Simplicity and complexity. Construction and deconstruction. Permanence and impermanence. Thought and feeling. These contrasting states intersect in fascinating, often unexpected ways in French artist Jimmy Robert’s first major solo museum exhibition in the United States. Organized by curator Naomi Beckwith, it contains 44 large and small works from the past eight years, spanning drawing, photography, sculpture, video, installation and performance. Indeed, Robert is in many ways a representative 21st-century artist, using nearly every medium at his disposal, relying on aspects of premodern, modern and postmodern art at will and referencing a broad range of artists (directly and indirectly), from John Singer Sargent to Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman.
Central to Robert’s work is appropriation and intervention-old artistic devices, yes, but ones that he employs in fresh, compelling ways. Displaying a natural feel for materials, especially paper, he uses such techniques as tearing, folding and pleating to reclaim and recontextualize found images and enhance photos of his own. Untitled (Folding 2), 2012, a roughly four-minute video showing the artist’s agile hands at work, provides a sense of his process. Examples of the resulting artworks include Untitled (Pleated Girl), 2008, a digital image of two pleated sheets of paper nearly covering a found photograph of a standing woman.
Robert adroitly counterbalances addition and subtraction in an untitled work from 2007, one of the show’s most striking pieces. On the left side is a digital print of a wad of masking tape stuck to a hazy, golden-toned photograph of a face which has been torn in half. Just to the right of the print is a rough-hewn indentation in the wall about the same size as the chunk of masking tape. Like many other of the artist’s works, it is both installation and object, permanent and temporary.
Robert, who was born in 1975 in the French Caribbean territory of Guadeloupe, subtly engages a number of socio-political issues, especially the body and related questions of racial and gender identity. He touches on several of these themes in his tellingly titled 16mm film L’Éducation Sentimentale (2005). In the 5½-minute piece, he re-creates 1970s Conceptualist works by the Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader, as if teaching them to himself in a classroom setting. At another point, standing in front of album covers featuring Iggy Pop and David Bowie, Robert mimics their poses, his head cropped off by the frame. As Beckwith points out in her catalogue essay, this recalls Lorna Simpson’s photo work “Gestures/Reenactments” (1985). Those anti-portraits of a black man with his back to the camera or body clipped by the photos’ edges explore perception and stereotyping.
Robert looks at perception in another way in his innovative takes on trompe l’oeil. For example, a 2005 untitled work-one of the show’s most notable, and deceptive, three-dimensional pieces-consists of a cardboard box and what looks like six sheets of typing paper that have been blown around by the wind. The “paper,” however, is in fact made from molded sheets of white aluminum.
The exhibition fills four galleries, climaxing in the third, which contains 21 pieces. As installed, this large room has a certain informal, eclectic quality that suggests a studio, an idea reinforced by an angled fiberboard and plywood partition at the entrance that one could imagine being the door to a warehouse work space. But despite the seemingly unstructured feel of the installation we sense an exacting structure-it’s an intriguing dichotomy that runs through all of Robert’s work and gives it much of its power.
Photo: Jimmy Robert: Untitled (Folding 2), 2012, video, 3¾ minutes; at the Museum of Contemporary Art