The Paris art scene typically seems both perfectly stuck in the mud and percolating with peripheral possibility. Almost as a rule, if anything interesting happens in Paris, it’s either historical or quite simply imported. On the historical end is "Ingres 1780-1867," a retrospective of 80 paintings and eight drawings at the Louvre, and "Pierre Bonnard, L’oeuvre d’art, un arrêt du temps," the extensive Bonnard retrospective at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, which is just ending its three-month run.
These are decidedly among the bonuses of daily inhabiting the living ruin that is Paris. This time around, Ingres was presented as more than a mere Neo-Classicalist. Rather, he was a non-conformist and innovator who managed to synthesize classical idealism with a kind of realism (the show has an extensive website, here). As for Bonnard, well, the show was just plain vast. One particular bonus was this household mystic’s marginalia, such as his drawings, sketchbooks and his perfectly enchanting, almost thumbnail-sized photographs.
In the same museum one can find Pierre Huyghe’s mid-career solo show, "Celebration Park." (Both Huyghe and Bonnard inaugurate the long-awaited reopening of the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris). Huyghe’s show was preceded by a somewhat mysterious "prologue" wherein he invited Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda to do a small survey of their deliberately elusive and misleading works.
From Huyghe himself were two rather spectacular videos, This Is Not a Time for Dreaming (2004) and A Journey That Wasn’t (2006) (both also were on exhibit in New York, the former at Marian Goodman Gallery, the latter at the Whitney Museum). Huyghe also designed Gates, a pair of enormous doors that glide along the ceiling through a broad crescent-shaped space of the museum. Intentionally devoid of any unifying theme, the simultaneously humble and epic nature of this show inspired a friend of mine to characterize Huyghe as the Spielberg of contemporary art.
Meanwhile, just across the way at the Palais de Tokyo is "Notre Histoire," an exhibition organized by Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans as a final tribute to their tenure as curators there. Primarily showcasing up-and-coming French artists, this sprawling mishmash seemed destined to receive the many drubbings it has incurred. Nevertheless, a few talents do stand out: Tatiana Trouvé’s installation, Polder (2005), made me think of a miniature sweatshop; Laurent Grasso’s video installation, Projection (2005), a scene of a cloud advancing down an empty Parisian street, actually made people step back with apprehension; and Mathieu Mercier’s Untitled (2005), a neon rope hung on a hook in concentric ovals, is a cogent conflation of Pop and Minimalism.
However, if "Notre Histoire" got people foaming at the mouth, a newly announced survey show, titled "La Force de l’art," looks sure to whip them into a bloodthirsty frenzy. In fact, in many quarters, the grousing is already well under way and the dread, general. The show is the work of the French ministry of culture, which, in hopes of creating an important periodical contemporary art survey in the spirit of "The Tate Triennial," P.S.1’s "Greater New York" or even the "Whitney Biennial," has inaugurated a triennial exhibition for the newly reopened Grand Palais (which is also the new site of FIAC, France’s contemporary art fair).
Something like 18 curators and "associated personalities" have been crammed into the kitchen to throw together a rather unruly mise-en-abyme of individually curated shows, which will include roughly 200 artists. Curators to look out for are, of course, Philippe Vergne, adjunct director the Walker Art Center and 2006 Whitney Biennial co-organizer; Eric Troncy, co-director of the Consortium in Dijon; and Olivier Zahm, director of the hip Paris publisher Purple.
Curator/critic Stéphanie Moisdon, one of the other "associated personalities," has created a kind of lecture series, called, "L’école du Stéphanie," with a roster that promises such art-world luminaries as Hans Ulrich Olbrist, Thomas Hirschhorn, Sturtevant, Pierre Bismuth, Daniel Buren and Sophie Calle (who is to represent France in the next Venice Biennale, "La force de l’art" opens May 10, 2006.
On the gallery end of things, Yvon Lambert celebrates his 40th anniversary with "Message Personnel," a group show that is surprisingly good, with works by Anselm Kiefer, Cy Twombly, Claude Léveque, Lousie Lawler, Francis Alÿs, Spencer Finch, among many others.
Chantal Crousel, just a few blocks away in the Marais, recently imported a bit of the Lower East Side in the form of a Reena Spaulings show, consisting of paintings of money, which actually made me think of Larry Rivers’ early works. In her installation, the pseudonymous Reena also included works by a number of apparently preferred artists such Michael Krebber, Marcel Broodthaers, Josephine Pryde and even Andy Warhol, who was represented by a piss painting. However, one gets the feeling that this fresh breath of raw Lower East Side-ness went fundamentally inaperçu in the luxurious, ultra-refined City of Light.
Despite the general sense of arch-cunning and calculation that quite literally occludes most French contemporary art and its attendant scene, a few things are really happening here. Over the past couple of years a whole crop of new young galleries has sprung up, some of them rather promising. Schleicher + Lange, a gallery run by a German duo Julia Schleicher and Andreas Lange and located in the Marais, has a solid stable of young European artists. The recent exhibition of works by the young French video artist Laurent Montaron featured Rounded with a Sleep, a 2006 vid that is a darkly elegant and surreptitiously haunting pastoral about preadolescent thrills.
Five minutes away towards Centre Georges Pompidou is the newly opened Galerie Laurent Godin, whose predominantly French but still international list of artists includes figures such as Claude Closky and Aleksandra Mir. The Israeli artist Micha Laury recently populated the main gallery space with pastel-colored sculptures of jellyfish, which hang from the ceiling, giving the viewer the strange, not unpleasant impression of strolling around underwater through a kind of root-scape of diaphanous tentacles.
Just a few blocks away, the Atelier Cardenas Bellanger, which was opened roughly a year ago by Carlos Cardenas, an American, and Amalie Bellanger, a Frenchwoman, has a predominantly American, West-coast stable, including Devendra Banhart, Amy Sarkisian and Brad Spence. Most recently on view were folksy, Art Brut-esque drawings by San Francisco artist Kyle Field, works that made forays into glyphic figuration.
Meanwhile, out in the 13th arrondisement, Paris’ other gallery district, the recently opened GB Agency, with a largely Eastern and Northern European list of artists, just had a show by the Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevicius entitled "Instead of Today." Narkevicius exhibited two short films, Once in the XX Century (2004) and Disappearance of a Tribe (2005), for a dry, rather sparse show that is strangely moving in its absurd revision of history. Composed of black-and-white photos, Disappearance recounts the history of a family under Soviet rule, while Once consists of footage of a statue of Lenin being pulled down in Lithuania, in reverse. The effect of seeing a giant bronze statue impossibly swing into place on a pedestal above a cheering throng is uncanny in the uncertainty and suspicion it engenders, not only in this specific film but by extension in the moving image in general.
Everybody gripes about contemporary art in Paris, especially those of us who hail from other western art capitals. I heard that Jean-Marc Bustamente tells his students at L’école superièure des beaux arts that they should, quite simply, leave town. Moving abroad is a tactic that is necessary in many cities. Yet Paris has its partisans, of course. Carlos Cardenas, who studied in Los Angeles, believes that Paris’ apparent solipsism and tenacious lack of relevance is actually a sign of its untapped potential and the opportunities that can be created here.
The other day I had a talk with dealer Andreas Lange, who spent a good deal of time in Berlin and London before opening a gallery in Paris. When I questioned the apparently counter-intuitive logic of such a move, he said, "Precisely, because it seemed to be such an unobvious thing to do." Indeed, Paris is so clearly not the place to be right now that the field is, in a sense, wide open.
CHRIS SHARP is an American art critic living in Paris. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org