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PARIS — Felice Varini’s environmental paintings can only be experienced in architectural space. A geometric abstract painter, his site-specific works are in the vein of Daniel Buren and Niele Toroni’s conceptual installations. Varini’s technique involves a light projection of a geometric drawing cast into a three-dimensional space that he then retraces and paints in.
Four of these wall paintings are now temporarily on view at the Parc de la Villette, which is a very large space freely open to the public. However, individual viewpoints selected by each visitor makes the découpage work feel personal, if you have the time and eye for it. Some folks I observed raced for those moments when the geometric forms cohere. Other visitors lingered in the broken-up side views (as I did). Three indoor works in La Villette en Suites Paintings must be entered into and moved around in for them to click. That is the only way of “getting” these meticulous in situ paintings. Take that, homogeneous three-dimensional material reality!
But the phenomenological experience of “getting there” in order to “get it” is the most attractive part: once I discovered the vantage point at which a coherent geometric form congeals, I found myself thinking so what, as if I’d encountered something of a gimmick. What is interesting is how, in my view, Varini uses architectural surfaces to create spatial paintings, not geometric forms per se. What is enjoyable is that moment of approaching a trompe l’oeil when space is reduced into a virtual two-dimensional image.
When moving through “Rouge jaune noir bleu entre les disques et les trapezes” (Black Blue Red Yellow Between Discs and Trapezoids) (2015), for example, the painting offers up kinetic, even ramshackle, super-cubist focal points. The color forms promised in the title only become coherent after navigating a considerable distance. This temporal experience of the work stresses the relational truth of perception.
With Varini, every visual path is also a path of meaning. “Sept carrés pour sept colonnes” (Seven Squares for Seven Columns) (2015) is more of an investigation of vision than an investigation of painting, thus reframing the fundamental principles of painting. The center of the image is composed of a geometric void, much like our cognitive experiences. Even from the “correct” vantage point, the blue image maintains its multi-centered, fragmentary character.
The figure-ground relationships in “Seven Squares for Seven Columns” are unstable and the gaze is anything but immobilized. With this work I experienced a reversal of three-dimensionality and two-dimensionality that felt like an LSD experience, where individual forms somewhat evaporate and dissolve into the environment, and there is an acute awareness of the substructure of reality.
The orange spiral of the largest painting, “Arcs de cercle sur diagonale” (Diagonal Arcs) (2015), interplays with the outdoor architecture of the Grande Halle on such a scale (it ends on the walls of the Cité de la Musique) that it does away with traditional framing devices. The pleasure of this work lies in the shifting viewpoints entertained on a long walk. The work’s initial le voilà moment is the way I first discovered Varini’s work with his “Vingt-trois disques évidés plus douze moitiés et quatre quarts” (Twenty-three Hollow Discs Plus Twelve Halves and Four Quarters) (2013) at the Dynamo Grand Palais show. I turned a corner and there it all was, hanging in front of me, already snapped into place. This is how Varini’s work is usually photographed. So with “Diagonal Arcs,” I started out with a cohesive form (albeit impressed with its scale) and as I walked through it I observed it breaking down. Which was a pleasurable experience. The airy shift between viewing the figurative plane and the physical space reminded me of certain analytical sculpture as influenced by Minimal Art, such as that by Fred Sandback.
But it was also hard not to perceive this way of working as another potential extravagant way of juxtaposing real estate and contemporary art — something that is more and more driven by commercial investment interests. This is a tendency that standardizes and flattens out both much public space and much art. I worry that Varini’s technique, while not guilty here, combines real estate and art so seamlessly that great caution must be taken with it.
“Diagonal Arcs” provoked me to look for the real in the virtual image, prompting my gaze to linger over the surfaces’ textural variations. I was no longer looking for a vantage point, but coming across fragments of a once tight, logo-like geometrical figure. This enhanced my understanding of depth of field and its vanishing — a vanishing that must be considered by artistic communities everywhere, who are endangered by real estate developers who increasingly use a branding method that relies heavily on architecture and art conjoining.
As such, Varini’s La Villette en Suites Paintings offers up a cautionary tale about both the use of painting and its spatial dispersal. Perhaps the time has come to designate other cultural objectives for it.
Felice Varini: La Villette en Suites Paintings continues at the Grande Halle & Pavillon Paul-Delouvrier, Parc de la Villette (211 Avenue Jean Jaurès, Paris) through September 13.