A Review of Jean-Luc Moulène at the Centre Pompidou, Paris

 
 

 

You want to touch. You want to feel the velvety surface of metamorphic rock, the cold clammy-looking surfaces of painted hard foam, the donkey's skull embedded in concrete, and the alien bronze form of a geometric shape.  You want to feel the heft of every object, large and small.  Everything is perfectly executed and flawlessly presented, like a luxury good in a showroom. 

"I was interested in science before I developed a taste for art," Moulène confesses in the exhibition's artist-annotated catalog.  "I did, at some point, say that I saw myself at sort of a crossroads that links together a technical culture (of which photography is part), industrial communications, and the experimental approaches to the body that artists explored in the seventies."  These comments are key, so much so that they are recycled in emphasis in the exhibition’s literature.

 

 
 

Jean-Luc Moulène's career began and reputation grew as a photographer.  The closest evidence of this at the Centre Pompidou are three videos mounted on an expansive white wall. The first is a creepy loop titled "Black Sun," which reads like a celestial purple UFO or alien being.  The second, "Errata Control," feels like a static homage to Marcel Duchamp's Rotoreliefs.   The third, "Business," is a mesmerizing video of the intake fan of an airplane jet engine filmed in flight.  It sucks you in.  These works are not incidental afterthoughts in the exhibition, nor are the stacks of newspaper takeaways and the custom-designed artist's uniform made in a French laborer's blue.  These works add incrementally to Moulène's historically diverse skills and technical exactitude.

By their sheer numbers and scale, Moulène's sculptures, which he terms protocols, are the obvious focus of the show.  Any reference to modern and contemporary art is intentional.  "Since the beginning of my artistic practice," Moulène says, "there are two things I have been trying to challenge: the concepts of mastery and of authorship."  The mastery is obvious in precise rendering and exact cuts.  There is art historical familiarity about the objects, which are Moulène's primary focus nowadays. He samples contemporary art by association rather than direct appropriation. Intellectual DNA from other sources is evident throughout the exhibition: Cindy Sherman, Ellsworth Kelly, Joan Miro, Henry Moore, Naum Gabo, and Robert Lazzarini.  Moulène also samples banal objects from everyday life: English garden sculpture, divided and reassembled with a bolt; various 3-D depictions of a laundry detergent bottle, and a tea cup sliced and divided.  In another recent interview, Moulène stressed that “You must be contemporary, and create a patina for the next century. A problem is that we only have so much available.”

 

 
 

Moulène makes a clear distinction between medium and material, underscoring originality and freshness.  For him, material is “a solution to the problem.”  He rarely uses a material more than once. Individually or in combination in the protocols, the material elements contribute to a greater whole.  Thisunderscores an artistic challenge in aesthetic decision-making.  "The first gesture is often the best one, it shouldn't be overthought," Moulène asserts.  But repeated gestures are necessary to validate the first.  Moulène learned this from photography, but reassessed and reapplied it in his objects.  Each piece approaches an ideal.  There is no room for technical wabi sabi.  Moulène’s separations and recombinations do not deny the original object, whether it is bone or plastic.  He hides little and reveals a lot.

The catalog is essential reading, since the exhibition signage is minimal and the handout is selections of Moulène's sometimes dense quotes, decontextualized from the catalog.  The catalog’s photography is reflective and more than an index to the exhibition.  The bibliography is extensive -- 13 pages long -- reflecting the broad curatorial interest in Moulène's career.  The catalog is an antidote to much of the multi-syllabic, often quasi-intelligible criticism that abounds in the alternate reality of art criticism.  What makes the catalog most compelling are Moulène's own reflections on his personal history and process.  He concludes, "I do not exhibit resolutions, I exhibit tensions." [Emphasis added].  “I consider myself more of a lyricist – I’m interested in love, life, and death.  The rest is nothing.”

 

 
 

 

Even more revealing is Moulène's observation that in contemporary art, “we have passed from the work to the exhibition as art work.  And this drives a lot of artists to the spectacle as a work.  I wanted to continue to get away from the process so I decided that the show would be a programme . . . a programme of production.”   The program at the Centre Pompidou looks like a group show, which is the artist’s intent: it is the success of collaboration between “’me and me, we are millions,’ millions of authors.” 

 

 
 

October 19, 2016 to February 20, 2017

Written by Clayton Press, a Contributor to Arteviste.com