PARIS — Galerie Georges-Philippe et Nathalie Vallois has launched a chic additional space (designed by the influential architecture firm of Jakob + Macfarlane) near its 6th arrondissement base wth a historical show of Jacques Villeglé and Raymond Hains’s abstract, 35mm, animated film “Pénélope” (1953). Villeglé’s concurrent exhibition at the gallery’s main space, Opération Quimpéroise, gets its name from his hometown of Quimper, where he was born in 1926. He went on to become an art student in the sculpture department of the School of Fine Arts in Rennes, where he first became acquainted with Hains. Having been impressed with Villeglé’s 2008 Centre Pompidou retrospective, La Comédie Urbaine, I was determined not to miss these complementary shows.
Opération Quimpéroise is a tightly unified show of Villeglé’s affiches lacérées (torn posters) pieces from 2006. (The gallery is also showing a selection of related historical works in its two back rooms, though they are not technically part of the show.) This already 10-year-old project looks fresh, and conceptually fits well within the gallery’s specialization on research of historic works by Nouveaux Réalistes (New Realists) artists and their impact on contemporary art. The historic context for the “Pénélope” (1953) project begins with Villeglé’s collaboration with Hains on torn poster works, a practice that continued from 1949 to 1952. The pair was close to Lettrist poet François Dufrêne and later Mimmo Rotella, both of whom also used found décollages in the mid-1950s. As early as 1954, Dufrêne introduced Villeglé and Hains to Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, and Pierre Restany, with whom they founded the Nouveaux Réalistes in October 1960. Restany wrote the original manifesto for the group, titled The Constitutive Declaration of New Realism, proclaiming that Nouveau Réalisme meant art taking on new ways of perceiving the real.
But prior to this, in 1958, Villeglé had already been promoting new perceptual approaches to reality with a theoretical text about his readymade ripped posters called Des Réalités Collectives (“Collective Realities”), published in the ultra-Lettrist review grâmmeS. Aspects of it foreshadowed and informed Restany’s Nouveaux Réalistes manifesto and Villeglé went on to elaborate on this concept in a 1959 paper that defined a central role of a collective unconscious for what he called the area of the “lacerated anonymous.” Villeglé’s lacerated posters — first shown in his 1959 exhibition Lacéré Anonyme — challenged the boundary between everyday street life and High Art, opening up the entire world to become raw material for the creation of art. Similar ideas were being entertained in New York at the time by Alan Kaprow in his ledendary essay Legacy of Jackson Pollock, published by Art News in 1958 — the year of Kaprow’s first informal Happening.
The savage, accumulated energy of Villeglé’s lacerated posters was much in sync with the look of the process-oriented side of Art Informel and Tachisme, and it predates the related assemblage movement much in vogue (see Arman’s accumulations of everyday rubbish) and the US junk sculpture movement of the late-1950s. Frank Popper, in his book Art: Action and Participation, showed, with particular reference to post-kinetic research, the convergence and specificity of Villeglé’s notion of the street environment as the expanded field of art activity with involving the public in creative participation.
The affiches lacérées are conceptually suggestive of the chance operations of John Cage and the social positions of the Situationist International, particularly in the way that Villeglé attributes importance to the anonymous hands that have torn the posters at random before he arrived to snatch them. Villeglé did not retouch the surfaces after peeling off his selections, as is, from street walls. His practice was simply to choose a segment of a poster wall, cut, tear, and frame it. In that, sense, his work is the mirror opposite of conventional street art, in which someone like Bansky leaves something new in the street.
In Villeglé’s work, anonymous hands are privileged over the hands of the artist. This idea can first be seen at work in the gallery with “Rue Jacob, December 5th, 1961” (1961), which, like a photograph, presents a frozen moment in time, subsuming street life into a pictorial vision that cannot be read quickly. Yet one doesn’t have to spend much time scrutinizing it to derive pleasures from it, as with Henri Matisse’s cut-outs, like “Souvenir d’Océanie” (“Memory of Oceania,” 1953), or a typical Synthetic Cubist work. Given the strong areas of blues and reds at the base of “Rue Jacob,” the soft, delicate colors secure a crackling compositional stability for the accumulated typographic fragments. I detect in “Rue Jacob” an early blending between the artist and public participation that took on greater and greater emphasis during the late ‘60s, when new forms of aesthetic immersion into chance opened up, foreshadowing the contemporary gestural abstraction of zombie formalism and the interactive trend in new media art.
The other older piece here that rewards close looking is “Rue Tourelles, August 16th, 1971” (1971). The upward-thrusting, Socialist, “power to the people” fist that dominates the composition ensures a strong presence. Here, the physical energy of ripping away poster parts and the political energy pushing for revolution fuse into one aesthetic statement. The piece’s visual energy repays hard looking and hard thinking. It is also typical of all of Villeglé’s affiches lacérées works, as it directs our reflective attention to the multifarious and cacophonous skin of the urban landscape. The fact that the tearing-and-revealing palimpsest seen here was created by the action of passersby, before Villeglé came along, is crucial to his interest in a public and anonymous aesthetics of the street.
The solo show Opération Quimpéroise is made up of 15 torn posters from Villeglé’s hometown solo show at Le Quartier in 2006, when the artist was 80 years old. These bright, invigorating works create something of a self-portrait of the artist. They were once on various placards and panels on the walls of the city, and over the course of a few weeks these posters promoting the forthcoming exhibition were ripped by the public. The artist had them recovered, cropped, mounted on canvas, and framed. My favorite of these recent pieces is “Opération quimpéroise – Mairie annexe de Penhars (Le Quartier)” (2006), as it manifests a flashy energy that verges on the abstract. Ripped fragments unfolded into recognition of the artist’s face and disappeared into noise at an increasingly intense rate the longer I looked at it. Villeglé’s seizure of a found fragment of reality is something of a twist on the readymade, as the material is not industrial and has been shaped by unknown hands. As opposed to Duchamp’s readymades, Villeglé asserts that posters, when “torn by strangers, become a non-manufactured product, an anti-object.” In fact, Villeglé considers himself more an accumulator of a collective social product of artistic destruction than the work’s sole author.
Even more complex and historically significant is Villeglé and Hains’s “Pénélope,” a film they worked on from 1950 to 1954 but never finished. On view from Villeglé’s archives are various studies, gouache sketches, preparatory drawings, collages, prints, cartoons, and more. “Pénélope” was the culmination of a series of procedures that are too numerous to describe here, but one landmark design was called a “hypnagogoscope” filming machine that was equipped with fluted glass lenses. There are two samples from the original 35mm film here: one 2:19 minutes long and the other, the better, only 17 seconds long. Seeing these short hypnagogoscope films allowed me to place the work within cinematic modern art history near Brion Gysin’s Op Art “Dreamachine,” alongside the early Dada animation films of Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling, Marcel Duchamp’s “Anemic Cinema” (1926), and, later, Norman McLaren’s “Dots” (1940). I found this hypnagogoscope device technically fascinating, an optical apparatus equipped with overlapping ribbed lenses that disturb the image of whatever is filmed. The hypnagogoscope relates to hypnagogia, the transitional state between wake and sleep, and to the hypnagogic state of consciousness.
The bulk of the exhibition consists of beautiful, small, glycerophtalic paintings, a number of preparatory drawings, collages, engravings, and cartoons. The series of blue glycerophtalic paintings on Bristol paper “Pénélope” (Ravenne sequence) (1953) is especially ravishing, evoking an atmosphere of undulating Mediterranean water and Matisse’s cut-outs, specifically his “The Swimming Pool” from the previous year. This portion of the two-gallery show emphasizes the importance of the hypnagogoscope approach for Villeglé’s work, which consists of constantly disrupting signifiers, an artistic act that I consider part and parcel with a visual art of noise.
Clearly, Villeglé’s focus on street disruption helped pave the way for other important noise artists of the ’60s working in the expanded field. A good example is GRAV (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel), a collective of 11 artists active in Paris from 1960 to 1968 that picked up the Villeglé trend where the solitary artist at work in the studio could be superseded by post-studio street work. GRAV employed various types of artificial light and mechanical movement to investigate various kinetic and optical effects. Subsequently, members of the group realized that their efforts to engage the public’s vision had shifted their concerns toward spectator participation. On April 19, 1966 GRAV staged “Une Journée Dans la Rue” (“A Day in the Street”), inviting pedestrians to participate in various kinetic activities, including having them wear elaborate, distorting glasses to experience a warped world — not unlike Villeglé and Hains’s hypnagogoscope.
Villeglé and Hains’s unfinished optical noise project, I think, exemplifies something completely baked that Robert Smithson said in A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects: “A great artist can make art by simply casting a glance.”
Jacques Villeglé: Penelope in Quimper or the Return of Ulysses continues at Galerie Georges-Philippe et Nathalie Vallois (33/36 Rue de Seine, 6th arrondissement, Paris) through May 13.