BY Jeff Rian in Reviews | 09 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 30

Claude Lévêque

BY Jeff Rian in Reviews | 09 SEP 96

At the entrance to Claude Lévêque's exhibition 'My Way' stands a shimmering, silver-painted wall - the first of four elements that comprise the show - onto which is projected a black-and-white video of a slightly larger-than-life teenager. Head shaved, he dances in a techno style - like a boxer jogging on the spot - but no music can be heard. The dancer's name is Elie Morin. He's 15 and Lévêque's Pygmalion, subaltern and muse, as well as a teen-aged version of the more robust artist.

The next element is a low suspended ceiling of metal lattice which creates a hallway about 100 feet long. The white walls and grey-painted concrete floor suggest the entrance to an asylum or prison. Sporadically laid out on the ceiling's length are plain white shirts, 44 of them (I counted), purposefully crumpled with the calculation of a sculptor chiselling stone. But the installation is presented with the atmosphere of a set piece for a Cronenberg remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The museum is horseshoe-shaped, and Lévêque's exhibition takes up just over half of it. Walking down the long corridor toward a second room, the sounds of two men laughing hysterically, almost on the verge of crying, gradually emerge. Before arriving at the source of this disconsolate laughter, you pass through the apex of an arch from which hang 12 gymnastic ropes - rings, ladders, step-knotted and straight climbing ropes. The hysteria grates against the pristine pseudo-gym as if the rigours and routines of exercise were a momentary endorphin fix from other maniacal pursuits. The room from which the sounds emanate is church-dark, though around 100 bare light bulbs of varying sizes are suspended overhead, shining dimly like votive candles.

Lévêque's show is all ceiling. There might seem to be a suggestion of Minimalism but, as France's veteran scatter artist, Lévêque is after your emotions rather than your eyes or intellect, and in order to do this he mines his experiences of growing up. He comes from what the French call a bled: a drab, nowhere, working-class place. Working his way out of a housing project in the small city of Nevers in central France, Lévêque evolved a style that might belong to the adopted child of Rambo and Quentin Crisp. His subject, pertinent to our times, is adolescence, which he seems to interpret as a hallowed form of insanity - 'maturity' being a veil of order behind which a purer version of the self is held in check. There is an implicit attraction towards gladiators and the young and dispossessed. The Rambo machismo is subtended by a doting, if equally resilient, Crisp-like persona that swoons over youth, both probing and adulating it.

Lévêque adheres to a preternatural French aesthetic which is as predisposed to style as to content, and descends - as one would expect - from Duchamp's Readymades, the poster tableaux of Nouveaux Realistes like Raymond Hains and from Situationists such as Daniel Buren. Coming of age in the 80s, Lévêque became involved in the gathering and manipulating of objects, but he is neither a formalist nor a Postmodernist in his attitude. In the past, he has used neon, furniture, railings and photographs labelled with slogans, such as 'Prêt-à-crever' (ready to exhaust) penned onto the image of a prim tract house. He has padded walls with mattresses and carefully strewn rooms with scatter art's 'after the party' artefacts to create hangover-like feelings. He has also made numerous photographic works with his protégé, Elie. In one, he stands covered with sweet compote, photographed in black-and-white for a shopping bag for Agnès B (a Lévêque supporter and the fabricator of his 44 shirts). Underlying it all is a die-hard punk rocker with a guardian's attitude to adolescence - one of life's thorniest transitions.

Lévêque claims to be inspired as much by music as art, and there are subsonic echoes of the resigned tristesse of delta blues mixed with a heavy dose of punk and hardcore. There is also a noticeable back-pedalling nostalgia in his work and a desire to preserve youth's purity from the traumas and lingering disappointments of today's transition from childhood to adulthood. Thus, Lévêque's style is raucously aggressive and yet brittle and ephemeral.

In Lévêque's own life, art was a way out of social confinement, and an element of autobiography graces his subjects: Johnny Rotten is Dionysus and Elie serves not only as Lévêque's protégé but also as his surrogate and living icon. One senses the Procrustean distortions and double binds that are brought to bear in a world that seduces youth by adulating it while simultaneously berating it for its obstinacy. 'My Way' is not Frank Sinatra's but the Sid Vicious cover version. Lévêque's seemingly simple passageway is the walkway through a pristine haunted house with no way out. At the threshold is his surrogate, Elie, dancing on the spot before the prison of order overtakes him and the rigours of self-preservation fail to fend off the cosmic joke awaiting in the dark rooms ahead.