A 21-mile stretch of ocean makes all the difference. In Paris, a gallery’s approach to selling itself seems markedly different from the style that prevailed in London, with most of them nestling quietly in 18th-century courtyards behind heavy oak doors, or looking as if they’re shut. There are very few White Cube-style über-galleries, apart from Yvon Lambert, Emmanuel Perrotin and Marian Goodman, but even those three heavy hitters exude a more sedate sort of charm.
Paris has a significantly different and somewhat Romantic brand of tramp on the streets, too, delicately drawing Chinese figures on a billboard hoarding, or just being creative in a graceful, slightly odorous way. They’re asking for money, yes, but they’re making sure they kiss your hand after you’ve stumped up the cash. (Not everyone’s idea of heaven, I know).
A favorite early stop-off in last week’s heat-wave was Stanislas Bourgain’s relatively new gallery; tiny, on le rue Chapon, and with a 1950s iron door. Leaving a job in publishing, Bourgain set up shop two years ago to make something of an art bridge between Russia and the rest of the world. He’s obviously a thoughtful curator and editor for his artists, and remains for me the kindest dealer on earth, and frequently acted as my guide in a strange city, just because I was needy enough to ask. He has built up a muscular stable of Russian and Ukrainian artists, including the magnificent painter Diana Machulina, who’ll show there this August.
Exhibiting now is Masha Shubina, wife of Illya Chichkin, who represents Ukraine at the current Venice Biennale, and a strong and unusual artist in her own right. For "My Own Music," Masha has painted a likeness of her own cheeky, confident face onto the sleeves of number of old Russian and Ukrainian LPs, so that her own face blends in with the faces of the actual singers. All this music she’s listened to has clearly become part of herself. That’s what the show is saying, obviously. I liked her when I met her in the Ukraine a few months ago. Her character made me think that there aren’t many joyful people left, who haven’t either a.) gone insane in the good way, or b.) discovered a cheap, regular supply of clean and pure drugs. I imagine she’s done neither, but I never asked.
Bourgain has stacked the albums upright in a grooved board, with spaces in between them so you can see both sides. The back covers remain untouched, mostly with the real face of the lead singer of the group peering out, so the effect of flicking through them becomes a little surreal. Shubina also shows two huge, lusciously colored paintings of herself wearing Pioneer headphones, her hair falling over her face, painted like strands of toffee, sometimes like strands of cheese.
On the back wall is a haunting mash-up film of the LPs flying through the air among exploding fridges and TVs to an audio backdrop of Pink Floyd. The bulk of the images are lifted from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. Watching and listening to the film through a pair of headphones on the wall transports you to the 1970s, onwards through a bunch of musical memories, then up to the kitchen and refrigerator scenes in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. of 1982.
Deeper in to the Marais district, where the bulk of the city’s contemporary galleries are, is Galerie Frank Elbaz and the location of my favorite arte povera show in years. Gyan Panchal, for "The Arch as a Rainbow of Shells," has hung an oyster shell in a fine gauze bag and pinned it to the wall; he’s roughly carved a lump of white polystyrene so it could almost be a mollusk or a seashell. Somehow four or five slight, almost faint works by Panchal together make a full and rich whole. The young artist has put together disparate and quiet things to make something architecturally clever and a little funny. I found out from the helpful gallery assistant Daphne that Panchal is also in a four-month-long group show with Liam Gillick at the Le Spot contemporary art centre in Le Havre.
Perhaps it’s not exactly cutting edge anymore, but I’m a sucker for (the 1988 Turner Prize winner) Tony Cragg’s totemic and quite astonishing sculptures. These new works at Thaddaeus Ropac’s gallery are a polished paean to Monument Valley; exquisitely carved, or sculpted in bronze, and seemingly alive because of the movement the folds and curves suggest. They’re figurative, but only because of some kind of a hint at a trajectory of movement, not because of a direct nod towards any actual humanoid features. A number of red-stained wooden works are a departure from his traditional colors, and more than ever make me want to go to his sculpture park in Wuppertal, Germany. Upstairs is a floor full of paintings on paper, repeated tree and bamboo patterns, that could have developed from doodling on a pad, although most people’s doodles don’t come out quite so satisfyingly as this.
The streets still shimmering from the vicious sun that day, I went to the rather subdued opening for Robert Barry’s new work at Yvon Lambert. Barry’s huge chrome-colored cast-acrylic words are laid out on the floor, half of them can be read from one angle, the other half are upside down, so making it impossible to read them as a straight list, despite the show’s title, which is "Word Lists." He’s chosen words like Disparate, Expect, Against, Tenuous, Continue and Imply, all in themselves suggestive, and when put together in a way that you have to crick your neck, and move around, to read, do go some way to causing the mental states of flux or contemplation the artist is probably hoping to achieve.
Where was everyone though? "It’s a holiday weekend," Lambert told me quickly, but I still came away with the impression that an art opening is an entirely different kettle of fish in Paris. I didn’t once see any alcohol at the openings I went to, and sensed that everybody wandered off as soon as they’d seen the art, for some charcuterie or a pastis. "Paris is very conservative," Stanislas Bourgain later said. "First of all, a lot of people here like painting and only art world people seem to be attracted to other art forms. Also, people aren’t aware you can just go to a gallery without having to buy anything. They think somehow it’s not for them."
Unlike London then, I thought, where going to the Tate Modern or to a White Cube opening even, has, for those who’d never even heard of modern art ten years ago, replaced the age-old drive out to Southend-on-sea for a fish supper.
Lambert is still the king of art in Paris it seems, and has been established there (and in New York) as a dealer forever, so was probably horrified when I asked him in the art book shop attached to his gallery, for a picture. "Oh do you have to?" he said, but posed anyway, before coming over to tell me to look at Andres Serrano’s book of his 2008 exhibition at the gallery (in New York). "It’s called ‘Shit’, it’s about all the different types. . . ," said Yvon, then trailed off. Let’s hope he wasn’t insinuating anything.
The Galerie Claudine Papillon showed "Intempestives" by a man called Didier Trenet. Mask-like concrete sculptures across the walls sported green bottle tops or broken shards of glass as hair. Trenet’s schoolbooks from 1993 were laid out -- history assignments or projects about museums -- replete with incredibly detailed sketches and italic writing. Small paintings sprouted phallic protrusions that pushed against grey gauze "curtains" that were drawn across the canvas. It was like a very quiet horror-porn show set in a dusty hot Bedouin camp. A statement from the artist says his idea for the show was to create "Tableaux-erections," but then ended up creating "Tableaux-santés." From erections through to health, I’m still left in the dark. Perhaps that’s the point. Or perhaps I should brush up on my French.
I’d envisaged I’d make it round to about 14,000 galleries over a two-day period, but once the soles of my feet started to burn, I had to miss out on the Cartier Foundation (where I once saw a hilariously lovely exhibition of David Lynch’s artwork), and the Louis Vuitton gallery, the Espace Louis Vuitton to be exact, which is apparently on the top floor of Vuitton’s Champs Elyseés store. I was told however that the curator at Vuitton, Herve Mikaeloff, is to organize a show at Dasha Zhukova’s Garage in Moscow next year. Russian artists from a Westerner’s perspective. Is that original in any way? We shall have to wait and see. The next thing I heard in Paris was that Roman Abramovich is throwing a party for Dasha’s birthday on his mammoth yacht in central Venice this Saturday. A select Biennale crowd only will be welcome. Aren’t the waterways in Venice city center too big for a yacht the size of Maryland?
On the way somewhere else, I found the Pompidou Centre -- hard to miss -- and decided to see the Wassily Kandinsky show that is making its next stop at the Guggenheim New York. As I sat and had sausage and chips in a caff before I went in, very loud speakers hidden away somewhere among those mass of external and very ‘80s Pompidou pipes warned what could have only been the entire city, that the queues for Kandinsky meant that at least a 90-minute wait was in store. Silently giving thanks to the person who invented the press card, I sailed straight up to see some Kandinsky compositions I’d never seen before, a few made from colored sand, so making the six-escalator ascent worth it. The view of Paris wasn’t bad, either -- so much art makes you forget that things like the Eiffel Tower exist, despite the fact I once got engaged on top of it. Like a chump.
The late Duane Hanson’s "Illusions Perdues" opened at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, the Hyperrealist life-sized sculptures of construction workers, lonely children and big wide Americans on mobility scooters confirming the melancholia inherent in the show’s title. There was something distressing about wandering around these lost souls, slumped on a bench or looking nervously at the floor, as they were. How you communicate wretched loneliness through the static, manufactured fiberglass and resin mannequin of a 15-year-old boy, I don’t know, but Hanson did it with what looks like ease. Ron Mueck’s similar if much larger sculptures don’t seem like fine art to me for some reason, whereas Hanson’s are undeniably something more than spectacle.
To the 13th arrondissement -- an area, I am told, that tried to launch itself as a new place for contemporary art away from the Marais, but didn’t quite succeed -- and to the Air de Paris for "La Recherche," a group show with Philippe Parreno, Trisha Donnelly and Liam Gillick. Gillick had pasted a number of copies of the German Research Service Bulletin onto a board, along with instructions to himself on how to do this. The gallery was named after Marcel Duchamp’s glass vial of air (50 cc of Paris Air) and is keeping the neo-conceptual vibe going. Perhaps influenced by the Hanson show, I liked the real worker who was mopping the gallery floor best; she could easily have been part of the exhibition, perhaps even more than the real art in the show.
On then to a tiny space called Mycroft to meet a true eccentric named Emeric Glayse. He once worked for Galerie Anne de Villepoix, one of the bigger Parisian galleries that was shut when I was there, but has now gone solo, and is operating with a variety of seemingly haphazard but interesting ideas that are all his own. Glayse has started the "nofound project," something that seems like a movement -- even though it’s just him in the office -- and last weekend, I saw the collection of the empty bed photographs he’s gathered together under that name. For "nofound (bedroom)" he’s asked a selection of artists to find a photograph of an empty bed in their archive. The resultant bound book is for sale, and all the black-and-white prints are on the wall at Mycroft, my favorite being one by the Swedish artist Lina Scheynius. Why the name "nofound" I wondered? "Well, it was supposed to be ‘not found’ but I somehow missed the ‘t’ out when I printed our first flyers, so it stuck," said a wide-eyed Glayse.
He’s also just launched an exclusive emailed newsletter -- "nofound (secret), nude contemporary photography by email" -- which will go out "hopefully once a month but it might not be as often, or then again it might be more often," and will each time contain one never-before-seen work by a different artist.
The first one featured a quite striking shot by Keiichi Nitta, which Glayse quite nonchalantly showed me at the gallery. Lucky I don’t get embarrassed anymore. Here’s what you get if you dare to sign up: "Every now and then you will receive an email, you won't ever know when, of an erotic intimate picture by one of nofound's photographers or by a new discovery. No text, no link, nothing else, just a secret picture never before seen in your inbox." Nothing to lose, I suppose.
Another eccentric I just had to look up while in Paris is the artist Yorgos Nikas. I know him as someone who visits London frequently, partly to work on his long-awaited book of photographs called Rough Versions, which I’ve written an essay for. About a hundred people including Sarah Lucas and Alan Rickman are shot individually in the book. We’re all wearing the same man’s white shirt and are photographed by Polaroid once on the left profile, once on the right. By the time I got to my shoot a few years back, the shirt was ripped and smeared with lipstick. It must be in tatters by now, the book’s finishing line shifting forever forward as books’ finishing lines are wont to do. All this focus on Yorgos the photographer meant that when I went to his Marais studio I was surprised to see a number of fine-looking paintings of peonies and the like. Really, you think you know someone. . . .
Nobody reported any major downturn in sales in Paris, and Thomas Dryll, director of Galerie Almine Rech in Paris, even told me that was because the city has never been where the money is anyway. "Paris collectors are more careful in general for a start", he said, "and there aren’t as many living in the city, but also Paris is not as integrated into the financial sector anyway, so there’s less to lose."
Showing at Almine Rech was Haim Steinbach’s "Pets," the Israeli-American artist’s first solo exhibition at the gallery. Recycling found or borrowed objects and gifts, Steinbach makes your consummate shelf arrangements, ten of which he’s done for Paris. Each seems like a complete, clear sentence and most here involve an animal of some sort. Nice choices made by Steinbach about color, shape and placement mean that each "shelf" turns out to be as fulfilling to read as a novel or an Old Master painting.
Upstairs was the work of one of "Warhol’s children" (as he’s been called in recent press), the New Yorker Aaron Young. I’m not too sure about the headline-grabbing crushed fence dipped in 24K gold or the explosive scrawls on mirrors, but I did like a room full of paintings of what looked like pale green nuclear explosions, painted on top of slightly paler green backgrounds. In that room also was a round canvas of dark brown blobs on a purple background; optical illusion I thought to myself? It looked a bit like Jesus.
As I was leaving, my question was answered; but first another question: "Have you paid?!" shouted the crazy-haired Thomas Dryll. "Erm, no I can go to the ATM, I’m not sure I have any cash on me. . . ," I mumbled, thinking that he was maybe lying earlier about the lack of perturbation in gallery sales, and had actually decided to start charging an entry fee. "Did you put the quarters in the machine to do the optical tests upstairs?" he said. (Well, I do usually have good reason to be paranoid, I’m sure of it.)
Off back up the stairs I went and noticed a box on the side of the wall, with a pile of quarters on top of it. The money turned the lights off and made the pale green "nuclear explosions" glow in the dark because, as it was obvious now, they’d been applied with phosphorescent paint. "Are they mushroom clouds?" I asked Thomas Dryll. "No, they’re paintings of the photocopied imprints of various men’s private parts. One’s a Hispanic man, one’s black, one’s white. I think Aaron’s trying to make a point of the low-level racism and cruelty that goes on in the workplace." Then came my test with the circular painting that looked like Jesus. "Look at it for 20 seconds then close your eyes and tell me what you see," said Dryll. I knew it was Jesus before I did it. Maybe my innate religiosity (the one I don’t know about yet) means that I’m above all these tests.
The Laboratoire Art Centre is the brainchild of David Edwards, a professor at Harvard University and someone dedicated to bringing science and art together. Its current show, Shilpa Gupta’s "While I Sleep," is the result of a conversational collaboration between this artist from Mumbai and a Harvard psychology professor, Mahzarin Banaji.
It starts with a typed letter to Gupta’s landlord informing him that her "tap leeks (sic) blood." There’s a disturbing tree of microphones calling out "Allah," "God" and "Don’t push me away." But key to the show is a train station ticker-tape announcer that hangs down from the ceiling at eye-level and flips out a curious 15-minute poem. Everyone Wants Peace contains many questions concerning how far its title is or isn’t true. (Gupta had recently interviewed Noam Chomsky at MIT, and the statement "Everyone wants peace" is a phrase he offered). Gupta deliberately mixes letters and makes misspellings throughout the fluid poem, creating a jerkiness and a disorientation that seems to be saying something about the confusion and fear arising from terrorism and its counter-attack. Compassion fatigue is covered -- "I switch on the TV and see a bomb fall and can feel no pain"; references to the "twins" of India and Pakistan being at war, relates also to the tests Banaji did on twins to see if fear was genetic.
And so I arrived at the second test of the day, when I decided to take the Harvard-originating experiment to determine if one has automatic preferences or disdain for different races or "types" of people. It was part of the exhibition but no one was forced to take it. After much pressing of buttons relating to "bad" or "good," "happy" or "ugly," I left safe in the knowledge I have an "innate preference for Judaism over other religions" and that I "find John McCain far worse an option than Barack Obama." All well and good, but I have one question; why, when the test asked me my own race, did it only give me three options. Hispanic or Latino, Not Hispanic or Latino, or Other? I’m now reminding myself to ask. Anyway, I would be "Latina," not "Latino."
Off to the wonderful greenhouse-like Galerie Cosmic, now going under the name Bugada and Cargnel. This is an out-of-the-way gallery, very high up on a hill, its nearest Metro stop, fittingly, being Les Pyrenées. I’d been made aware that it’s the most progressive of Parisian galleries -- it shows Haluk Akakce, Mat Collishaw and Cyprien Gaillard -- and indeed I saw there a collection of wild ceramic characters on plinths, and paintings on the wall, by the art duo Iris van Dongen and Dionisis Kavallieratos. The "Curse of the Monk" was the show’s inspired title.
I was met among the plinths by a tall and charming Englishman-in-Paris, painter and sculptor Nick Devereux, who now lives in the city. Despite my tardiness in meeting him, Nick treated me to a private view of some of his otherworldly charcoal drawings in a side room, then kindly drove me in his beaten up banger down the road to Primo Piano, a gallery in a 6th-floor apartment belonging to Emilia Stocchi. It’s an entirely nonprofit space, and Stocchi’s fifth show (of works by Bertrand Rigaux) opened on the night I visited.
Devereux showed there in November 2008 and told me that he considers Stocchi to be (unwittingly) acting as the springboard for Parisian talent, a lot of whom then go on to be picked up by a commercial gallery. Not long after he showed with her, this April in fact, Bugada and Cargnel asked him to join them, firstly in a group show, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors."
Emilia packs all her belongings in to one room for each month-long exhibition, and even alters the fabric of the apartment, if it’s essential to the show’s hang. She clearly has the right eye, and attitude for this. As if in the film Being John Malkovich, it was necessary to bend right down to get into a darkened room that was the location for Rigaux’s film of a lonely road. The grass verges were still but the tarmacked road was rolling backwards, so turning the concept of a road movie on its head. Another video was of a cloud bouncing against the edges of a window, unable to escape. In another room -- Emilia’s dining room I think -- were Rigaux’s lightboxes of X-rays of still life paintings. I liked it. This was the underbelly, or shall I say the side-belly at least, of a more dynamic and hidden Parisian art world. Still no booze at a private view though. Weird. Maybe we’re saturated with it here so anything less feels like a dry house.
Lucky me to be getting another lift, but Devereux then took me on to drop me off at my tiny, old but charming hotel, the Hotel Paris France, named so perhaps in case us tourists temporarily forget where we are. En route, as we were driving across the Place de La Republique, one of the busier, scarier intersections in Paris to drive round, he pointed the nose of his car into the middle of the roundabout and said very slowly, "I think something really awful has happened."
"Oh no, don’t worry about it, have a rest," I breezed, thinking he’d just got a bit tired of being behind the wheel for a minute. Then I looked out of the back window to see about a thousand cars pulling away from their green light and screeching wildly towards us. A few lost heartbeats later, we did manage to get the car off the road, me steering, the tall man pushing, but I then had to run to catch the Eurostar so couldn’t help any further. I left shouting "I don’t remember a car journey I’ve made without the orange petrol warning sign on," as if that was going to help the poor man.
Unable, it seems, to go on any kind of assignment these days without at least one mild disaster befalling me, I settled down on the Eurostar with some watery hot chocolate and a melting Kit Kat, to find out what was to be my second. A phone call from Devereux came in, and he sounded a bit wounded. "Did you really mean what you said in your last email, or did you mean to send that to someone else? I was a bit shocked really, and I couldn’t work out why your spelling had become so bad either."
In retrospect, I should have realized immediately that someone (a bored child, as opposed to a creepy adult I hope) in another room in the Hotel Paris France, sharing the establishment’s wireless password, had decided to hack in to my email account and send a rude message to the last person I had contacted. But in the slight panic that ensued from the phone call, it did cross my mind that I had gone temporarily round the bend, emailed the kind stranger that had just driven me across Paris, and then totally forgotten that I’d sent him these following departing words, here printed exactly as they appeared under my name and email address:
"i fuck you you're just borring me with your questions."
This was the work of the bored child or the creepy adult, guv, I swear. All we can do now is hope that Devereux believes me.
LAURA K. JONES is a journalist based in London. She has written for the Guardian, the Observer, the Times, the Saatchi Magazine and artforum.com.