PARIS — Annette Messager’s show À mon seul désir has a relaxed, unfussed immediacy that screams veracity. The white walls of the space are copiously hung, salon style, with a mélange of disquieting drawings and small, black, figurative sculptures. These are all factors I associate with the politically minded shows Colab and Group Material put on during the Reagan years — a period, like the one we’re entering, when another actor was President of the United States.
In terms of general topic and raw drawing style, the show also brought back strong and fond memories of the great American feminist artist Nancy Spero’s gouache drawings, such as “Male Bomb I” (1966). Indeed, I wondered if Messager and Spero had met, as Spero studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts and lived in Paris from 1959 to 1964, while Messager attended the École des Arts Décoratifs between 1962 and 1966.
The current show came about, in part, because Marian Goodman opened a new space down the street from her Parisian gallery that will serve hereafter as a bookstore. To launch the space, she gave Messager carte blanche, and the artist really delivered the feminist mayhem she is known for, presenting a series of fresh and topical works that may just as well have come from the mind and hand of an artist half her (73) years. Befitting the space’s future function as the gallery’s bookstore, À mon seul désir is accompanied by a bilingual catalogue, complete with poetry by Messager.
Since her debut in the Paris art scene in the early 1970s, Messager has created an eccentric menagerie of mythologies suggestive of the complexity of the female body, therein exploring concepts of the feminine. Here, she takes as subject matter the highly controversial, typically bare-breasted activist group Femen , two of whom (Tiffany Robson and Neda Topaloski) staged a protest at Donald Trump’s Midtown Manhattan PS 59 voting station on November 8. “TRUMP GRAB YOUR BALLS” was painted on one of the Femen protesters’ bare chest and stomach in black block letters (the group’s signature style); the other woman had “HATE OUT OF MY POLLS” written on her chest; they shouted these lines out at the top of their lungs before being subdued and removed by Secret Service and police officers. Last year, I reported on a similar action in Paris, when Femen protesters gave, in high theatrical fashion, a very public Nazi salute to National Front leader Marine Le Pen, condemning her neo-fascist politics.
Regardless of where you stand on the political efficacy of Femen, À mon seul désir is smashing. It betters (for me) her room of little picket sign-like pieces leaning against the wall, “Les Piques” (“Pics,” 1992) in the exhibition Soulèvements, which is still up at the Jeu de Paume, and far and away surpasses her rather weak skull of black cloth gloves with pencil tips entitled “Gants-tête” (“Gloves-Head,” 1999), recently on view in the Carambolages show at the Grand Palais.
Here, Messager takes as subject free-flowing breasts, uteruses, and menstruation, pushing her ongoing artistic probe of the female body from outside and within. Just consider the hanging wall sculpture “No God in my Vagina” (all works 2016 unless indicated otherwise), where that phrase is written inside a black ballet slipper that has become a boat for a miniature bust of Christ, all perched atop a tiny pair of Barbie doll legs. This is hung with drawings, pinned directly on the walls, of dynamic red uteruses and triumphantly heaving breasts, such as the wide and capricious “The Sea of Breasts,” the exuberant “Hallelujah,” and the delicately rendered, sensually exciting “Deux Mains-Tétons” (“Two Hand-Nipples”).
The exhibition’s titular phrase, “My One Desire,” is incorporated directly into some of the drawings, serving as a manifesto of women’s pride and the freedom to choose and act according to personal pleasure, desire, and will. Perhaps the strongest works here are the loosely-drawn, menstruation-based pieces. “Mon Ketchup” (“My Ketchup”) focuses on the red menstrual flow of a seated woman with her panties around her ankles; “Mes desirs, ma force” (“My Desires, My Strength”) and the strong, juicy, splatter form at the center of “Mon Plaisir” (“My Pleasure”) visually restate the menstrual theme of Francis Picabia’s blasphemous “La Sainte Vierge” (“The Blessed Virgin,” 1920). The show’s most politically tough works are “Fuck Your Morals,” the three-panel stack of drawings called “344 Salopes” (“344 Bitches”), and the vertical triptych behind black fishnet called “In Gay We Trust,” which includes three Femen protesters wearing the habits of Roman Catholic nuns.
But there are more than feminist and anti-Catholic statements here: there is magic afoot, too. A lone breast drawing, the bottom panel in the vertical triptych “Mon corps, mes seins” (“My Body, My Breasts”) is absolutely marvelous as the nipple performs a visual act of transubstantiation, switching to an eye while the dark shading around the breast transform into a pair of open lips. Other images have a playful, Paul Klee-like, semi-abstract whimsy about them, like “Ma volenté, mon désire” (“My Will, My Desire”) and “Ma Force” (“My Force”). They delightfully compliment the hanging sculptures “Les Amoureux” (“Lovers”) and “Crochet avec Mains-Rodin” (“Hook with Rodin Hands”) — a black sculpture of two gorillas hanging on a butcher’s hook above a miniature Rodin sculpture. But perhaps the funniest and most poignant pieces in the show are the skull-headed “Mon Utérus 1” (“My Uterus 1”) and “Mon utérus à mon désir” (“My Uterus to My Desire”), the latter of which depicts an anthropomorphized, left-handed uterus, flipping the bird. Those two works sum up the intensity of the show for me: female flesh enacting insolence while dancing on a clock.