Denis Savary’s recent show was a complex puzzle that offered no tidy solution. Savary (Swiss, b. 1981) shoots single-channel observational videos, installs sculptures that verge on the grotesque and executes traditional drawings of nudes, an odd repertoire even for a contemporary artist. The Xippas exhibition opened with Auguste (all works 2013), seven sculptural variations on a hybrid head that combines the features of bird, tapir and dragon. Among the materials are papier-mâché, glass and latex. Placed on the floor, each head rested on a collar of draped white silk, conveying the impression that the creature was emerging from below—a faux-gothic aesthetic erupting into a clean, white space. Although consisting of a dark mottled gray and midnight blue, something like the patina that gargoyles might develop over years, the piercing hues do not feel at all naturalistic.
In the adjoining room, Carnaval, a looping single-channel video, was projected twice onto adjacent walls. A group of actors dressed in Napoleonic battle garb is suspended midair by harnesses attached to a pole, like so many giant marionettes. Shot into the light so as to render the figures as dark outlines, the video presents them beating marching drums while twirling from their harnesses. In fact, it records a performance by the street-theater ensemble Transe Express that was staged at the International Red Cross Museum in Geneva in May 2013. Details of location, however, are absent from the frame. A second video, Étourneaux (Starlings), was filmed at Jean Tinguely’s Cyclop (1969), a huge structure in a forest southeast of Paris; there the artists Jean Boucault and Johnny Rasse perform a version of Kurt Schwitters’s sound poem Ursonate (Primeval Sonata), 1923-32, its repeating percussive calls echoed by local birdsong.
Little happens in a third video, Vaporetto, in which one of Venice’s quays draws a perfect horizontal near the bottom of the screen. A few pedestrians walk along the quay; the windows of the waterbus stop reflect sunlight as it bobs on the water. In the other two videos, Savary observes the creative work of others and absorbs it into his own practice, a fact that throws the seemingly straightforward report of Vaporetto into doubt. Given the rest of his practice, we are tempted to see Savary rewriting art history with post-Duchampian and Warholian hindsight. Is landscape documentation or can it too be regarded as a form of appropriation, the artist not just reproducing a site, but bagging it for his own oeuvre?
Elsewhere, a heavy brown mask resembling a carnival half-mask was titled Loup (Wolf), but Savary gave it a slightly avian beak. One group of drawings in graphite on paper, each titled Roberte, copy drawings by Pierre Klossowski in spare outlines, while the marks in other abstract pencil drawings recall gestures by Cy Twombly.
Perhaps intentionally, the presentation felt disjointed. One was left asking, What is the artist’s work when he takes so much from others and has no definable style of his own? Do I even need to identify a style? The inability to tie the artist’s oeuvre down leaves the viewer at the mercy of that work, unsure of how it makes its effect. But Savary’s show certainly had an effect—one both unsettling and intriguing.