Friday, November 4, 2011

Patrick Hourcade, La Puissance D'Aimer, Chapelle de la Salpêtrière

Patrick Hourcade, Barbara, créé le 10 août 2010
For those of my faithful readers who have never ventured into the wiles of the Gare d’Austerlitz neighborhood in the 13th, you need to plan a trip to hospital. In the gardens of the Hôpital Universitaire la Pitié Salpêtrière is the 1677 L’église Saint-Louis, the hospital Chapel. You won’t find any tourists here. True to its function as a place of worship for the sick, their families, and the staff in attendance, in the 17th century, the classical structure — a rotunda under a domed cupola with four radiating naves and a chapel tucked in between each nave — the space is heavenly.

The austerity and clarity of a space without chairs, without altar, with bare walls, and a circularity lent it by the octagonal structure, together with a luminosity thanks to picture windows around a 360 degree exposure makes for an experience of fullness and unity when at the centre, under the cupola. The space is apparently used for concerts today because its acoustics are perfect, and as Georgia and I entered to see Patrick Hourcade’s La Puissance D’Aimer, the deep sonority of the grand organ filled the church. It was as though we had entered a hermetically sealed world from which we might never emerge.
Patrick Hourcade, L'Idole, crée le 11 november 2009
Hourcade’s photographs are as mystical and ethereal as the world we had entered. 14 recent works were organized in the transept and the side chapels in herringbone form, three on the left, three on the right, with a saint watching over them in between. The first image we saw, L’Idole, créé le 11 novembre 2009 resembled a very early daguerrotype, perhaps an even earlier photographic invention. We kept wondering “how did he do it”? The Winged Venus was like a bird at the end of the long hallway in the Louvre, the familiar crowds haunted her, and made her seem as far away in time and space as she in fact is. To return an icon as clichéd as this armless beauty to the shrouded and mysterious reality from which she has emerged is a difficult task. Incessant reproduction has made her trite, and like all icons, she is a household image who has been stripped of all ambiguity. But Hourcade makes her once again a thing of beauty and wonder through likewise obscure photographic processes.
Patrick Hourcade, Le Lit créé le 24 mars 2008
The similarities to other media became a theme of the images, though what was so surprising was the number of different directions in which Hourcade pushes the photographic medium. Hourcade takes photography to its edges until it spills over into other media: painting, pastels, photographs without cameras, and then, within those liminal spaces we find yet more extratextual layers. A photograph such as Le Salon (2008) is clearly reminiscent of a Jeff Wall photograph, and yet, an almost surreal glass on the table in the foreground, tips the image over into the world of a Chardin still life. And an image such as Le Lit créé le 24 mars 2008 moves on a 200 year continuum, across oceans between the unsettling composition of Van Gogh’s bedroom and the chaos of Jeff Wall’s Destroyed Room. Thus the photographs take up diverse art historical references to make meaning within horizontal as well as vertical historical axes: as images they shift between photography and painting, and as paintings they freely travel between centuries and continents. As the photographs dissolve, the only thing that remains stable when we stand before the images is the date of their creation, a date that is given us as a part of the titles.
Patrick Hourcade, L'Autre créé le 6 août 2010
The title of the exhibition, or selection of photographs, adds yet more complexity to the images: La Puissance d’Aimer. And it’s often the absence of visible representation of love that makes this collective umbrella intriguing. L’Autre, créé le 6 août 2010 depicts a head and shoulders either facing towards or turned away from the mirror in which the camera finds the figure. The mirror might be placed at the top of a staircase with the beginning or end of the old banister in the foreground. The figure might look out a window, the door might just have been opened as indicated by a shadow on the left, or perhaps a curtain is drawn back? And who is the other? Is it that of the mirrored subject, or is the figure caught in the mirror the other itself? In among these psychoanalytical obfuscations, we cannot help but be reminded of Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriage, 1434, its obscurity and simultaneous transgressions. In all of Hourcade’s photographs, like the art historical precedents he quotes, love is anything but easy. And neither is it permanent, but rather, it is pictured to be as fleeting as the (im)materiality of the photograph.
Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Marriage, 1434
In turn, the status of the photograph varies from one image to the next. Not only are they pushed to the limits of their boundaries with other media, other centuries, these oversized photographic images don’t always evaporate, or dissolve into the ether of the spiritual oasis of the church. In some cases, Hourcade pushes photography to a kind of hyperreality, where they come to look like paintings of photographs. A photograph such as Renée, créé le 7 mai 2009 is all at once an Andreas Gursky abstraction, an Edward Hopper landscape, and a Gerhard Richter painted photograph. Thus, these mysterious images also seem to travel the distance of the history of photography.
Patrick Hourcade, Renée, créé le 7 mai 2009
I did come away with one niggling question. I kept wondering whether they would start to mean something different, or even lose their power, if they were placed somewhere else. Even though they are isolated from each other, in alcoves, separated by statues of the saints who watch over them, they work together with the space, and become inseparable from it. I wonder how much of their power and mystery can be attributed to their context? This is not to assume they will be impoverished elsewhere, indeed, their meanings may even proliferate in a different context. But it would be interesting to know if the same power and complexity survives outside of the ethereal perfection of L’église Saint-Louis.

All Images Courtesy of the Artist

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