Art Criticism

Lionel Esteve: How to Lie

Lionel Estève: Picture opened to Night (detail, 2009), in How to Lie (Perrotin, 2009).
Exhibition review published in ArtReview (London), no. 33, Summer 2009, p. 140.

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The title of French artist Lionel Estève’s show at Emmanuel Perrotin can be interpreted in many ways. The first idea that comes to mind is how Perrotin’s recent recruit, successfully introduced into the art market at Art Basel in 2005, could actually ‘lie’ within current thinking in contemporary art, considering that his craft — certainly delicate and sensitive — strikes first and last as absolutely decorative and light. Paradoxically, this is as much his failure as it is his strength. The fact that Estève’s works don’t seem to bother carrying on any specific reflection or direction for interpretation is what makes them very refreshing to look at, for they completely slip away from the urge too many artists have to hide behind rhetoric, behind sometimes stifling, not to say fake, discourses. For the show, Estève suggested the idea of a collective exhibition made of one artist’s work, because he considers his projects as “disconnected entities, unlinked to a continuous discourse… Theoretically, they have nothing in common – they weren’t conceived this way”, he says. In this respect, his pieces stand for nothing but themselves, with neither pretension nor obligation to current or past artistic thinking, nor even obligation to the global body of art to which they might belong. And as much as they fail to inspire any reflection, they succeed in evoking a sense of beauty while their meticulous and handmade craft arouses curiosity. In a critical attempt to make some sense in the jungle that is the show, How to Lie could be understood as how materials can be tricked into delightful artifices.

For example, the ten grey stones of The River at Night (all works 2009), which cluster on a long low pedestal, are each tied up with a glistening purple thread that transforms them into glossy artefacts and nevertheless manages to evoke the nocturnal shimmering of a riverbank in the light of the white cube. The steel sculptures Lotus (which describe the lines of the flower) and The Last One (a constellation of polyfoam balls joined together by thin steel threads) seem so stunningly delicate and fragile that they might be blown away by a draught at any moment. This draught could come from two steel mobiles which are suspended next to them: Bubble, a flexible hoop that bounces in the air and moans with each distortion, and Luminous Yellow Liquid, another animated hula-hoop that quickly and relentlessly turns in an elliptic movement. A Van de Graaf generator arrayed with long and fluffy pink feathers is turned into a carnivorous plant (Carnivous Feathers) which groans each time a viewer approaches (a movement detector automatically turns it on). Finally — and this could go on for ever, since each piece on display shows off a new craft — Picture opened to Day and Picture opened to Night set out the palette of day and night with colourful pellets glued on shredded paper and gelatin sheets. So much to enjoy, so little to say.

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