Paris has long had a reputation for a somewhat sleepy, staid art scene, and if you stick to the Marais district, where blue-chip galleries like Gagosian, Marian Goodman, and Chantal Crousel congregate, it would be hard to dispel that notion. However, venture beyond the Marais, as I did on one recent visit, and one can find quite a few younger, offbeat galleries. The city may not yet rival, say, New York or Los Angeles when it comes to bracingly new art, but its ecosystem is growing. Below, reviews of eleven shows currently, or recently, on view in Paris.
Darja Bajagić’s “The Offal Truth” at New Galerie (through December 19) is hardly off the beaten path, but it’s still a decent stroll outside the Marais, and one that’s well worth it. The American artist’s paintings use scanned, blown-up images of Eastern European porn and pit them against black, foreboding backgrounds. They’re the kind of works that feel calibrated to shock, especially the ones in this new show, for which Bajagić spatters her images of nude jailbait with what looks a lot like blood. The violence here is more than implied; Bajagić cares little for subtlety. Whether you like it or not, Bajagić’s visual language, which suggests Robert Rauschenberg by way of a womanizing murderer, is crystal-clear. We have an obsession with images of compromised women that borders on sadism, Bajagić seems to be saying, and that’s nothing short of terrifying because it feels true.
Also just outside the Marais, on the second floor of an apartment building is Galerie Joseph Tang, where Pepo Salazar’s show (through December 5) lies hidden from the general public’s view. It’s one of the wackiest exhibitions I’ve seen in a while: its title is “– zçrwaq ¡’ ¡ ¡’0,” there’s no press release, and the first thing you see when you walk in is wall text for a Kandinsky work at a German museum. Luau music is playing inside, and there’s a flat-screen TV that’s been painted over, with a winking smiley face carved out of the whiteness. Step under several poster-board structures punctured by metal tubing, and you’ll find a broken iPad with a mind of its own—it chirps occasionally, and an amplifier blasts its sound. What does it all mean? It may be about the weird sense of peace that comes when our screens break—how, once we drop our phones and have to deal without them for a day, everything feels so serene. The installation may be very oblique, but Salazar’s work, which was on view in the Spanish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, is unrelentingly weird and wildly involving. I can’t wait until it makes its way over to America.
Of course, there are some duds just outside the Marais, too, and one of them is Galerie Laurent Godin’s show of abstract paintings by Gérard Traquandi, titled “After Dark” (through December 5). The Marseille- and Paris-based painter likens his new, moody work to looking into the sun—or staring at a screen—for too long. The idea sounds promising; the execution is boring. Traquandi may be an adept stylist, pulling fog-grey and deep-purple paint across his canvases to reveal thin layers underneath with panache, but the works feel overly formal. A suite of black-and-white photographs of foliage does little to bring the show into focus. You start to wonder where the content of Traquandi’s poetic metaphor went.
Nearby, at the Centre Pompidou, are two excellent shows, both of which are located in the museum’s less-crowded south galleries. The first is Julien Prévieux’s Marcel Duchamp Prize show (through February 1), a tight, smart look at the meaning of gestures today. The young, Paris-based artist’s work is fabulously offbeat—there’s a Boccioni-esque sculpture that mimics the path of a pickpocket’s hand moving into a tourist’s pocket, and there are also abstract ink drawings that visualize the movement of viewers’ eyes as they look at art by Andreas Gursky, Francis Picabia, and others. Decidedly analog and proud of it, Prévieux’s work is never as cold as it first seems. Another set of drawings, titled “Today Is Great” and based on doodles Prévieux saw on a whiteboard at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, revel in the beauty of interpersonal communication, at a moment when digital technology is making it rarer. The drawings, like many others by Prévieux, may have digital roots, but you always get the sense that a human touched them.
Next door is a show that is the exact opposite of Prévieux’s unaesthetic, low-key objects—a grandiose, spectacular Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster retrospective titled “1887–2058” (through February 1). As is typical for Gonzalez-Foerster, the show feels like it needs to assert that it’s smarter than you. Set up like a labyrinth of rooms and displays, the show obsessively quotes from obscure philosophers and writers, but those allusions are mostly a bunch of hooey. The real magic is the way that Gonzalez-Foerster re-creates moments from her life—a show at 303 Gallery here, her apartment’s bedroom there—and allows viewers to walk right into them. It’s like being given a key to Gonzalez-Foerster’s memory palace. She goes overboard occasionally, notably when viewers are supposedly launched into the future through an underwhelming light show, and she could have better integrated her excellent film works (which are unfortunately relegated to a screening room), but the show as a whole is strange, beautiful, and personal.
Over at the Palais de Tokyo, Mélanie Matranga attempts something similar to Gonzalez-Foerster’s retrospective by creating a series of rooms meant for social interactions. Relegated to the museum’s cavernous basement gallery, Matranga does her best to fill a lot of space with repetitive art. (Unfortunately for the young Parisian, she hurts her own show by titling it the Mandarin word for “again and again.”) Parts of it are delightfully weird—there’s plastered-over, melty-looking furniture that suggests a nuclear wasteland, and there’s even a smoking room, which you’d certainly never find in America. But there are also a bunch of rice-paper lamps that seem like so-so riffs on Philippe Parreno’s marquee sculptures. The show is supposedly about intimacy, which is ironic—it left me cold.
Meanwhile, over in Belleville, at Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, American conceptual artist William Anastasi makes virtue out of emotional remove with an installation called Continuum (through January 9), in which a series of black-and-white photographs picture the view directly behind where you’re standing. It’s not the first time Continuum has been staged—it was also shown in 1968, at New York’s Dwan Gallery—but this iteration is site-specific because the photographs show Jocelyn Wolff’s space. What starts out as an amusing game becomes a smart work about vision and its limits. In what feels like a deliberate subversion of Frank Stella’s famous mantra, what you see in Continuum is what you can’t see.
At Marcelle Alix, Mathieu K. Abonnenc also leaned intellectual with “Chimen Chyen” (closed November 7), a show about the fallout of colonialism. Equal parts anthropology and art, many of the Abonnenc’s objects were found through research and treated with a (purposefully) clinical remove. Two beetles native to French Guyana are shown in a display case here. Placed under glass and removed from their homeland, they’re as good as dead. The metaphor may be bleak, but it’s also nuanced, especially in Secteur IX B, a 42-minute film in which a stand-in for Abonnenc can’t help but see museum objects everywhere she goes in a South African city. It only feels right that Abonnenc’s hand is nowhere to be seen in this show.
Nearby, at Galerie Samy Abraham, German painter Shila Khatami provides some much-needed visual stimulation with abstract works about speed in a show fittingly titled “faster” (through December 19). Every painting on view looks like tire tracks or road signage, a metaphor no doubt helped by Khatami’s choice to eschew canvas for industrial surfaces in most cases. The best painting here, Zwischen den Zeilen, features two diagonal fire-truck-red stripes, like road markers, crossed by a mess of lemon-yellow strokes. It’s as though Khatami has swerved onto the wrong side of the road with her brush—and then enjoyed it so much that she did it again and again.
There were few shows in Paris more visually stunning than Henrique Oliveira’s “Fissure” at Galerie Vallois (closed November 28), in Saint-Germain. With its tumor-like forms and splits, cracks, and bubbles, the Brazilian sculptor’s work have an old-school abject quality, like what Robert Gober did with his dysfunctional sinks and waxy body parts in the late ’80s. Muted, gross horror is Oliveira’s strength—a couch with some kind of cancerous growth makes you recoil, but you also can’t look away from it. Oliveira can also do poetry, notably in one work that features frame without a picture and a vertical crack in the wall running behind it. Like Doris Salcedo’s sculptures, Oliveira’s work makes it hard to forget what’s been lost.
After so much serious art, there was finally a show that was campy, intellectual, and fun all at once—Mohamed Bourouissa’s “Hustling,” at kamel mennour (through December 5). The Algerian-born artist takes as his subject for this show the Riders of Fletcher Street, a marginalized group of Philadephians who publicly ride horses to preserve history and stop crime. Bourouissa is understandably fascinated by the way they perform their roles as society’s gatekeepers and doesn’t hesitate to capitalize on how over-the-top it all is. He prints the Riders’ photographs on car hoods and exhibits their baroque saddles, silver streamers and all. Documentary-style videos of the Riders’ lower-class living situations would add a sad irony to it all, were it not for the fact that the Riders have so much fun acting out their strange daily rituals. As Bouroissa knows, being outside the mainstream isn’t so bad if you use alienation to your advantage.