Paris in the winter -- the cold weather is offset a bit by the new energy said to be pulsing through the city’s contemporary art scene. Last December, with a batch of galleries within walking distance of my temporary home for several days, the Christian Lacroix-designed Hotel du Petit Moulin, I decided to shrug off winter’s grip and venture out in search of esthetic sustenance.
Located in the 3rd arrondissement, Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin is not your typical white cube. Facing a paved courtyard nestled between two buildings with vines crawling up the adjoining facade, the gallery sits at the top of a grand double-sided cast-iron staircase in a building ornamented with bronze reliefs. Waiting inside was an exhibition of new work by Takashi Murakami, a show that was said to have been sold out before it had opened, with the smallest works, circular happy face flower canvases, going for €60,000 a pop.
In the largest gallery was a huge and stunning work, featuring Dob -- Murakami’s signature devilish mouse -- against a lyrical background of drips, spatters and abstract designs. After perfecting a precise and hard-edged style, it seems that Murakami is letting a little expressionism into his work, with positive results. Considering the context, the shift could be compared with the period in French furniture design intermediate between Baroque and Rococo, known as Régence, when the monumental style was gradually replaced by a more sinuous one.
But perhaps even more interesting is Murakami’s series of new color abstractions, grids of differently colored squares that would have been easily at home in the now-forgotten exhibition at the Whitney Museum in the 1970s, "Color as Structure." For Murakami, the design of the paintings is correlated to acupuncture points on the human body -- thus the exhibition title, "The Pressure Point of Painting." The colors are muted -- something of a letdown for those expecting Murakami’s typically bright hues -- but they do boast areas where the artist had pressed his own paint-covered body onto them.
No doubt that these works are "autograph." Evidence of the "Body Art" technique was provided by a video starring a nude Murakami, covered with paint, slithering around, squatting, pressing his genitals onto and otherwise making marks upon various canvases, in a manner pioneered by Yves Klein and later taken up by all sorts of epigones, not least Farrah Fawcett. Klein’s work was the subject of a concurrent retrospective at the Centre Pompidou titled "Body, Colour, Immaterial."
The French photographer Valérie Belin (b. 1964), who lives and works in Paris, has artfully captured something essentially French in her images of immaculately powdered and coiffed young models at Galerie Xippas, Dec. 16, 2006-Feb. 17, 2007. Flawless and a little bit creepy, the portraits resemble humanoids more than humans, thanks to careful makeup and a lighting technique that limits shadows, not to mention the absence of clothes (do they come straight from the pod?). Their pallor is quite remarkable, as is their androgyny. Is this the French future?
In another series, young black women -- professional models, presumably -- are accessorized with a bit more color, in fashionable clothing and rather dramatically styled wigs. Curiously, the individuality of each beautiful woman is lost in the variation of their hair and dress -- is it the same girl? No, I don’t think so. These living dolls look like something one might encounter in a video game. Very 21st century. Founded in 1990 by Renos Xippas, the gallery also operates La reserve, a hybrid space located 40 miles west of Paris at Pacy sur Eure, as well as Xippas Gallery in Athens.
Opened six years ago by Jeff Gleich with the specific aim of opening a window on the New York art scene, G-Module was offering on its ground floor a sold-out exhibition of drawings by Daniel Zeller (b. 1965), Nov. 9-Dec. 23, 2006, an artist who has shown at Pierogi 2000 in Williamsburg. Zeller limns a wide variety of intricate organic designs that blend microscopic organisms, satellite photography and cartography. There is something compelling about the obsessive quality of the drawings, which on first glance seem familiar but nevertheless remain elusive.
Downstairs, G-Module had works by Alan Wiener, who has showed his witty, modular resin sculptures at Feature in Chelsea. Here, he presented drawings in black resin inspired by the stacks of skulls found in the catacombs in the Montparnasse district of Paris, where seven million Parisians’ bones lie stacked in subterranean tunnels and chambers. In this context, the forms of the single freestanding and several tabletop sculptures also suggested reconfigured bone fragments, in which Wiener’s organic process contrasts with their minimalist forms.
Galerie Eva Hober presented a solo exhibition by the American artist Heather Bennett, Nov. 4-Dec. 23, 2006, who shows at Luxe Gallery in New York. Bennett makes staged performative photographs, transforming herself into various muses. The most striking was a film noir shot of Bennett in the back seat of car with a man, with the artist affecting a sultry, deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression. A video of Bennett as cowgirl holding a white steed continued the theme of self-portraiture, and was uniquely projected onto a large circular wood frame. Continuing motifs presented by Cindy Sherman and Hannah Wilke, Bennett appears to be parodying well-known feminist touchstones.
Another young American was having a one person show nearby at Galerie Frank Elbaz, Dec. 2, 2006-Jan. 25, 2007. A recent Hunter College MFA, Meredyth Sparks makes dramatic large-scale collages that combine iconic photos of pop celebrities such as Debbie Harry, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie with in-your-face abstract forms made of glitter, aluminum foil and cardboard. Also on view was a blue neon sculpture spelling out the artist’s name, a reference to Bruce Nauman’s early neon, My name as though it were written on the surface of the moon (1968). At the entrance to the gallery, a small bird sculpture cast a shadow on the wall, nicely referring to a nearby collage that incorporates the iconic album cover photograph of Patti Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe in which she holds two white doves.
Competing for attention on avenue du Président Wilson are two grand art spaces situated side by side. A large exhibition by Karen Kilimnik, featuring 50 paintings and four installations, two of them new, filled several galleries of the Musee D’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Oct. 27, 2006-Jan. 7, 2007. Kilimnik’s signature vision of a more idyllic era, filled with beautiful ballerinas and heroic knights, was well articulated here. Especially successful was Antechambers (2005), a walk-in series of rooms with an audio element. The painting Marie Antoinette out for her walk at her Petit Hermitage, featuring a glowing Paris Hilton, showcased Kilimnik’s ability to blend contemporary celebrity with a historical twist. This selection of work has just opened at the Serpentine Gallery in London.
Next door, at the cutting-edge Palais de Tokyo, "ONE SECOND ONE YEAR," curated by director Marc-Olivier Wahler, included 11 works that are activated at random moments, Sept. 14-Dec. 31, 2006. Highlights included Kristof Kintera’s Revolution, a kinetic sculpture of a little boy smashing his head against a wall and leaving a sizable dent. It had previously been shown as part of Art Rock last May at Rockefeller Center in New York. Also of note and strikingly topical in this age of suicide bombers was Roman Signer’s Valise, a suitcase that had exploded during the run of the show.
Stay tuned to see what projects new Palais de Tokyo curator Anthony Huberman has in store after a memorable run at the Sculpture Center in New York. In fact, one would be well advised to keep an eye on the City of Light in general. Ten years ago it seemed that the contemporary art scene in France was on pause and somewhat off the radar. Fast forward to 2007 and it’s a different story.
CHRIS BORS is an artist based in New York. His website is www.chrisbors.com