Visiting Hollywood in 1937, Salvador Dalí boasted of having met three great American Surrealists: Harpo Marx, Cecil B. DeMille and Walt Disney. Despite generously supporting New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Disney’s attitude to modern art remained ambiguous. Only a few minutes of the animated film Destino, Dalí and Disney’s proposed collaboration, were ever completed (and only long after both were dead). But some sense of the perspective on Modernism held by the House of Mouse can be gleaned from the bewildered look on Mickey’s face in a Disney comic strip that first aired in 1947, in which Minnie drags her murine inamorato to an art museum filled with stark canvases and glutinous abstractions intended to imitate modern art works.
In this imagined gallery space, Bertrand Lavier discovered certain ‘ghosts’ of Clement Greenberg – in the cartoon references to the sculptures of Hans Arp and the canvases of Wassily Kandinsky, Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollock. From 1984, Lavier began making his own life-size copies of the art from Disney’s museum in an ongoing series entitled ‘Walt Disney Productions’, seeking to exhume the formalist corpse through the sedimentary layers of Pop and Postmodernity. After a successful showing of a number of these works at the Centre Pompidou last year, Yvon Lambert recently exhibited six new canvases that extended the series while also departing from it significantly.
The first noticeable difference from previous ‘Walt Disney Productions’ exhibitions, however, was not the canvases but the walls. Last year’s show followed forebears at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (1999–2000) and MAMCO in Geneva (2001) in hanging Lavier’s pictures on brightly coloured surfaces like those of the comic they cloned. By positioning the works here in a traditional white cube, the effect was reversed. We were no longer stepping into the imaginary world of Disney’s characters; like Borgesian hrönir, the fictional objects were now leaping into the real world. In Jorge Luis Borges’s 1940 short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, items from an imaginary land begin to appear in contemporary Argentina. At Yvon Lambert, art works from a fictional gallery made it onto the ‘real’ art market (with real prices).
At just over two metres across, some round, some almost square, the new canvases are considerably larger than their predecessors, but their palette is even more restricted, consisting in all but one case of the same shades of burgundy, bright red and racing green (plus black and white) with no admixture or shading. Areas of colour are rigidly demarcated by thick black lines while allowing for occasional impressionistic intersections that may be the result of enlarging the original inks of the comic strip to a size at which slight errors assume new importance. What they still lack is individual titles, with each canvas identified only as Walt Disney Productions 1947–2013 No. 2, 4, 9 or 13 (Lavier rigorously avoids an ordered sequence), encouraging a consideration of the whole.
Only with a closer look did the most significant departure of the new additions become apparent. Where the previous canvases were all prints, these new six were painted in swathes of acrylic. Lavier’s fist-thick daubs mark the passage of what looks more like a house-painter’s brush than a fine artist’s, a gesture that brings the series into harmony with the artist’s intervening works such as Klein (2001), in which similar brushstrokes coat the surface of a piano, or Argo (1993), where they are applied to a boat. In the latter works, the marks of Lavier’s technique are a visible manifestation of the process of these readymades becoming art. In the ‘Walt Disney Productions’ works, the effect is more ambiguous – all the more so when you realize that the borders of each canvas reveal them as inkjet prints that the artist has painted over. Like the scene in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) where the Joker’s flesh-tone make-up washes off to reveal the clown face beneath, the imaginary lingers on behind the surface reality.