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Back to Reviews 97

 Eisa-Liisa Ahtila
If 6 was 9

 Eisa-Liisa Ahtila
If 6 was 9

Jean-Luc Vilmouth
From Bar L'Amazone

Jean-Luc Vilmouth
From Bar L'Amazone

Stephan Melzl
Untitled, 1996


B. Wurtz
"Mandala Series,"

Thomas Hirschhorn,
 installation view

Thomas Hirschhorn, 
installation view 

Two paintings 
by Hubert Scheibl

Hubert Scheibl,
Little Red Cargo

Andres Serrano

Andres Serrano
Bondage in Kyoto 

Table Empaquetée 
(Wrapped Table),

Georges Braque
Still Life

Vito Acconci
Kiss Off, 1971

letter from paris 

by Jeff Rian

Eija-Liisa Ahtila at Roger Pailhas
Jan. 11-Feb. 28, 1997
Eisa-Liisa Ahtila (pronounced something like Ay-sha Lay-eesa Ach-teela), is a Finnish video artist and filmmaker, born in 1959. She showed two triptych works at Roger Pailhas. The first was a looped, ten-minute video projection in color, called If 6 was 9 (a Jimi Hendrix title), which dealt with the sexual life of pubescent girls. Candid and compelling revelations, subtitled in English, played simultaneously over all three different images, with gamines projecting their fantasies about sex, asking things like, "What shall I do when the boys offer their bodies?" or playing basketball among themselves then thinking more about boys. The video was shot like a documentary but projected in three-way jump-cuts. Interspersed were an occasional older male nude shot from below, a blank screen, city images.

The second triptych, Me/We; Okay; Gray, was three 90-second black-and-white films that can be shown during the commercial segments of ordinary television. In these Ahtila examined how identity and control is played out among couples. Very well shot and cut, Me/We showed the frenzy of a family of four, Okay focused on a person's interior monologue expressing the dilemmas of sex, and Gray showed the anxiety one feels when catastrophe looms.

Both triptychs revealed her skill and an ability to play with different but similar media. The videos animated the wall with a sculptural tactility and the television shorts, if they were actually shown, would really stick a knife in your somnambulant viewing.

Jean-Luc Vilmouth at Galerie de Paris
Jan. 11-Feb. 15, 1997
Jean-Luc Vilmouth is an installation and public-project artist who, by his own description, "augments" the everyday. He presented two works, a room installation and a video. You enter the gallery walking on a carpet of pine-bark chips that creat a fresh, woodsy aroma and fill the floor of an installation titled Bar de L'Amazone. Fifteen or so mosquito hats-green veils on wide brims that you tie around your neck-had been turned into hanging lamps. On the walls are nine green- tinted photographs of young women suckling dogs (honey assisted, I'm told). On a ledge at one side were bottled waters of every variety, all in green or blue glass, and drinking cups. The scent and atmosphere of the room, was meant to evoke the Amazon but recalled a garden reflecting pool.

Last year Vilmouth spent a month slogging through the Amazon on an art junket. He says that every day offered a different perspective on reality-such as the woman casually suckling her dog or the man who licked a woman's eye clean of puss. Icky from our perspective. Pictures of French girls suckling dogs made you self-conscious about a world of cooties. The cup of water offered something to hide behind.

His second work was a four-minute video in which Vilmouth played a café-society Don Juan on the make. You sit in a red chair table-distance from the screen. On screen, Vilmouth gazes intently at you, improvising his seduction. You could be man or woman. In any case, four minutes is short for any proper seduction. But without rushing a word he draws you in. "Come closer," he says, his image enlarging, "I invite you to do the same." You lose distance, right up to the end when he invites you to take your shirt off, as he does.

The two works were not intended to be related, but they both rib us about our behavior and inspire reflection on all those cooties we screech and giggle about and how sophistication makes us so brittle and fey.

"Twist" at Galerie Ghislaine Hussenott
Jan. 24-Mar. 1, 1997
"Twist" was a three-man show organized by Jean-Philippe Antoine, a French painter/writer, who showed his own works along with those of Swiss painter Stephan Melzl and American collagist/constructivist B. Wurtz. Antoine paints fleshy surfaces with belly buttons and blemishes and bluey veins. On some he adds a bouquet of flowers painted in tight goopy textures, and sometimes a few trompe l'oeil bubbles on top of that. He is purposeful as he approaches the threshold of kitsch while portraying flesh as a stage within which we emote and upon which we socialize.

Melzl paints small, macabre cartoon portraits of orifices and genitalia configured into purse-sized gargoyles, such as the double mouths ingesting capsules and the two Lilliputian poodles reverting into the epaulettes of a mons veneris. They recall surrealist Hans Belmer's erotic dolls made out of mannequin parts, and suggest a Freudian cartoonist whose main theme is to reduce people to their sex parts and their indulgences.

Wurtz, like Melzl, traffics in the absurd, but without the sex. Mixing a monk's tender contemplation with a sidewalk cynic's wit, he constructs quirky objects and attaches things like stuffed socks onto canvas. One sculptural work, Untitled (Bunch), was a giant bouquet made out of something like a music stand stuffed with the skeleton of a giant umbrella upon whose up-stretched arms were billowy plastic bags he'd picked up shopping in SoHo and the East Village. In work from a Mandala series called "World" was a large harlequin grid with a protrusion of socks attached at the center like droopy clown flowers.

"Twist" joins the humor of Gary Larson's "The Far Side" cartoon with Surrealism's native agnosticism and high-society wit. Mixing flora, fleshscapes, Kewpie genitalia and carnival costumery, the show was both light-hearted and remarkably pensive. In setting himself between the two other artists, Antoine not only revealed a sensibility at large but also one that compliments his own.

Thomas Hirschhorn at Chantal Crousel
Jan. 18-Feb. 28, 1997
Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, now living in Paris, uses the most common materials to craft works that comment about art, sex, and-that so salient contemporary subject-the politics of identity. At Chantal Crousel he filled the foyer and main exhibition space with aluminum-foil stalactites and stalagmites, filled a bulletin board with images from the history of painting, covered plywood tables with dozens pictures of girls torn from fashion magazines and scenes of torture clipped from detective or soldier-of-fortune magazines, set up video monitors with all of his short videos-Pizza videos, videos of famous models and rock stars, lecture videos, etc.-and built an enclosed screening room with 5mm plastic sheeting. Hanging from the wall and drawn on the images were red and blue shapes that looked like tear ducts or testicular glands. These composed the show's theme of social seduction, factional torture, and scientific frigidity.

Hirschhorn's general strategy is to create a big impression by giving too much, while using the simplest of materials. He works quickly. The aluminum foil phalluses played off the teary and tormented photographs of women, creating a morguelike atmosphere energized with the exaggerated excitement of those Mondo Cane films from the `60s that mixed real documentary footage with set-up scenes. The show was ambitious and materially generous, like a hurried science project that had winning appeal but just didn't quite work. The effect was to excite you then cool you off.

Hubert Scheibl at Thaddeus Ropac
Nov. 30, 1996-Jan. 25, 1997
In the early 1980s, Hubert Scheibl was a member of the Austrian "wild" painters -- neo- expressionists who called upon a Nietzschean psychology of intensity to portray mood in color and gesture. Looking back to Abstract Expressionism's heyday in the 1950s -- Soulage, de Kooning, Kline -- the younger European painters, bred on media, art magazines and hip-shaking rock and roll, sought to show their feelings in raw color and forms.

Scheibl is neither the most aggressive nor the most brooding of latter-day expressionists, but he does calls upon the psychology of intensity and the inexplicable nature of Being in making paintings that combine gesture, radiant color and a tweak of contrast to punctuate a surface. Perhaps they are too smutchy to be called beautiful, yet they call upon the archness of Beauty (big B) as psychic healer amidst the Promethean mess of life. Hence expressionism and abstraction. Nor are Scheibl's delicate moods as pretty or as decorative as American abstractionist such as Brice Marden, for whom decorative beauty (small b) is irresistible, and perhaps inescapable, owing to that uniquely American strain by which Nature's grandeur takes precedence over Nietzschean intensity.

European expressionism is not so finely framed or as organized and stylized in color as the American variety-palettes differ. Scheibl's paintings teeter between lushness and mess, as he intends them. After all, they come from Austria, border to the East, home of Freud.

Andres Serrano at Yvon Lambert
Jan. 11-Feb. 18, 1997
About ten years ago, Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a photo of a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine, made him the art world's Larry Flynt and created a succés de scandale. Surprised by the attention, and its "negative capability," he delved further into the macabre, taking morgue portraits, tracking down the Grand Dragon of the KKK (Serrano's part African American). Now the Brooklyn photographer has compiled a "History of Sex" in a series of large, cibachrome prints, showing in glossy detail a diversity of couples, ages, trappings, titillations, etc. -- a hermaphrodite, gay couples, the cliché Japanese girl tied up in her underwear, a tame version of bestiality, a priest in an S&M pose. He attempts to cover our personal preferences and obsessions -- except the criminal ones -- but gives them the look of a milk advertisement. Some are situated on a Michelangesque grassy knoll, others in dungeons by Bosch. A woman with a blasé expression is up to her wrist in a crewcutted man's emunctory, as if searching for her lost peppermill. A man performs self- fellatio. A female contortionist exposes herself. Etc.

But it's really kitsch, like tattoo art or beer mugs with breasts or the kind of Show and Tell a neighbor reveals in their basement after that one drink too many.

Sex is common subject in a world of XXX and self-witness. Serrano likes it. And, iconoclast though he seems, it's no more radical than the ritualistic Brooklynese voodoo of tattoo parlors or the mysteries of a confessional to a randy adolescent. He likes to show the seamier side of life by way of the religious way we treat those things in darkness. Europeans find this kind of thing amusing and anthropological. "Americans are so puritanical," they say. But unless you would want to decorate your own recreation room, they're neither very good nor very interesting.

"Made in France: 1947-1997" and "L'Empreinte"
at the Centre Georges Pompidou

Feb.-May 1997
Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of France's Musée national d'art moderne (National Museum of Modern Art) and the 20th anniversary of the Pompidou Center, "Made in France" will be the last show before the Pompidou begins its renovation. Included in the fourth- and fifth-floor exhibition were works from the collection, representing artists from every country that the national museum has sponsored since 1947. Starting with Braque, Calder, Chagall, Duchamp, Ernst, Matisse and Picasso, whose contributions began after 1947, then on to Balthus, César, Dubuffet, Klein, Matta, Buren, Raynaud, Rouan, Viallat, and culminating with recent generations, including Robert Filliou, Christo, Claude Closky, Tony Oursler and so on, it reveals the ups and downs of collecting, and is a hasty-looking installation.

Works are grouped by "affinity" and rooms are labeled in the way a fashion magazine might sum up a trend, using phrases like "gesture and expression," "saturation," "space and movement," "the signs of the times" and "reduction, rhythm, plenitude." Unfortunately, the net result is a tedious traipse through periods in art that, in toto, pale against the generation that defined Modernism long before 1947. Very good Matisses are cheapened by their juxtaposition with an `80s painter like Jean-Charles Blais, whose oversized flashe paintings on cardboard borrow heavily from Matisse.

Christo's Table Empaquetée (Wrapped Table) of 1961 synthesized the show, at least for me, with its dusty plastic cover over a small table of hidden things, its shape somehow dwarfishly human. Christo built a career around wrapping, beginning with the borders of Bulgarian farms along highways foreign visitors traveled before graduating to buildings and islands. This work wrapped a shard of early modernism. And the show, for all its modernity, looked as dusty as Christo's attic table.

An anthropologist once told the story about excavating for African artifacts when a tribal chief sent him off into their version of a trash heap. The anthropologist gathered the discards for museums back home. For the tribal leader they had no value, their mystery having been lost. Of course, he didn't show the anthropologist the sacred items currently in use. And this is something of the problem with a lot of modern art that gets treasured and housed. It loses its mystery, particularly if it isn't handled properly. What we forget is all the intense fury all of this work drew in its first go-round, when it elicited national and international support.

If "Made in France" was lackluster, down on the first floor, "L'Empriente" ("The Impression") offered interesting versions of artists' Shrouds of Turin. By "impressions" the curators meant any kind of imprint, "guided by the mutual interaction of tool, gesture and substrate," which included molds, stamps, photographic impressions, casts, rubbings, gougings, smutchings and what-all, except drawing, actual photographs, paintings and carvings. It had to be something impressed in or upon something else, like Marcel Duchamp taking his foot impression and sticking 11 dead flies to the cast, in Torture-Morte, 1959, or Vito Acconci kissing every part of himself he could reach, in Kiss Off, 1971.

The show was divided into sections, like "things and their imprints," "seals, marks, and stamps," "sensitive surfaces," "with fingers and hands" and "inside-outside" and fitted-out with interesting examples of each. Oddly enough, the overall cast of the exhibition had that same burnished monochrome color as the falsified Turin Shroud, with dark tones stamped into dun surfaces dominating. But the show was interesting because most of the works were of a type that museums generally don't drag out or show together, like prints with sculptures, or Braque's Cubist work made from stamps with the many little Duchamps.

Impression doesn't mean a whole lot in the end. The territory is too vast-like trying to stamp out a forest fire with your foot. Our furthest ancestors slapped their palms up on cave walls and blew pigment from the mouths to tag the guts of Mother Earth. Today, video and digital cameras are taking over the "the mutual interaction of tool, gesture and substrate." Still, "L'Empriente"offered a glimpse into the endless impossible.

JEFF RIAN is a writer living in Paris.