PARIS — At the Monnaie de Paris, Maurizio Cattelan’s often irreverent, nerdy sculptures are stylishly and emotionally charged through their intersection with reverent neoclassical surroundings. As such, I experienced something of an aesthetic reversal in regards to his hyper-real oeuvre. Installed within the scenography of the Monnaie de Paris’s fairytale, 18th-century salons, and cornily titled Not Afraid of Love, this self-selected presentation is Cattelan’s largest since 2011’s retrospective and supposed swan song All at the Guggenheim in New York. There, 130 his works were suspended on cables as an indiscriminate bunch of grapes.
This Paris installation may be the most gleeful show of his grimy work possible, an effect achieved by mixing connotations of minimalist absence (with the ultra-spare array of works) within sumptuous neoclassical extravagance. It far and away surpasses the Guggenheim show as an experience of his art; Cattelan may be best encountered in judiciously limited doses, as when I first saw his carved marble sculpture “All” (2007) at the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art in Athens in 2008 — possibly the best thing he has ever had done and, for me, a small epiphany concerning his figurines.
Normally, Cattelan’s pieces sow anguish in the collective imagination by subverting social representations the way Surrealism did. But this exhibition, installed within spaces characterized chiefly by iconography derived from classical antiquity, feels different. It maintains, with only one exception, an emotional pressure and visual intensity throughout. It is less jokey than his typical tenor, and there is far more self-congratulating, upper-class complacency than usual. Indeed, it is similar to a cock rock greatest hits compilation — luxuriously repackaged. But this exhibition works as a collection of titillating sculptures already steeped in great familiarity but made unfamiliar by Neoclassical French architect Jacques-Denis Antoine’s frame of imperial grandeur. To encounter these old, absurd, figurative pieces again within the ostentatious minting facility could have resulted in a sense of embarrassing, parasitic affiliation — as it did in Paul McCarthy’s Chocolate Factory last year. But this show feels personal, well placed, and almost modest. Less goes further than ever here.
Cattelan’s opening work, “Sans titre” (“Untitled,” 2007), through its vile vagueness, offers hard-fought conditions of emergence, and is something of a nasty fantasy. Made of silicone resin and real hair, like a figure at Madame Tussauds, it depicts a human from the back with hands raised in crucified position, packed for transport within a wooden crate. It evokes an evil child’s image of how to smuggle a human under the eyes of border patrols. Thus, a kind of capricious religious-intellectual sensation is established with tonal considerations of social-political conflict. It is a bit sick and slick, but it sets a mood of serious intensity and makes the glorious architectural place a bit mysterious.
As you climb the stairs, the very flamboyant hanging horse provocation “Novecento” (1997) dangles overhead, framed by the golden yellow patterning of the ceiling. This entry leads to the Salon d’Honneur room of Guillaume Dupré (a 17th-century sculptor and medalist), where the famous crashed Pope piece “La Nona Ora” (1999), a faintly intriguing perversion, is positioned. It is strikingly set off against the burgundy carpet and dramatically illuminated by a wide band sunlight cut into the shape of a cross by the window panes — a happy coincidence due to the position of the sun that day. Above it, almost lost in the glamorous ceiling and chandeliers, sits the drummer boy automaton “Sans titre” (2003), occasionally rapping out a few slow snare drum rolls. Unlike most of what is on view here, the drummer piece is something of a bloom in the general murky mood of post-recession, immigrant-obsessed, far right-leaning, populist Europe. Hidden nearby, at least to the extent that I only discovered it on my way out in a small adjacent room, is the impactful “Sans titre (Gérard)” (1999). I was particularly touched by a bit of its hairy exposed ankle. Though it has all the bogus hallmarks of rich rock stars singing about the downtrodden (“Salt of the Earth” by the Rolling Stones comes to mind), “Sans titre (Gérard)” communicates well a sense of pity within the capitalist overindulgence of the architectural space. It also cannot help but evoke US President-elect Donald Trump’s well know and glittering bad taste in interior decoration.
Breezing by the weakest pieces in the show — the slim and scarcely perceptible “Others” (2011), “Mini-Me” (1999), and the vapid “Sans tire” (2007) work of two stuffed Labrador Retriever dogs and a stuffed chick — the astonishing, self-referential “Sans titre” (2001) floor piece dominates a red room of its own. There is a canny nobility given this work by the surroundings that bypasses Cattelan’s usual overtones of heroic self-mockery and simultaneous self-aggrandizement, which can be hectoring to say the least. Something here of high class mitigates the work’s prior jokey flimsiness. There is an enlivening figure-ground play at work in the installation that supports interpretation of the piece as self-effacement and self-deprecating. “Charlie don’t surf” (1997), a similarly prank-ish but inferior sculpture, is in an adjacent white room and also benefits from being encased within a soft, royal envelope.
The exhibition’s next installation is admirable, offering baggy insights into the botched unification of the continent. The room of the headless horse “Sans titre” (2007) leads to the sad “All” room, where suggestively veiled body parts of dead humans are subtly suggested in the marble carvings. The juxtaposition of “All” with the taxidermy horse piece is particularly strong within the rooms’ mirrored, high-style, maximalist trappings of upper-class luxury — something that inverts the familiar white minimalist style that now signifies the taste of the hip global elite.
Though the miniature hyperrealism of the sleeping “We” (2010) and the hanging “Sans titre” (2000) comes with an inherent pressure to conform to its easy precepts, the works do, in this context, evoke less-empowered people like refugees, exploited laborers, and immigrants. Also worthy of Madame Tussauds, “We” presents us with two small, only slightly different, versions of the artist laying side by side in a child-sized bed, both in impeccably tailored miniature suits and nicely polished shoes. “Sans titre” (2000) has the same scaled self-portrait figure, eyes open, placed limp on a hook like a coat. Reflected in the mirror nearby, we encounter two versions of a small person hung up to dry and in waiting. Placed together, these works of self-important play-acting are given a rhythmic purpose.
The exhibition closes with the kneeling Hitler piece “Him” (2001), a work that I found, in this regal context, shot through with lyricism and associative brilliance — exactly what was so appallingly missing in Cattelan’s très kitsch comeback exhibition at Galeries Lafayette. Here, the whole is bigger than the sum of its witty parts.