French Exhibit: Devalued Art?

By April Rapier

Sans Titre: Contemporary Photography and Video from France. Diverse Works, Houston, April 5 – May 1

Any attempt to view these images in comparison to American photography will fall short, for the two share few if any concerns. One is told outright in the catalog of the inherent differences, the uniqueness of French photography. M.E. Simmons-Sorrell, the curator of the photography portion of the exhibition, tells us that, in France, great emphasis is placed on the difference between photography — documentary and reportage, mainly — and art that manipulates photography in a manner after the “traditional fine arts, painting and sculpture.” The idea that photographers (and filmmakers) are officially classed with writers by the government is suspect; that such an official (ad binding) category exists at all is an onus almost too great to overcome.
There apparently exists a self-imposed rule whereby “most French artists will make no more than three prints from each negative. Pondering the logic of this “rule,” one can suppose that economics are a factor. Yet one has the nagging suspicion that this too is a contrivance, designed to add value to ideas that are precocious but ill-considered. Other differences exist as well, barriers that would be meaningless if the work was successful, but these “limitations” (Simmons-Sorrell’s term) simply cannot be held accountable for the eccentric and contrived manipulations that recur throughout the exhibit.
Perhaps a too-forgiving curatorial vision in conjunction with what could be considered effete, self-aggrandizing restraints must be examined as responsible for the blaring inconsistencies here. One simply cannot envision an audience to whom this level of communication would speak. The constraints do not add to the pictures that are (for the most part) so desperately modeled after other media.
The most evident (and consistent) homage throughout the exhibit is about dimension and stature. Simmons-Sorrell says “these artists often choose to make prints as large as the largest rolls of paper permit…” an imitative gesture that often doesn’t best suit photography’s limitations or purposes. The delivery rarely measures up to the ideas touched upon. It seemed as though one piece per artist was successful, complete; the rest was more filler than first-choice — ambitious, energetic, but distressingly uninteresting. In the curator’s statement, one is told that “many artists who use photography exclusively are quite proud of not being concerned with image quality,” leading one to anticipate a conceptual breakthrough. In fact, quite the opposite is true. A good idea is rarely able to transcend bad technique; a bad idea is magnified by it. As a whole, this survey is silly. The best that can be said is that there are exceptional images in it that deserve careful scrutiny.
Antoine Bootz’s three black-and-white murals resemble handsome architectural renderings seen through a sandstorm. They are abstract to barely readable limit, yet their confusion elicits a strong reaction that is far more satisfying. In one of the images, “Untitled 1984,” a ball sits precipitously on a ledge, with, for all we know, the world’s end at its back. A miniature sci-fi world takes shape upon examination, as though seen through a microscope. Proportions seem magnified and exaggerated, details purposefully hazy. Of course, this is all conjecture, encouraged by the imagery, the planar flexibility that this kind of close-up view affords. There seems to be, for example, glass, and it seems to reflect, but one cannot be sure.
This picture is more physically, elementally complex than “Untitled 1983,” which looks for all the world like the ocean rushing up to a pyramid, a distant moon backlighting it with a luminous wash. This is perhaps a romantic interpretation, but one inspired by the beauty of simplicity, of imaginative ideas.
In a series entitled Fiction Coloreé, Pascal Kern plays with notions of reality, testing what one can and cannot assimilate visually, then accept as real (or even possible). The images are technically proficient: sharp, well-lit, beautifully printed Cibachromes. One is at first tempted to believe that they are hand-colored, or toned, or black and white negatives printed monochromatically on color paper.
The subject matter and intensity of spatial usage suggest photo-realist painting. In one, film strips hang, tumble against fiberglass fabric; selective areas of the film are hand-colored, as are sections of the other pieces. If only metal would rust in colors like candy! It is an appealing act that makes little sense, its whimsy all that is necessary. A few “hot spots” from the lighting cement the reality of the still-life, take a way the animated quality found in the center of the image (where most of the coloring takes place). In another, the entire image seems to have rusted — headless statuette, hardware in various states of decline, a bucket, endless clutter.
Because of the overall color (except a few brightly hand-colored nails that take up very little space), the objects have a forlorn look. One expects, a la Nutcracker Suite, for them to animate, with gestures of their own, when no one is watching. The frames used on Kern’s pieces, roughly hewn, bulky metal whose welded joints were sanded but not polished, are as lovely as the images.
The Freres Soussan’s (brothers Philippe and Maurice Sylvain) large Cibachrome, “Climbing Library Shelves, 1984” is an enticing bit of light play, at once interesting and view beautiful. A person is seen with one foot on a stool, the other on a lower shelf, his hands half-heartedly supporting him. He is going nowhere, a complex web of flashlight-drawn light strand holding him captive. The room is dark, lending power to the silvery graffiti marks marks that fill the frame. The books on the shelves assume a minimal role, tokens to the concept, “Personnage assis sur…, 1984” is second-rate in comparison, a crude caricature in which the joke is easily lost. A person sits in a cartoon chair, drawn in, again, with a point-source light.
One does not await the fall with nearly the anticipation implicit to the set-up. “Ironing Board, 1984” features both a cloth and a person draped over an ironing board. The green cloth (colors are important here because of the overall darkness of the environment) hangs to the floor, where the man irons it. The gesture is touching, futile, funny. Red shirt, yellow iron — the colors are rich, but not garish. This use of “photographos” (light-writing) serves the same purpose as in “Climbing Shelves 1984” — it binds him to his circumstances irrevocably, yet painlessly. The light never strays — it hits its mark every time.