Every now and then an exhibition will provide a real jolt to the senses, like a zesty palate cleanser in the course of a rich meal, or a cloying whiff of lilies during a stroll through a graveyard. The 13th installment of the Prix Fondation d’Entreprise Ricard, curated by Eric Troncy (co-director of Le Consortium in Dijon and co-editor of the art magazine Frog), was that kind of exhibition. This annual show, which is sponsored by the foundation established by the Ricard spirits company, brings together a group of French artists, in principle under the age of 40, who are supposed to represent the crème de la crème of their generation. A guest curator always selects the artists, and a group of collectors and critics vote anonymously for the winner. The prize is one of considerable prestige: the Ricard Foundation purchases a work by the artist for the permanent collections of the Musée national d’art moderne at the Centre Pompidou.
This year’s artists were not the usual suspects: with the exception of designers Ronanand Erwan Bouroullec, whose work is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou–Metz, it is safe to say that most visitors to the Espace Ricard would have been unfamiliar with the collages, photographs, drawings and paintings of Gaétan Brunet and Antoine Espinasseau, Erwan Frotin, Corentin Grossmann, Adrien Missika, and Loïc Raguénès. This element of surprise was enhanced by the welcome absence of an overarching theme, though synthetic minds would have seen a vague interest in representations of nature emerging. One was also confronted with a refreshing inability to identify these artists, as yet, with any specific scene, curatorial tendency, gallery or institution. This may be partially due to the fact that half of them operate professionally outside of contemporary art circles: the brothers Bouroullec are well-known designers, Frotin is a commercial photographer, Brunet and Espinasseau work as urbanists and architects. Finally, the exhibition’s title, ‘The Seabass’, and the accompanying press release – nothing more than the Wikipedia entry about the fish translated into French with ‘Reverso’ translate – said more about short-cuts to understanding than anything else.
If Troncy’s selection of participants proved that the rough terrain off the beaten track is lush territory, there was nevertheless coherence in his selection and hanging of their works. At the entrance, Raguénès’s pointillist portrait, Anne de Bretagne (2011), hung above the Bouroullecs’ small smooth Oiseau (Bird, 2011), carved out of maple wood, while the same artists’ ‘Clouds’ (2011), archways of deep blue and ecru built out of foldable textile tiles, parenthetically embraced the four galleries. Each room contained works by each of the artists, almost all of which were blissfully replete with colour, which here appeared to be a statement in itself. This tonal thread tied the works together even if stylistically they had little in common. Brunet and Espinasseau’s inkjet print collages of interior and exterior scenes are populated with figures, including Gerhard Richter’s Betty (1988), who looks over an urban/suburban landscape in their Ma Maison, ta maison (My House, Your House, 2010). Frotin’s series of botanical portraits of flowers found in the Mediterranean region of Hyères (‘Flora Olbiensis’, 2007) comprised single floral-tufted stems jutting erect on bright complementary backgrounds. Raguénès’s milky images materialized at a distance from liquid drops of soft-hued paint on white backgrounds, before dissolving into unctuous texture upon approach. Missika’s Technicolor photographs of waves (‘Standing Waves 05’, 2011), in their emphasis on force, contrasted with his photographic series of dying palm trees (‘A Dying Generation’, 2011). If there was a tinge of eye-catchy slickness to all of these works, in that they perhaps appealed more to the senses than to the intellect, one was hard pressed to call them superficial because they all seemed to be tackling specific pictorial problems: figure/ground relationships, seriality and the representation of space.
Where prize exhibitions of this sort are concerned, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the game and choose a favourite. Mine was Grossmann, whose faux-naive black and white, colour pencil and airbrush drawings contain a fantastical riot of figures, vegetation and animals that creep and crawl to the edges of the picture plane. The graphite Neukölln I (2011) is the most Bosch-esque of the lot: the tip of a thumb projects from the earth near a naked ‘primitive’ man holding what looks like a vaginal shaped loaf of bread on a ground littered with garlic cloves and other organic detritus. Puffs of air, bulbously phallic anemones, sphincters, fruit, wonky buildings and trees drifted from one sheet of paper to the next in labyrinthine, occasionally nonsensical compositions. His work provided so much visual pleasure, I’ll be happiest if he wins.