PARIS — Jaded neo-pop (one is tempted to say “poop” here) is on view in the Galeries Lafayette’s très kitsch exhibition TP–RAMA, the latest from art-commerce duo of Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari, aka TOILETPAPER. These Italian multitaskers are known for their poppy, surrealist, and hyperreal ads for Kenzo, which started by featuring model Sean O’Pry and actress Rinko Kikuchi pinned to a dissection table alongside bright beetles and butterflies. The TOILETPAPER agency has become know for combining the vernacular of commercial photography with twisted narrative tableaux of neo-surrealistic shock imagery. Kenzo and TOILETPAPER have continued to collaborate on ad campaigns and a collection of T-shirts, sweatshirts, and iPhone cases. TOILETPAPER has also conducted cheeky collaborations with MGSM and Seletti, making furniture and clothing, but they remain best know for their biannual magazine, TOILETPAPER, which contains no text.
Art prankster Cattelan, just back after a bogus, self-imposed retirement and sporting red boxing shorts, sneakers, and glasses in the French flag colors at the vernissage, is the sophomoric alpha dog here, and the art direction of TP–RAMA is consistent with his oeuvre. He apparently continues to operate under the misguided perception that he and his one-liners — like placing a sculpture of a hand with a raised middle finger in front of Milan’s stock exchange — matter.
TP–RAMA wads everything I hate about bad contemporary art into one convenient, tropical-themed mise en scène. It is the opposite of art for art’s sake. The exhibition features retro-looking everyday objects that were created in collaboration with Italian design firms Gufram and Seletti. The installation is set up to resemble an unorthodox and ultra-colorful bachelor pad from the go-go 1960s or perhaps the already-retro ‘80s East Village. For example, there is a carpet decorated with the image of a frog and another one with the image of a pair of buttocks with a playing card suspended in the crack. Surprise! Most of this lowbrow chuck can be purchased at the Galeries Lafayette store and some of the “art” products are available online.
TP–RAMA’s flat lack of textural diversity never obscures a slick pop plane of consistency. The images assault the eye with a feverishly colored and persistent visual language that makes canny use of juxtaposition. Throughout the store, one comes across head-in-the-hole photo stations where visitors can have their photos taken in cheesy scenes. Bien sûr, this is all intended as riotous summer fun (though the best fun is in mocking it), but there is some icky dumbing down of art here based in carefree privileged action that we need to unpack. Everything down to the window dressing is lamentable.
I had come to the opening to hear Cassius — the long-absent French dance-synthpop-house music of duo Philippe Cerboneschi and Hubert Blanc-Francard — spin “Action,” a cool dance single featuring Cat Power and Beastie Boy Mike D, from their new LP Ibifornia (named for a fictitious tropical island). Its music video (directed by TOILETPAPER) traffics in the same imagery as the TP–RAMA installations and features the same tall, slim, young women in gold lamé suits and impeccably bobbed wigs that guided me through Galeries Lafayette to the exhibition. These sleek maidens reminded me of the dehumanized workers in Paul McCarthy’s Chocolate Factory exhibition at Monnaie de Paris (where Cattelan will have an exhibition, Cattelan without Cattelan, in the fall).
The TP–RAMA installation has a fratboy, male chauvinist vibe about it that strives to entertain with Jim Jefferies-type shock comedy that says: “Fuck it, let’s see how crazy shit can get.” An underwhelming, inflatable Eiffel Tower — made extra phallic with suggestively positioned egg-shaped appendages — has been positioned under Galeries Lafayette’s breathtakingly beautiful and historic École de Nancy Art Nouveau stained glass cupola. Though less provocative, it stirs memories of McCarthy’s butt plug inflatable on the Place Vendôme two years ago. Meanwhile, Cattelan and Ferrari’s 11 store window installations are rather tame (one features the Eiffel Tower on a campy desert island), often falling back on absurd accumulations of objects typical of the early ’60s work of Arman, when he arranged collections of common objects.
There’s nothing here concerning flat, saturated color and crazed composition that Sarah Charlesworth and Sandy Skoglund didn’t already do in the mid ‘80s, and TOILETPAPER’s supposedly outrageous compositional pop shock was more exuberantly communicated by Tom Wesselmann and James Rosenquist in the ‘60s. Like Cattelan and Ferrari today, Rosenquist in the ‘60s incorporated bland, everyday images into his bizarre, juxtapositional compositions, placing seemingly unrelated elements together to form wackily cohesive wholes that transmit how overloading the senses has become an everyday occurrence in an urban and highly industrialized society. Wesselmann also used advertising and commodity images combined with magazine and newspaper clippings, eventually introducing everyday household objects into his assemblage arsenal.
Even when compared to the low bar of another recent shopping center art-commerce intervention — Ai Weiwei’s Er Xi, Air de jeux at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche — TP–RAMA is basically one prolonged derivative punchline. It is one of the weakest creative achievements I’ve seen this year.
TOILETPAPER’s exhibition TP–RAMA continues at the Galerie des Galeries at Galeries Lafayette (40 Boulevard Haussmann, 2nd Floor, 9th Arrondissement, Paris) through September 10. The accompanying window displays are on view through July 27, and the installation in the Galeries Lafayette dome continues through August 27.