BY Sophie Berrebi in Frieze | 05 MAY 01
Featured in
Issue 59

Lost Property

Philippe Thomas

BY Sophie Berrebi in Frieze | 05 MAY 01

What impressed me most in Eyes Wide Shut (1999) - besides Tom Cruise's somnambulant acting - were the richly coloured, densely packed paintings that decorated the long corridors of the Central Park West apartment occupied by the Hartfords.

It wasn't so much the paintings themselves as the way their deep perspectives and vistas suggested passageways opening onto fantasy worlds - dream-like environments cutting through the cream-coloured walls - as the camera, catching sight of them in a hallway, would linger for a moment while the disjointed elements of the plot unravelled. At other times the panning of the camera as it followed the actors appeared to flatten the paintings, forcing them back into their original role as set details. Something similar to this kind of visual double entendre occurs in many of Philippe Thomas' works. In Jedermann N.A. Propriété Privée (Jedermann N.A. Private Property, 1990), for example, a parquet floor that seems to have been removed from its original site becomes a sculpture, its tacky oak floorboards strangely evoking the work of Carl Andre. A series of photographs depicting beautiful semi-abstract surfaces reveal themselves to be a series of blown-up details from a much larger group portrait photo, Fictionalisme: Une pièce à conviction (Fictionalism: An Item of Evidence, 1985-86), which in turn refers to a well-known 19th-century painting: Fantin-Latour's Homage à Delacroix (1864).

The manifold meanings and changeable identities assumed by these objects and pictures can be traced back to a show at the Cable Gallery in New York in 1987, when Thomas began a project entitled 'Les readymade appartiennent à tout le monde' (Readymades Belong to Everyone). Its purpose, in a nutshell, consisted of selling artworks (mainly multiples) whose authorship was transferred to the purchaser along with the work itself. The process was complex and meant that Thomas' name disappeared from 'his' artworks in circulation, which created problems when works were resold or bought by museums instead of individuals. A number of texts were published under similar conditions - confusing the issue still further. Thomas at times resorted to pseudonyms that gradually acquired the status of heteronyms, in a manner reminiscent of the Portuguese Modernist writer Fernando Pessoa, one of Thomas' enduring references.

This generalized regime of merging fiction into reality and back again inevitably affects how the work is experienced. Viewing a number of Thomas' pieces brought together for an exhibition can turn you into a sleepwalking Tom Cruise-type character, as you lurk around the exhibits purposefully but without a clue as to what is really going on. Checking the wall captions reveals little more than confusing information, gradually blurring the identity of the artist, who is hidden behind a collection of pseudonyms and other people's names that of course are indistinguishable to the viewer. But there's something to gain from this theoretical and - since the artists' death six years ago - physical disappearance, and that is that his work is probably perceived differently today than at the time of its original manufacture. In retrospect, the principle of 'Readymades Belong to Everyone', along with its catchy title, seems like an archetypal 1980s venture in its promise of dry efficiency and limitless glamour (emphasized in the project's advertising) and the clean-cut aesthetic of the actual objects (such as the best-selling oil paintings of enlarged barcodes). The process flattered the narcissism of collectors such as those who posed for the group portrait Fictionalisme as much as it disconcerted museum curators.

Today, however, after the art market has been through the heights of the 1980s and the depression of the 1990s, and site-specific installations have transformed many museums into alternative spaces and vice versa, the context of Thomas' work has changed. One particular result of this is that his formal vocabulary has become more noticeable. While it retains a sense of contemporaneity, it also appears to be full of visual puns. Artists from younger generations, such as Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe, have certainly learned a lot from the conceptual, post-Warholian project of Thomas, although most have missed the elusive and poetic dimensions of his visual work. One of the most fascinating qualities of his images and objects stems from their quietness (to the point of silence), which is suddenly broken at unexpected moments. These bland photographs and office furniture-like fragments have an odd beauty, reminiscent of props waiting for a play to start, or for the
camera to roll.

One of Thomas' earliest pieces, Sujet à discretion (Subject Matter at Your Discretion, 1985), a photographic triptych comprising three views of the Mediterranean under a pale blue sky, typifies this quality. The work has three authors: the first panel is credited as 'anonymous'; the second is signed by Thomas; and the third by the purchaser. While the first part bears a purely descriptive subtitle, 'Vue de la mer en Méditerranée' (View of the Mediterranean), the second and third share the strange inscription 'Autoportrait, vue de l'esprit' (Self-Portrait from a Theoretical Viewpoint), which refers at once to a Romantic pondering on the meditative power of the image and to the theoretical implications of its multiplication. Ultimately, the work's repeated horizon line, which runs across three panels, is hypnotizing. The line creates a perfect, precise image yet seems to be shifting, as if endeavouring to escape finality.