For Real

Exhibition review published in ArtReview (London), vol. 67 no. 5, Summer 2015, p. 128.

The only aesthetic achievement of For Real, which gathers 19 works by 15 artists and is curated by Anne Pontégnie, is that it somehow manages to be both loose and contrived. In a vain attempt to highlight a contemporary resurgence of the seminal iconoclastic twentieth-century gesture that introduced real artefacts within two-dimensional pictorial space (from early-century cubist and dadaist collages to midcentury assemblages), Pontégnie’s stated aim is simply to bring together recent mixed-media paintings or the like that incorporate everyday materials. Yet if the intent seems clear, the vision of creating a comprehensible ensemble out of works by Kamel Mennour’s gallery artists (which represent around one third of the total exhibition) has proved to be hazier than planned. With the exception of one assemblage by Daniel Buren, works by Valentin Carron, David Hominal, Mathieu Malouf and Camille Henrot do not easily bend to Pontégnie’s curatorial direction. Another third is more successfully brought out of contemporary artists from outside the gallery (Alex Hubbard, Jutta Koether, Sergej Jensen, Fredrik Vaerslev and Helen Marten), while the remaining artworks, which belong to history, merely serve here as archetypes (collages by Pablo Picasso and Kurt Schwitters, a combine painting by Robert Rauschenberg and assemblages by New Realists Yves Klein and Daniel Spoerri).

Before going any further, let me share a quote from Fluxus artist George Maciunas’s 1962 manifesto ‘Neo Dada in the USA’, which I will brandish like a torch from hereon in to help me discern what, in the show, is ‘for real’ and what is not: ‘a Concretist sees a rotten tomato for what it is and represents it as such, without transformation…, it is a rotten tomato and not a pictorial or symbolic representation which is contrived and illusionistic’. Here, the quintessence of Maciunas’s ‘rotten tomato’ can be savoured in Spoerri’s Variations on a Meal (1964), which forever crystallises in a glass frame the greasy remnants, coffee stains and dog-ends of a dirty table setting. Another species of leftovers in Hubbard’s Trash Painting (2011) ironically offers an ecological statement: the artist scattered a large canvas with tons of plastic debris (caps, combs, lighters, spoons, etc) that, according to Pontégnie, he collected on a beach after surfing. Although the filthy arabesque of S&M accessories in Koether’s Untitled (2006) makes me prudishly question the curator’s definition of ‘everyday materials’, Buren’s Vingt-cinq lattes (1988), a neat arrangement of 25 bed slats instead of his usual painted stripes, certainly tickles my fancy (as much, in fact, as did once comprehending Sol LeWitt modular cubes for what they really were, jungle gyms for his cats). Exhilarating.

Jansen’s Sans titre (2003), a bichromatic minimalistic abstraction made out of canvas fabric, is also efficient in regard to the curatorial theme, but I cannot assert the same with the other artworks, for they do not present their ‘rotten tomatoes’ with an equal straightforwardness (ie, without transformation). For example, in Carron’s Teflon longways Wearily (2014), a wall ensemble of eight cast bronzes representing smashed brass instruments, the performative and poetic dimension of the artist crushing an entire fanfare prevails. As for the burnt planks of Hominal’s Crack II and IV (2009) or the dry mushrooms encrusted on the shiny silver-plated panel of Malouf’s NYT1 (2013), they aren’t relevant as such, though the latter’s unrecognisable mould brilliantly disenchants contemporary art. While Henrot’s Untitled (2015), a monster-size notebook with a hasty drawing of a female figure, completely falls out of topic here, Marten’s ‘~’ (2010), a life-size picture of a car printed on silk blinds like a vulgar symbol of our polluted urbanscape, certainly pushes the irreverent spirit of Dada into new levels of ugliness. Installed next to Buren’s slats and Klein’s witty Relief éponge bleu sans titre (1959), in which sponges saturated with International Klein Blue and stuck on an immaculate canvas seem to have soaked up all the paint, Marten’s eyesore profanely clashes. And since I’ve been carrying around Maciunas’s tomato for a while, allow me now to relieve myself of it, figuratively of course. Joking aside, the contextual disharmony of ‘~’ is also a reminder that the artworks gathered in For Real really have little in common.