Before ‘The Image in the Carpet’ came into my life, I would walk around, kicking dirt, thinking to myself; ‘Does contemporary French art do anything for me? But thanks to curator Jean de Loisy, everything has changed. I feel alive, entirely interested in any new developments and if it weren’t for the fact that not one of the 13 artists included is female, I would be saying that this was the perfect show.
‘The Image in the Carpet’ manages to ridicule many preconceptions concerning French art and culture. From the moment you enter, Jean-Marc Bustamente’s Lumiére(1992), a print on plexiglass of an academic painting exhibition, taunts the viewer with a standard issue art cliché, totally unlike the work it precedes. In an adjoining room, Fabrice Hyber’s saintly self-portrait in a fish tank, wit air bubbling out through the eyes, betrays an unexpected gravity. Its underlying sadness, or morbidity, can also be found in Hyber’s Conversation, where a guillotined Michelin Man flops over a wicker basket containing his goggle-eyed head.
The title of this show is a corruption of a short story by Henry James - The Figure in the Carpet - and watching Pierrick Sorin’s J’ai même gardé mes chaussons pur aller á la boulangerie (1993) you begin to wonder if he’s actually got round to reading it yet. Possibly not, as this relentless loop of activity across six video monitors shows the young intellectual having enormous difficulty actually holding books, let alone studying them. Attempting to carry more tomes than is humanly possible, they end up flying through his kitchen, falling to earth where he receives them one by one as he blows to the head. While all the time Sorin, on a central screen, mumbles away like the man who just can’t get to grips with all this required reading.
Upstairs, there follows a strange amalgam of contemporary art and antiquities. Fauteuil d’amour(c.1890), a cross between a double-decker chaiselongue and a Louis XIV saddle for cervical smear tests, exercises the mind with its true purpose; a seat to accommodate a variety of sexual positions. But then suddenly, nearby, a man is heard screaming, a terrifying interference that turns out to be Absalon in a clean white shirt, delivering a deadpan scream in his video Brutis(1990). And this is what sets the tone of the show: That Fauteuil d’amour and Bruits, a hundred years apart, are allowed to penetrate each other to create an intangible history, midway,
This mysterious interaction between old and new operates throughout; there are vitrines filled with curiosities, 17th century woodcuts and echoes of ancient Africa. The latter appear to only in displays of tribal objects, but also in the abbreviated, slap-dash paintings of Gérard Gasiorowski and his readymade Les tourtes(1977/9) which looks uncannily like elephant shit. In a small corridor, Ange anatomique (1948) depicts a woman with her back opened up, (almost unzipped), to expose deep red muscles and cream-coloured bones. All the more disturbing is her coiffure, in the style of the day, distinguishing her from a dissected corpse, giving the impression she’s still alive.
Gérard Colin-Thiébaut’s Kindertotenlieder, a video projection of an old photograph, haunts its enclave with a turn of the century gentleman who stands motionless as tiny figures emerge on a table beside him, summoned by magical music before being spirited away into silence. Like a high-tech magic lantern show, it is completely transfixing. Jean-Marc Ferrari’s Cabinet-sculpture(1992) achieves a similarly spooky quality with projections of skulls contained in glass domes, suspended in an unearthly blue light. Ferrari also creates his own institutional display cases of tiny child skeletons that look suspiciously like alien life forms.
Much of the work on show, (whether it be in the guise of museum exhibits, domestic bumblings or Patrick Tosani’s detailed photographs of bitten fingernails), has the appearance of being something less than art. It seems that de Loisy’s curatorial preference is for artists who are opposed both to grand gesture and to following the trends in New York. This type of premise can also throw up total freaks such as Erik Dietman’s Les gardiens de fûts(1989), an amusement arcade of sculpted noses over wine casks, that appear here, thankfully, as little more than fun. This is a show that openly admits its own faults: François Curlet’s Homeless is more (1992) – a difficult painting of a man in bed dressed as a turkey – hangs unstretched, in a room with mock wooden paneling that would make any curator scream. But somewhere in the stratagem, all is forgiven, with artists like Sorin and Colin-Thiébaut making it increasingly difficult to continue with the assumption that French art is lousy.