BY Kathy Noble in Features | 01 OCT 12
Featured in
Issue 150

Focus: Nicolas Deshayes

Polystyrene and post-minimalism; industrial processes and the ‘skin’ of amorphous forms

BY Kathy Noble in Features | 01 OCT 12

The divide between our messy, uncontrollable human bodies and the highly packaged, hygiene-obsessed existences that we’re encouraged to live has reached new extremes in recent years. Much of Nicolas Deshayes’ work addresses this state of affairs via an investigation of surface; the ‘skin’ of his objects has a human or organic quality that belies the industrial man-made materials that they are created from.

In his recent solo show, ‘Browns in Full Colour’, at Jonathan Viner’s new space in central London, large rectangular polystyrene slabs stood at varying angles to the tiled wall, ‘framed’ and fixed to upright mustard-coloured metal poles as if a functional exhibition display in a trade fair. The bright white surface of each piece was highly textured; each was created using a hot wire cutter that moved through the surface, scarring it with an undulating landscape, like the ripples formed on the seabed. 

Slugs, 2012, anodized aluminium and vacuum-formed plastic, 110 × 171 × 8 cm. All images courtesy Jonathan Viner, London

This work was inspired by the subterranean-looking former garage space that houses the gallery – a little like a Victorian bath house, covered in green, brown and cream tiles. Indeed, the title of one work, Soho Fats (2012), refers to the blocks of congealed fat that have been found to line the walls of Soho’s sewers. The organic form created is at odds with polystyrene, which is a non-biodegradable, permanent environmental pest. Invented in the mid-19th-century, it was first used industrially during World War I. It is now so ubiquitous we barely notice it: from equipment packaging to architectural maquettes, its proliferation has gone hand-in-hand with the technological revolutions of the last half-century. It can be both a protective skin and an architectural form – qualities Deshayes has purposefully played with, alongside alluding to the residues and detritus left by us all.

Consider the sculptures of the Post-Minimalist and feminist artists of the 1970s: the latex and rubber used by Eva Hesse and Lynda Benglis that provided an antidote to their Minimalist and AbEx predecessors – such as Contingent (1969) by Hesse, eight sheets of rubberized cheese cloth hanging in a grid of rectangles from the ceiling, and Bounce 1 (1969) by Benglis, consisting of poured latex in multiple colours forming a swirly abstraction – are now fading fast, in need of constant conservation in order to preserve them. Much of Deshayes’ work suggests similar malleable organic forms, yet his sculptures are nearly always made from more permanent industrial products (favoured by the Minimalists) such as plastic and aluminium, using various processes – such as vacuum forming or anodizing – to mould and transform their properties.

The results can be seen in Slugs (2012): a visceral, textured, vacuum-formed clear plastic mound – made by pouring plaster into a mould and moving it around when it was in a state between liquid and solid, so that it stretches and slumps – contrasts with the slick palette of turquoise, purple and yellow, which looks like spray-paint, but is actually formed by a chemical reaction with the aluminium. In the same way that vacuum forming and heat produce sculpture and line, this could be described as a form of painting, producing a colour palette reminiscent of the 1980s: the decade of the artist’s childhood. Once again, Deshayes’ work gives rise to a purposeful contraction: the surface of the vacuum-formed plastic has an organic appearance that borders upon the sexual, whilst being a distinctly man-made product.

Soho Fats, 2012, polystyrene, aluminium and powder-coated steel, each 240 x 130 x 12 cm, installation view at Jonathan Viner, London

On the floor of the same show, stood vestibules for human excrement: Deshayes had re-created the carpet rolls (Paris Rag, 2012, made from carpet and polyester resin) that still line Parisian gutters, seeping up and directing the surplus cleaning water. The presence of these rags has intrigued artists throughout the last century – both Lázló Moholy-Nagy and Eugène Atget photographed these strange, feral specimens. Framing, architectural support and spatial placement are also important within Deshayes’ body of work, as the cellular, skin-like textures are sited specifically in relationship to the viewer’s body – for example, Drifter (2012) is hung from the ceiling, and Acids (2012) are placed at crotch height.

In his seminal essay ‘Specific Objects’ (1965), Donald Judd wrote: ‘Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture. Usually it has been related, closely or distantly, to one or the other. The work is diverse, and much in it that is not in painting and sculpture is also diverse. But there are some things that occur nearly in common.’ This description, of something that exists between painting and sculpture, could easily be applied to Deshayes. Yet, the ‘images’ he creates with the objects he makes could only have been made today, as his practice is equally related to the proliferation of stock photography via the Internet. The slick, plasticized quality of food products found in contemporary advertising informed the artist’s early work. Deshayes’ series ‘Supplement’ (2009–ongoing) comprises glossy images of different food products which he created by ‘re-making’ adverts from magazines in his studio: his repetition heightens the food-porn aesthetic – glutinous, highly styled and pristine – of high-end supermarket adverts and cookery programmes, eradicating the ‘natural’, eclectic qualities of the produce (which could be equated to the botoxed faces readily presented as ‘ideal’ beauties in the media of today). While human beings do not feature physically in his work, their qualities are always present – further emphasizing the friction between the permanence of the materials used and the corporeality of being human.

Nicolas Deshayes lives and works in London, UK. In 2012, he has had solo exhibitions at Jonathan Viner and Galleries Goldstein, London, as well as a two-person show (with George Henry Longly) at Galerie Chez Valentin, Paris, France. In the last year, he has been included in numerous group exhibitions, including: ‘Original/Copy 2’, Peles Empire, London, and ‘Changing States of Matter’, Brand New Gallery, Milan, Italy. Deshayes currently has work in ‘Original/Copy 3’, Peles Empire, Cluj, Romania, and will have a solo presentation at Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge, UK, in February 2013.