Monday, February 28, 2011

Ingres', La Baigneuse Valpinçon, 1808 au Louvre

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, La Baigneuse Valpinçon dite La grande baigneuse, 1808

It is difficult to describe the perfection of the bather’s silken skin in Ingres’ La Baigneuse Valpinçon dite La grande baigneuse (1808). And her flesh is so sensuous that it’s difficult to know where to stand in order to imbibe this perfection. Up close, I can almost smell it. At a distance the light touches her, gently as it nevertheless spills through an open window that we don’t see, but we know is there, behind the equally sumptuous folds of the rich green curtain. There is something about the falling folds of the curtain and the gathers of fresh bed linen on which she sits that makes the bather's back even more divine. For the luxurious rendering of light on the folds and fabric speaks to the vulnerability and luminosity of her back.

Ingres, Le Bain Turc, 1863

Ingres will paint the same skin, the same woman in the same pose again and again. He will repeat her for commissions, as a sketch and again in competed works such as le Bain Turc (1863) and never is she as beautiful as she is in La Baigneuse Valpinçon. And the secret of her beauity lies in what surrounds her : the folds of the curtain, the sensuous white bed linen that is so fresh I can smell its odor of clean air, and the light as it gently brushes her left shoulder. Together they create balance, and harmony in the painting as a whole, and infuse her skin with a delicate luminescence. Her back is so tender, her skin so inviting that it is all I can do to stop myself reaching out to touch her. I do not have the same response to Ingres’ other renditions of the same woman. 

One of the most striking features of the painting are the cracks that articulate the surface of two hundred-year-old paint. But these cracks take nothing from the perfection of the bather's skin, and contrarily, somehow reinforce the delicacy of the figure. The weathered surface underlines the bather’s remove, keeping her safe in the seclusion of her thoughts, out of reach of both painter and viewer. Her pose, turned away and inwards, alone in her thoughts, apparently neither aware of nor disturbed by Ingres’ invasion of her private space, a space filled with the figure's stillness behind the cracks. I was at the Louvre on Friday night with a group of students, and when I drew their attention to the beauty and perfection of La Baigneuse Valpinçon, one wanted to see the painting as speaking to all of those discourses on voyeurism, and the woman’s body as object of the male gaze. But I don’t think so. Ingres’  bather is somehow above and beyond voyeurism; she is protected, if not by the cracks; she is kept safe inside the frame created by the curtain and the bed linen. Even if not literally, she is nevertheless held by these compositional elements. And the calmness of the painting, the stillness and silence of her pose, not sexualized, her back to the painter and the viewer seems to rescue her from such accusations. Ingres’ bather is, as art critic Robert Rosenblum has observed, in another time and place, beyond reality, out of reach of such base desires as those excited through ogling eyes. 
Ingres, La petite Baigneuse - Intérieur d'harem, 1828
It is unusual for a man at this time to be painting what he finds inside the women’s baths, at least on such an intimate scale, with such realism. This makes Ingres' bathers oddities on many levels. When we think that on the floor below at the Louvre hang the history paintings of Delacroix and Géricault, the magnificent depictions of France, the conquerer, France the Republic breathing in power and victory, La Baigneuse Valpinçon is even more obscure. Her quiet, reflectiveness and the intimate vision of her body could not be more diametrically opposed to these works from the same era. Yet, even though we might wonder what Ingres was doing in the women’s baths, I didn’t and wouldn’t want to condemn him for this magical vision of earthly perfection. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Michelangelo's Louvre Slaves

Michelangelo, The Rebellious Slave (left) and The Dying Slave

Perhaps my favorite room in the Louvre is the Italian sculptures on the ground floor of the Denon wing. At the end of the hall, stand two of the museum’s most superb Renaissance sculptures: Michelangelo’s two unfinished slaves, The Rebellious Slave (1513-1515) and The Dying Slave (1513-1516). Apparently they were commissioned for the tomb of Pope Julius II in 1505, but Michelangelo didn’t start working on them till 1513 and then abandoned them in 1516. But standing before them, their history, even their apparently rich iconography, seem irrelevant. For these passionate figures are irresistible, leaving us breathless before their beauty.

Michelangelo, The Rebellious Slave, 1513-1515
There were six of them altogether: the Louvre slaves had four fellow prisoners who now line the walls of the Accademia in Florence – slaves that most tourists walk straight past because they are so intent on reaching the most beautiful of all, Michelangelo’s David (1501-1504). The other four are tragic, devastating because they are deformed, still emerging from the marble as if in the process of being born, inseparable from the raw material.  The Rebellious Slave and The Dying Slave are unfinished, but nearly independent of the marble, and this makes them sensuous, erotic, mysterious, almost divine. When I suggested to my friend that we lean over the rope and touch the powerful muscles of the angry Rebellious Slave’s legs, she looked at me in horror. My fear that I was being disrespectful were quickly allayed when she exclaimed – “touch them? I want to sleep with them”. The desire stirred by these figures comes from somewhere intangible, deep within the veins of their near perfect marble. I say near perfect because it is said that Michelangelo stopped working on them at the point where he found them to be trapped inside their marble blocks, at that moment where the marble that incarcerates them triumphs. The fiery Rebellious Slave’s struggle with the marble thus becomes echoed in Michelangelo’s tireless fight with a material he discovers to be flawed. And he abandons them, leaves them to eternal imprisonment at the moment when the marble reveals its imperfection. And as if in a gesture of revenge on the marble that will not let him liberate the figures, Michelangelo leaves the traces of his battle: the chisel and hammer marks almost deface the rough hewn stone from which The Rebellious Slave cannot break loose. 
Michelangelo, The Dying Slave, 1513-1516
The Dying Slave is of a different temperament altogether. He is younger, more beautiful than his sibling, his body smooth and polished. He looks to be sleeping rather than dying, peacefully slumbering in the safety of the marble. And he is not burdened by the stone in the same way as is The Rebellious Slave, but rather, seems supported by it, content in its enveloping of his body.

In spite of the flaws of their material, and the unfinishedness of their form, for me the Slaves are the most perfect of all Michelangelo’s work. Because in these deeply emotional sculptures, one in intense and violent motion, the other in peaceful reverie, we see Michelangelo, the artist at work. He is given a block of marble and his task is to find the figure trapped within it. He chisels and chips away, until suddenly he finds what he knows all along is hidden inside. He knows it’s there because that’s his privilege as the artist, the one whose calling it is to find and give form to a beauty the rest of us know and recognize, but are unable to express. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the slaves are finished or not. The divine beauty of the two figures is in the line of The Rebellious Slave’s legs, the languishing flow of The Dying Slave’s body, the tilt of their heads, the tensing or relaxing of muscles. That is, the dignity and spiritual perfection of being human that Michelangelo has already found and set free from the resolute marble, makes these two figures complete in every way.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tony Oursler, JGM Galerie

It’s been years since I have looked at Tony Oursler’s work in any sustained and critical way. In fact, the last time I saw his trademark faces projected onto fabric and resin objects must have been at Metro Pictures in the late-1990s, a time when video installation had so recently broken through the esteemed walls of the Museum of Modern Art. I was excited then by Oursler’s work because, as the second wave of video art, it was still doing something that the first wave – the likes of Gary Hill, Stan Douglas, and Bill Viola – had not yet done. And seeing some of Oursler’s recent work at JGM Galerie in Rue du Temple, I am delighted to report that he is still pursuing the medium in new and exciting ways. 
Tony Oursler, Star, 2005
Describing the works is challenging because they are weird and wonderful, joyous and heartwrenching, funny and sad, and just plain obscure. And on top of all these mixed messages and meanings, the video installations are not for the casual gallery hopper. This is heavy stuff, both intellectually and emotionally challenging in all sorts of different ways. This is my excuse for not promising to understand Oursler’s work fully. Its complexity, multiple layers and not always obvious philosophical, art historical, and theoretical infusions make it difficult to access. 
Tony Oursler, Million Miles, 2007
The faces, or more usually eyes and lips, openings in painted skin, projected onto figures made of fabrics, resin and plaster have a dual function: At one and the same time, the moving images are dependent for support on, as well as animate, often anthropomorphize, the figures, shapes and unidentifiable things onto which they are projected. It’s hard to believe, but the quiet, anxious voice that emanates from huge grey lips surrounded by eight single eyes in Star (2005) solicits our empathy and identification. This monster like image or object, this thing that is created through video superimpositions, has a voice so soft, so gentle that we are drawn close to hear it speak, and as we are drawn close, the image disintegrates, or we lose its sense of cohesion. Her words are disjointed, fragmented, not telling a coherent narrative, but rather, like other of her monster companions, she speaks the agony and alienation of a life of urban loneliness. Million Miles (2007) in the basement of JGM even says as much with her appealing face, and tentacle-like arms wrapped around herself. She cries out, not literally, but in the sensitivity of her voice, the appeal of her deformed face, and her unhealthy skin. She echoes the difficulty of living, being alone, abandoned. Million Miles like Star is a figure, a being, or some kind of monster and discolored aberration who, to our eye, has repulsive features, but to whom we are nevertheless emotionally and psychologically drawn.
Tony Oursler, Thaw

The voices of these animated forms cry simple requests to be fed and loved, and they reminded me of the replicants in Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982) who want nothing more than to be human. There is something about these nightmarish shapes that has them screaming at us (despite the softness of their voices) wanting the same as us – more life. Therefore, to make another reference, they also reminded me of the grotesque figures out of the urban conflictual nightmares in Cindy Sherman’s world. However, Oursler’s intricate and provocative video installations go further. The figures and forms are appealing, we are drawn to them, and rather than being confronted by Sherman in drag, we actually identify very strongly with the cries of Ousler’s freaks. 

On an intellectual level, the most obvious, and perhaps the easiest, interpretation is the videos’ discourse on death, on age, anxiety and the deterioration of the body as it morphs uncontrollably into something we do not want it to be. In addition, the works must be all about seeing as they are all about the eyes, the body in disintegration, discolored skin. Even when they venture away from images of eyes and mouths, the mixed-media installations will include mirrors, reflections, cut glass and complex visual mazes. In one of the installations, The Angle, The Tilt, and the Point of View for Allendale South Carolina, 1998, a piece of glass is cut both to reflect the video image back onto a resin environment and to allow the same image to filter through onto the wall behind. Critics have written about how Oursler’s works hold a mirror up to us, to our unconscious to the unfettered, uncensored image of our insides. And that mirror is enabling a form of seeing, a new form of vision, it is accordingly, a vision that resonates with a surrealist dream world.

Museum View at JGM

Even without the theoretical interpretation, his works continue to manipulate us physically. As I mention, in Star we are all too ready to walk around, to walk up to the installation, looking and listening for the best angle. Downstairs at JGM there is a miniature man on the ground who forces us to bend and contort our bodies, our vision becoming corporealized, in an attempt to see him. And in another variation on the kinds of vision Ousler pushes us to experience, the faces, the eyes and lips of a work such as Thaw repel us, straining our vision in a different way yet again, as we make compromises to accommodate its distortions. Clearly, these physical experiences of vision resonate with the groundbreaking installations of Bruce Nauman, who was among the pioneers of the art form to invite us to participate in a time based media experience. Like Nauman, my suspicion is that Oursler is not really interested in representation, so much as he wants to create a new experience of the conceptually motivated art work for the gallery goer. And again, this is an experience that is uncomfortable as it challenges the conventions of viewing (mass media) as we have known them up to this point. 

In spite of the frustrations and discomfort, there is also a sense of joy when together with these creatures and microscosms. Each installation is a wonderland, of the unconscious, as well as a place created by stream of consciousness. Just like the surrealist world from the first half of the twentieth century, these works have an uncanniness to them. It is as though a stone has been lifted and a kingdom of crawly things are there, waiting to be set free, by me as I lift that stone. There is, ultimately, so much going on in Oursler’s work, most of which resists rationalization and conscious process. Letting go to this confusing place outside of language, is the joy of being with Oursler’s video installations.

Top Image © Tony Oursler studio 
All others © André Morin courtesy JGM. Galerie

Monday, February 14, 2011

Luc Delahaye, 2006 - 2010, Galerie Nathalie Obadia

Luc Delahaye, Baghdad IV, 2005

When I first saw Luc Delahaye’s photographs including his much applauded Baghdad IV, 2003, in London at the Photographer’s Gallery in the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, I was underwhelmed. And seeing his recent exhibition at Galerie Nathalie Obadia, my critique of his photographs seems to remain in tact.  Standing before these massive C-prints, admittedly not in the most flattering of displays, I was left wondering why they have been so celebrated. The gallery press release claims the photographs harbor a series of “formal tensions”, tensions that complicate and fascinate the huge images. However, for me, the absence of tension is the very problem. 

Luc Delahaye, Les Pillards, 2010

It is true that these photographs of admittedly unsettling spaces, places and events, usually in the wake of war and injustice, are huge and overwhelming. It is true that their visions of demonstrations, disasters, wars and genocides are from perspectives not ordinarily given us by the press. However, as a photojournalist, Delahaye continues to take photographs that are characterized by their journalistic documentation. The result is a distance and a coldness that prohibits me from accessing the devastation and the trauma whose remnants are left, whose after-effects are felt, in these conflictual spaces.

Luc Delahaye, Les Bois de Calais, 2007
Adding to the coldness of what are ultimately, in my eyes, glorified photo-journalism, the way they are hung by Galerie Nathalie Obadia is not complimentary. Their exhibition further alienates them, further removes them from the scarred battlefields they supposedly complicate. One image, The Glue Sniffer, 2010,  which could have been very touching, is placed under direct light, resulting in the fact that the only thing I could see no matter where I stood was my own reflection. Many of the images are in fact two photographs blown up and joined together. And what separates Delahaye’s work from the art of Jeff Wall as the obvious example is the fact that he does absolutely nothing with that split. I think of Wall’s work with its dissection, not necessarily because two photographs have been joined together, but at times this is the reason.  Wall  often uses the rift as an opportunity to muse with characteristic brilliance on the nature of representation, on photography and its relationship to centuries of painting, on the place of reality in that history of visual representation. And Wall’s rupture of the photographic space and time is unsettling, provocative, and ultimately, what makes his work fascinating. But none of this is the concern of Luc Delahaye whose primary focus is to capture devastation in the wake of war, disaster and political conflicts. I am not convinced that it is necessary to celebrate these works which at times only stand out because he happened to be there, in the war zone.
Ambush, Ramadi, 2006

There are a couple of photographs that I really liked: Ambush, Ramadi,  2006 shows in the hazy distance surrounded by a sky filled with the dust of debris, a US marine patrol ambushed by insurgents in Ramadi, Iraq following the explosion of an IED. The photograph is suggestive of the fallout of war, and its subtlety comes in its suggestion, failing to show what is really happening, while the disturbing nature of what is really happening becomes caught in and behind the dirt. I also liked Les Bois de Calais, 2007, a photograph in which illegal immigrants apparently return to their shack in the woods near Calais. This image appeals because it is anonymous: we don’t know who they are, what they are doing there, and the hints of Calais in the background could be anywhere in the industrial world. The image captures the alienation and the clandestine, stigmatized nature of life as an immigrant in France as the two workers walk, surrounded by dirt, mud, in a landscape not made for people. Others such as Karni Crossing Demo, 2008 of a demonstration against the Israeli blockade of Gaza are less convincing because they seem to lack ambiguity.

                                            Luc Delahaye, Man Sleeping, 2008
It is not only the content, but the huge (sometimes 300 cm x 150 cm) dimensions, the glossy surface, the pristine glass behind which these images sit and the clean white walls on which they hang, that robs them of sentiment and power. Their presentation creates out of them one big spectacle with no enigma, packaged and sold for the boutique gallery in the Marais.

Much of the celebration of Delahaye’s work has been for its difference from photo-reportage, mainly because of his process of not taking hundreds of photographs, preferring to take one or two as would an artist, his manipulation of the image to create impact, and so on. And the blurbs always announce that he takes photographs from previously unrevealed perspectives, thus opening our eyes to a darker side of war. But for me, neither of these is enough to elevate Delahaye’s photojournalism to the status of “ambiguous and provocative art.” That said, more reputable art critics than me have praised this work. Michael Fried for example compares it to the profound works of Jeff Wall, and Andreas Gursky. So because I don’t see the deeper connections, does not mean they are not there. I did come away disappointed, but nevertheless, open to the idea that I might need to see Delahaye’s work more appropriately hung, together with his more devastating images, if I am to recognize its invitation to my own participation, if I am to experience the tension where at the moment, there is a cold detachment from the scene of the crime.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tony Cragg, Figure Out/Figure In au Louvre

Tony Cragg, Versus, 2010
In preparation for Tony Cragg’s appearance in the Face à Face series at the Louvre, I went last night to see his 8 sculptural works now on exhibition scattered among the monumental 17th and 18th century French statutory in the Cour Marly, and the Cour Puget. And, of course, Cragg is the first artist to have his work realize I.M. Pei’s conception of the volume under the Pyramid as an exhibition space. On a column under the magnificent glass pyramid proudly sits Versus (2010), a piece made specifically for this pedestal at Louvre.
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, A Character Head

The sculptures in the “courtyards” were selected by Cragg at the invitation of the Louvre, following the successful juxtaposition of his works with the sculptures of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt in 2008 at the Belvedere in Vienna. Concurrent with the installation of Cragg’s weird, yet ethereal and beautiful pieces, the Louvre is staging a retrospective of Messerschmidt’s bizarre “character heads,” in the Richelieu Wing. Messerschmidt’s extraordinary sculptures, extraordinary because they are so radical for the 18th century, strip the face to the expression of sheer, unadulterated emotion. And it is at the level of the intensity of emotion, as well as the formal expression of that depth, that Cragg’s work is already in dialogue with Messerschmidt’s grimacing heads, even before we see them side by side in the Louvre. And this is the irony: they are not physically juxtaposed. Rather, while the Cragg's dialogue imaginatively with the Messerschmit sculptures, they engage physically with the commissions of Louis XIV and Napoleon.
Tony Cragg, Elbow, 2008

Cragg’s Elbow from 2008, made of blond wood, is a perfect echo of the marble floor of the Cour Marly. It also extends like a mutation of the marble statues that exude anguish and pain, love, fear and pride, in all their drama and self-importance. They may tower above the already large Elbow, but its power equals them in every other way. Elbow is so replete with energy, rhythm and power that it consumes the air that surrounds it. People’s responses to Elbow were fascinating. They either stood a long way back, as if thrown back against the walls of the cour by a storm, or they were drawn to it, wanting to touch it, be one with it. There was no one in between these two uncomfortable distances. The immense energy of the organic, dynamic wooden form, was so overpowering that we dare not go near it. And yet, typical of the contradictions in Cragg’s forms, we need to touch it, feel it, caress it, imbibe its purity. Caught between an immense energy flow and a stillness and poise, this impossible distortion is as majestic as the monastic claims on French culture that surround it. And yet, unlike them, it is free of their pomposity, filled instead with its serene perfection.
Tony Cragg, Red Figure, 2008
I do an exercise with my students where I ask them to describe an abstract image to a blind man. And I wonder how I would do this with Cragg’s sculptures? They remind me of forms I have seen elsewhere: the mutations and mutating beings I know so well from science fiction films, the aberration of my own body in the fun mirrors at the fairground, the apparitions I know from the emotion and anguish of a nightmare. A piece such as Elbow, or Red Figure, 2008 captures these intense psychological and emotional states in the grains of their wood, in the essence of their being. Also, their emotional extremes are both accentuated and dissipated by the fact that so many of these immaterial, ethereal and yet, stoically material, mutant forms exist in pairs, or threes, or fours. Despite its title, Red Figure is in fact, red figures made one. Within a single piece, interwoven layers suggest symbiosis, like lovers, melting into each other, or one a distorted growth parasitic on the other. Or we might experience them turning outwards, like sounds ricocheting through the great halls of the Louvre. Always beautiful, and yet, simultaneously, frightening matter, form and substance given to what cannot be articulated. 

Tony Cragg, Manipulation, 2008

And because as Cragg would have it, “reality means nothing until we have given it words, thought, language and structure” a piece such as Manipulation (2008) is a symbol of all that sculpture is – a medium for articulating the inarticulable, our feeble human attempts to explain what cannot be explained. Sculpture is the inarticulable in real material, in real space, in color and with dimension. Manipulation is more than this: it is also a harsh critique of that same medium that pretends it can replicate the material world. Manipulation is a series of arms reaching around each other, with nowhere to go, cast from bronze, filled with helplessness. And on the surface of these tentacle-like arms of a monster in motion, type face letters and numbers are adhered, attempting to give order, rationality, to explain and to delimit the infinite uinimageinable that is made possible, given form in cast bronze. At least this is how I saw Manipulation: caught between the possibility of unimaginable freedom and the desire to control and to stymie that possibility. In an interview Cragg explains it differently: the arms are hands, the letters are emerging from the interior of the hands, as though they were in the very material of the bronze itself. 

Unlike most bronzes, and in complete contradistinction to the sensuous, erotic shape and motion of the wooden forms, there is nothing embracing about Cragg’s bronzes. As beautiful as a piece such as Accurate Figure is, it is too perfect, too weird, too inconceiveable and too much a mirror of my own imperfect body to be appealing or to offer comfort.
Tony Cragg, Accurate Figure, 2010
As I mention above, the sculptures are always in dialogue, with the world about them, and the objects that move in that world. I begin to see the imposing bronzes and marble figures in the Louvre in a whole different light. They too become weird, excessive, too perfect in their dramatic displays of a whole range of extreme and — next to Cragg’s creations — unnecessary emotions. In the same way that Cragg’s sculptures are always a merging of two, maybe three or more inseparable organic bleeding forms, so the contemporary deformations compromise the identities of the otherwise perfectly whole and complete 17th century sculptures. Cragg’s pieces force us to question the solidity and the boundedness of what surrounds them. Only at the Louvre, would such risks be taken to create an inventive constellation of connections that dare to bring its treasures alive.