow of colours sprayed and painted over Chamberlain's). But the surface is given the appearance of velvet. It is all we can do to stop ourselves from reaching out to touch them. 

Carol Bove, Vase/Face, 2022
David Zwirner

In Zwirner's main gallery, the sandblasted steel tubes are contorted and crumpled, folded over huge glass disks, as though hugging or stroking the human-sized circular shapes. The grey walls, floor and wrought iron glass ceiling create an environment in which everything is possible. The challenge to the materials of both glass and steel through creating relationships between them that are more like friends in a grey space, turn sculptures into living, breathing beings that shift and change as we walk around the gallery space, seeing them from different perspectives. There is no doubt after visiting this exhibition, that neither grey, nor steel, can be said to be the unyielding and uninteresting phenomena that the world claims them to be. 

Carol Bove, Vase/Face, 2022
David Zwirner

If Chamberlain creates a physical experience inviting us to navigate the twists and turns of newly manipulated metal scavanged from scrap heaps and abandoned cars, commenting on capitalism, car culture, the hard edged industrial world that has gone awry, Bove's is a world in which our eyes and our emotions come into conversation. Her works don't so much shape space as Chamberlain's do. But they do push our senses to limits that they have not otherwise been challenged to go. 

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Charles Ray @ Centre Pompidou

Charles Ray, Self-Portrait, 1990

Ray entertains the similarities and differences between mannequins and sculpture. His sculptures are mannequins, but they take poses that are one step removed from familiar classical sculptures. For example, a boy crouched down to pick something from the ball of his foot reminds us of the Hellenistic sculpture of a boy removing a thorn from the same. Boy with Frog 2009 stands in the pose of a classical sculpture, even though it is clearly a contemporary image of a typical boy with his catch. However, unlike its function in centuries past, for Ray, sculpture is a form of advertising, and a clothes horse for naked bodies. But it is also about the mannequin as a double, the mannequin as art work, as a performance of the social, cultural sexual relations that we actually live. 

Charles Ray, Fall '91, 1992

All of Ray's figures are the wrong size. That is, they are over or undersized, asking us to look up to or down on the figures. Thus, our relationship to his sculptures is quite different from what we expect. In a work such as Fall '91, an oversized mannequin changes her size, depending on where we stand as we look. From afar, she looks like a mannequin of human size, but up close, she is a giant. Unless, of course, we see someone standing next to her when we are at a distance, then we know how big she really is. This is deception of size has been a characteristic of sculpture for centuries. Michelangelo's David was made for a pedestal in a public square, therefore, from below. Accordingly, his figure is distorted so that when we look up at him, the figure is perfectly human-sized and proportioned. 

Charles Ray, Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 2021

Much of the work seems to be about generations, about the relations between children and parents. The sculpture of his mother in the pose with a slight twist on that of Manet's Olympia is sees an oversized woman masturbating. Mothers are clearly a big influence on Ray. It's difficult not to see the large and the small figures as playing on the power relations in families.  When the children are the same size as the parents, surely Ray is not creating bridges between generations, but giving a very immediate sense of how one generation is threatening and overwhelming another. Alternatively, we may see the sculptures of things and people as proportioned according to the size that they take up in our minds. 

Charles Ray, Family Romance, 1993

Ray also has a fascination for fabrics. But like the sizes of his sculptures, the material in which they are made is always off. The small person bending down to tie his shoe lace (reminding us of the boy taking the splinter out of his foot) is fabricated in stainless steel. The sensuousness of classical sculptures in marble and bronze are transferred to the industrially produced steel. Similarly, there is always an emphasis on the plasticity and construction of the body as a performative vessel - even when it is in a photograph of Ray himself. Even when he uses real hair, the figure looks plastic, or fabricated. This, of course, makes them completely different from the realist figures of a sculptor such as Ron Muecke - in fact, Ray's are the exact opposite. The figures are clearly representations, without empathy, without any hold on the viewer's emotions. Again, even in the self-portrait photographs, Ray looks like a mannequin of himself,. 
Charles Ray, No, 1992

Boilly: Chroniques Parisiennes @ Musée Cognacq-Jay
Etude avec cinq autoportraits de l'artiste, vers 1823-1827

Louis-Léopold Boilly was a revolutionary artist, in all senses of the word. His oeuvre sits between two revolutions—those of 1789 and 1848—and so it's not surprising that he often depicts the people of the streets. Unlike painters and portraitists of his and previous generations in France, Boilly had a suspicious view of the bourgeoisie, the police, the army. His real subject matter was everyday life. Moreover, it was everyday life on the streets of the city. 

Most exciting about Boilly's painting was his thirst for new technologies and what they could bring to painting. I knew enough about his work from the pieces in the Louvre to know that he was pushing at the boundaries between painting and theatre, but what is revealed in full scale over and over again in this current exhibition at the Musée Cognacq-Jay is the way that Boilly looked forward to the cinematic image.

Fichier:Louis Léopold Boilly - La prison des Madelonnettes, rue des  Fontaines - P1310 - Musée Carnavalet (cropped).jpg — Wikipédia
La prison des Madelonnettes, rue des Fontaines, 1815-1819

In painting after painting, Boilly plays with what will become the defining characterstic of the cinema two hundred years later. His figures look from different perspectives, in motion, in scenes that give the illusion of motion. In Le prison des Madelonnettes, rue des Fontaines, for example, he juxtaposes light and shadow in the two halves of the painting and each is filled with people and their pursuit of morally good and bad activities respectively. Looking at this work, we also get a sense of a developing narrative unfolding across the width of a painting, statues being brought to life, in two halves that are like scenes whose relationship is only established in the image itself. 

Jean qui rit et Jean qui pleure, vers 1808-1810

Visitors to the exhibition will also notice that Boilly was fascinated with illusion, with effect, with expression as a way to attract a response. There are doublings and mirrorings everywhere in his work. His figures have exquisitely painted faces filled with emotions and expressions, the fabrics of their clothes are so textured that we want to touch them. But the bodies are often distorted, misshapen, slightly out of proportion. It is as if they are being seen through a distorting lens. And then in the final room of the exhibition, there is the object that the whole thing has been moving towards: a camera obscura and a selection of early optical toys—a zograscope, telescope, a pantographe. These are the instruments Boilly used to see the world differently, through new optics, that he then translated into painting. It's easy to imagine that had Boilly lived one hundred years later, he might have turned to the cinema for his artistic expression.

Louis-Léopold Boilly - Trompe l'oeil of a Collection of Drawings, with  Portraits of Boilly and
Un Trompe l'oeil, detail, vers 1800

Perhaps the reason that Boilly is not as well known today is his diversity and range. He moved from portraits to genre paintings, to city scapes, trompe l'oeil, caricatures and still life. Boilly never sat still long enough to develop a reputation for anything. Similarly, he painted the kinds of people that the salons had no interest in: prostitutes, criminals, poor artists such as himself, those mixed up in the hustle and bustle of the train station. In this, his voracious appetite for experimentation and innovation made him so far ahead of his time that no one would have known what to do with him. 

Humour, trompe-l'œil, libertinage... Cinq raisons de découvrir la peinture  de Boilly au XVIIIe siècle, au musée Cognacq-Jay - Panomou
La Marche Incroyable, vers 1797

Ultimately, this lovely exhibition shows Boilly to be a man of his age, but as such, he is a man ahead of his time. Boilly was inspired by streets taken over by masses of people, by train stations and street dwellers. And he was interested in depicting his modern world through the instruments of his time. He blurred the boundaries between mediums where painting and photography (hence the grey of his works) and sculpture are brought to life. His depictions of theatre in the streets, together with multi-perspectival pictures that preface the cinema made him a man reaching for modernity on the streets of Paris, even before it had fully arrived.