Being immersed in Gwen Rouvillois' work is rather like being a frog squatting comfortably in a tepid bath - the water gradually heats up, but the complacent frog remains immobile, overheats and dies. At first glance, with their lush surfaces and syrupy colours, Rouvillois' works appear slick, banal and easily digestible, but in the end something corrosive and insidious quietly overtakes you.
Entitled 'Cohabitations', her exhibition of painting-objects opens with a wall covered from floor to ceiling with small, prosaic landscape paintings of the French countryside. Lyrical visions of rolling hillsides and sweeping fields, these sketches, which look like pastiches of Claude Lorraine, Daubigny or Millet, explore the increasing transformation of nature in contemporary society, the high-speed urbanisation of the country and suburbs.
Although Rouvillois' skilful handling of slathered paint gives the works a certain pleasing quality, the views themselves are hackneyed, like corny postcards stripped of individuality. They are uniformly painted with inorganic, sickly sweet colour - a dull, Pepto-Bismol pink that subverts our notion of prettiness. The sense
of artificiality is emphasised by the fact that each canvas is wrapped in cellophane, as if a metaphor for our penchant to impose synthetic order on nature, ironically linking it with the kind of anonymous, 'any-space-whatsoever' that Deleuze referred to in the homogenised suburbs.
Lined up in neat little rows, the pictures look like something from the frozen-food aisle of the supermarket, as if nature itself had become a commonplace commodity. Rouvillois
presents the landscapes (and art) as objects or parcels, playing with Warholian associations of consumption of art and the consumption of goods. This wall of shiny, transparent packages frustrates the viewer, forcing the eye to slither over the surface and rendering the landscape inaccessible. Rouvillois pushes the consumption theme further in a handful of absurd-looking works in which her canvases sit on wheels like supermarket caddies, as well as in Pour moi c'est rose no. 3 (For me it's pink no. 3, 1997), a heap of landscapes piled up like bricks and held together by a crudely bolted steel frame on wheels resembling a piece of Prouvé furniture designed for the masses.
The show's least conspicuous work may also be the most caustic - a roll of plastic refrigerator bags. On the middle of each is an identical drawing: a vivid-orange outline representing the contours of a small, pre-fab home, the kind of typical rural houses that dot the French landscape. This roll of disposable plastic is itself a dull, domestic object, and repeatedly stamped with that image, it reflects the lack of imagination, the dearth of personality, that characterises these cookie-cutter domiciles.
You could picture these little two-storey boxes anywhere say, in Kansas. But the houses she refers to are emblematic of ownership in France, where money and privilege are rarely spoken of, but have always been of the utmost importance. They seem to represent the perverse and hypocritical relationship to acquisition of the French, in which property, quietly passed down from generation to generation, stands for highly valued notions of class and privilege, but at the same time is hidden, or talked about very, very discreetly. Oscar Wilde once said that men are so attached to the notion of possession that the law punishes attacks on private property more severely than those on individual liberty. Rouvillois' work harshly addresses that imbalance, condemning not only the destruction of nature but also petit-bourgeois values, the need to dominate and possess, and the alienation that results from that possession.
Her most recent works include a group of shaped canvases that present pretty, pastel high-rises, and the series Projet pour un pays sage (Project for a landscape/wise country, 1997), in which her ersatz Utopia is punctuated by ugly, low-income high-rises jutting out of the landscape. Isolated by a layer of glassine paper, metallic paint, masking tape, or Perspex, which evoke construction materials such as concrete, aluminium, or glass, the towers take on the sheen of a shiny new coin. Ironically, it is sometimes ambiguous whether Rouvillois is idealising or criticising these towers, as if she has yet to realise that those who end up in low-income housing usually dream of possessing the same kitschy, bourgeois lifestyle she disdains.