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PARIS — The latest exhibit at Kamel Mennour gallery’s rue du Pont de Lodi location presents an unlikely artistic pairing: a recently discovered painting by the 16th-century Italian master Caravaggio hangs opposite French conceptual artist Daniel Buren’s site-specific work “Pyramidal, haut-relief – A5, travail situé” (2017). While the two works, at first glance, seem to be stylistic opposites — one is a figurative proto-Baroque painting based on a biblical tale; the other is an abstract wall sculpture composed of reflective aluminum prisms and stripes of vinyl tape — both make masterful use of chiaroscuro, drawing spiritual metaphors through sharp contrasts of light and dark.
Carravagio’s long-lost “Judith and Holofernes” (circa 1607) was discovered in 2014 in the attic of a large house in Toulouse while the homeowners were investigating a leaky roof. Ever since, art history experts have pored over this rather large allegorical painting, which depicts a decapitation scene from the biblical story of Judith of Bethulia, a young Jewish widow who ends the Assyrian siege on her city by seducing and beheading the sloshed general Holofernes. Scholars are still divided on the painting’s provenance — The Louvre declined to purchase it — but in the Kamel Mennour exhibition’s catalogue, Old Masters scholar Éric Turquin makes a pretty convincing case that Caravaggio himself painted it sometime around 1607. (Indeed, it was a distinct pleasure to observe Turquin provide an impassioned and detailed explanation of the painting’s history and authentication to members of the press. As a side note, he mentioned that the paintings of the “timeless artist” known as Caravaggio were actually totally out of fashion and worth almost nothing from 1650 to the 1950s. Nobody cared about them, even though they had greatly influenced other artists, because they were difficult to sell.)
After entering the Kamel Mennour gallery and descending downstairs into a hypnotic, quiet, theatrically darkened but majestically lit — by Madjid Hakimi — gallery, the earth seems to still. As if to bless the bloody scene beside it, Buren’s cascading, soberly-striped and mirrored “Pyramidal, haut-relief – A5, travail situé” hangs low on a black wall that gently slants towards the carefully, evenly illuminated “Judith and Holofernes” painting. Stilling Caravaggio’s scene of violence, which evokes male castration, Buren’s shimmering, reflective rectangles of light seem to gently wash out over the dim floor towards the painting — parts of which are reflected in the pyramid’s mirrors (depending on viewer position), so that neither work reverts only to its own space and chronology. The dark ambiance established is that of sober celebration tinged with melancholy reflection. Tied-back crimson curtains in the painting swirl above the head-cutting like bloody ghosts and a maelstrom of tiny shadows soils the bed sheets.
Based on the existence of a Caravaggioesque painted copy by the Flemish Baroque painter Louis Finson — now in Naples at the Palazzo Zevallos Intesa Sanpaolo collection — the gory tableau on view here appears to be a second (later) version of Caravaggio’s painting “Judith Beheading Holofornes” (circa 1598–1599), now in the collection of Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. Looking on in this later version of the story is the elderly servant Abra, whose double enlarged throat goiters resemble a scrotum. Her depiction here varies considerably from Abra’s appearance and active participation in the female painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s version of the story, “Judith Slaying Holofernes” (1614-1618). That version depicts Judith and Abra displaying a #MeToo-like feminist vigor in the women that Marina Warner has described as at once repelled and concentrated. But regardless of emphasis, all three versions show the dramatic decapitation performed by the beautiful widow upset with her Jewish populace for not trusting in God to deliver them from their Assyrian conquerors.
The brilliant, theatrical Baroque bridge created here by curator and gallery owner Kamel Mennour spans over 400 years. As such, it offers up many questions concerning how the hot, fleshy political body is seen today within the cool, non-narrative, decorative stations of contemporary art. What allows now for the trajectory of figurative narrative events to do its thing?
Buren’s Mannerist-Modernism is usually a space without much heat or weight, even while it strives for sensationalism. Mennour’s curatorial decision challenged Buren to muster up a more complex hot-cold aesthetic situation, which the artist handled very well. Buren’s visual light cascade draws the eye even more firmly to the fleshy female form tearing through the head of her prey. This success stands in contrast to Buren’s 2016 “Observatory of Light” installation at Foundation Louis Vuitton, which put a cool candy cover over something already very cool — Frank Gehry’s sleek building sheathed in curving glass façades — so there was little piquant kick left to excite. Here, one thing is hot and spectacular in a media way, and one thing is not. Buren’s cool, multi-eyed mirrored piece projects something of an anonymous, all-seer, whose organizing myth manifests itself as the keeper of time. It is a pretty fearless formal move on Mennour’s part to pair these works, considering the experimentation and autonomy of form that otherwise characterize Buren’s anti-painting detachments. But here, the bold repetition of Buren’s unruffled forms evokes a prayer or chant or meditation. (Don’t get me wrong, the atmosphere is hardly a pious one, as man blood is gushing forth.)
Through this bifurcated, but somehow connected, installation, Mennour may be asking us to consider that Buren’s optically elegant, hovering pointer mechanism might be some sort of memorial tomb to his once pure, context-conceptual art, which is now refusing to disappear into the light without a trace.
Because the media always feeds on what’s hot — like sex and death and murder — here in this dark, theatrical room I thought about how the moment of death is usually invisible in our society, except in sensational media depictions. There is some sort of denial of death being addressed in this exhibition that includes the death of Buren-style conceptual modernism. But at the same time, this rare thing is made so very available by Mennour in an understated yet still spectacular fashion. What Mennour could have muddled by being ambiguous is instead magnificent in an imaginative-imagistic way associated with good taste. The problem has always been finding new ways to live with grandeur.
Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, Daniel Buren, Pyramidal, haut-relief – A5, travail situé, curated by Kamel Mennour, continues at Kamel Mennour Gallery (6, rue du Pont de Lodi, 6th arrondissement, Paris) until May 4, 2019. The painting “Judith and Holofernes” (circa 1607) attributed to Caravaggio, will be shown at Adam Williams Fine Art (24 East 80th Street, New York City) from May 10 – 17, 2019, then at the Hôtel des Ventes Saint-Aubin in Toulouse (3, boulevard Michelet, Toulouse) from June 17 – 23, 2019 before going on auction at the Halle aux grains (Place Dupuy, Toulouse) on the 27th of June under the direction of Marc Labarbe.