For the last three decades, contemporary photography presented in galleries and museums has been in thrall to the aesthetics of realist painting. Vast in scale, lit and composed on Renaissance lines, the works of Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer do all they can to plumb the supposed depths of narrative painting. If at times such work borrows photojournalistic techniques, there’s rarely any social function: these are photographs primarily intended to be viewed as art. Jean-Marc Bustamante slots interestingly and awkwardly into this museum-friendly aesthetic. His work clearly shares much with the photo-painters: his images are large, crisp and formalist. Apologists for this renewed pictorialism, such as Michael Fried in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (2009), have written breathless prose about his ‘tableau-size’ art. Bustamante has been making work since the late 1970s, so he’s got claims to some kind of patriarchal position; he has even represented France at the Venice Biennale in 2003. These two exhibitions provided a somewhat surprising insight into the artist’s work, which is often shot through with arch and evasive humour.
At the Henry Moore Institute, Bustamante explored the gaps between the categories of photography, sculpture, architecture and décor with a wit both dry and knowing. To get when he’s joking or not, you needed to be invested in the specific histories of those media. For example, there were Minimalist-looking sculptures that resemble mirror frames as well as the outlines of architectural plans (Double Miroir, 1991). Bac à Sable I (Sandpit I, 1990) – a sandpit housed in a neat cement box with deluxe wooden trim – is a quip about the fine line between Minimalism and functionality. To be sure, this is the modus operandi of much contemporary sculpture – from the queer Minimalism of Tom Burr to Rodney Graham’s jocosely sculptural bookcases. The same can be said about Intérieur I (1988), an elegant lacquered wooden platform that looks like a gallery bench (to sit on it or not?). Sometimes the humour is submerged into a muffled aesthetic play: ‘Stationnaire II’ (1991) is a series of Donald Judd-like boxes containing c-type prints of neatly managed evergreen trees. It might be read as a clever inversion of Robert Smithson’s site/non-site dialectic (the outdoors brought into the gallery, but only in photographic form).
Bustamante repeatedly photographs the walls and trees that screen suburban French houses – bourgeois discretion and good taste are clearly in his sights. A series of five photographs taken in 1991 of a tall evergreen hedgerow on top of a neatly rustic stone wall unveils this prissy fortification and aesthetic showiness. Similarly casting a jocular glance over property and leisure, T.50.82 (1982) and T.11.78 (1978) are both c-prints of swimming pools: the former kidney-shaped structure is filled and opulent, the latter is empty and appears abandoned. In T.11.78, it takes a fair few minutes of looking before you notice the forlorn skeleton of a Christmas tree deposited in the vacant pool’s shadowy depths. Here, two seasons of a middle-class family’s contrived leisure time – the summer swim and the winter feast – sink into parched desuetude.
At Timothy Taylor Gallery, Bustamante exhibited recent works which referenced the history of painting but without using oil or canvas. Here, the artist created watercolours that were then digitally manipulated and inked onto Perspex. What they mostly look like (to me, at least) are drawings made with some pre-Photoshop CAD application, as applied to cloth patterning in the 1980s. (We had some curtains that looked a bit like this when I was growing up.) They look naff, and not in a knowing way – they lack, for example, the sincere knowingness of Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s granny-lite installation aesthetic. Bustamante’s Ozelot (2010) is a picture of some wavy weed or seaweed rendered in lush green sprouting from an unnaturally rich brown soil. Crina (2010) is a wallpapery mix of ochre green and pink depicting a field of grass. Nothing more, nothing less. If Bustamante’s peers have attempted to reprocess the seriousness of painting into photography, his own attempts via a partial return to painting itself are lacklustre.
Don’t get me wrong: I admire Bustamante’s early work for its aesthetic intelligence – the way that he makes you look slowly and carefully at something that’s maybe nothing. And I enjoy his cerebral canniness. But Bustamante has also evidently been playing double standards: his photographs, which might portray the vanity of a certain social sphere, are nevertheless immaculately printed – tasteful in their own way. His sculptures glow with the executive sheen of designer furniture and are arranged with great care to the formal proportions of the gallery interior. If Bustamante’s fine-grained humour constitutes a form of institutional critique, it is of a kind that quite easily melts back into both the museum and market place. Certainly, most art relies on commercial or institutional structures, but more overtly reflexive artists (such as Michael Asher and Hans Haacke) are better at flagging up their own reliance upon and complicity with the status quo, while also distancing themselves from normative issues of taste. Like the shy denizens sequestered behind hedgerows, Bustamante’s work keeps its secrets too close to its chest.