GRENOBLE, France — Antoine de Galbert, the peckish and puckish-looking French art collector who recently closed his gadfly Maison Rouge art space in Paris is back on the scene with Memories of Travel: The Antoine de Galbert Collection, a show of his cross-generational collection at the Musée de Grenoble.
This Grenoble-born collector’s permissive purview on owning and ordering art entails an open outlook far flung from the run-of-the-mill, cookie-cutter, interchangeable, name-brand-conscious investment collectors that litter the land. Rather, de Galbert’s is an acrimonious, highly-individualized taste in art that favors anti-modern non-causality. He seems drawn to things hybrid in which spurts of panicky tragicomedy can be felt — heterogeneous flaming creatures. He seems attracted by things intrusive to the peaceful psyche: the obsessive melancholia of outsiderism, folklorism, Decadentism, Divinationism, ethnologism, nihilism, and mysticism of the elegiac obsessive strain. As such, his choices, when strategically placed together, pack a wallop. With plenty of empty space around each ocular captivator allowing them to breathe, his bevy of seductive mysteries project the cognitive value of volatile force that magic ritual once had. Just dwell on Annette Messager’s “The Crucified Teddy Bear” (1998) for a minute. To take but one furry and fuzzy example.
Indeed, much of Memories of Travel is consistent with what I thought to be the best French show of 2017: de Galbert’s La Maison Rouge’s Magic Entanglements. That show impressed with its wide-ranging display of compositional imbroglios — wickedly mixing post-Surrealist-tinged contemporary art with magical charms, sorcerers’ amulets, witchy spell thingies and other knotty and nutty quasi-cultural objects.
So, my expectations were keen. But stepping into the show, right away a two-pronged caveat just about pushed it down the hill of excoriation for me. By immediately highlighting the over-the-hill, navel-gazing égoïste Ben Vautier and a certain Maison Rouge bête noire lodestone with a piece by Jacques Lizène, glaring issues of cultural appropriation, typical of wealthy White male privilege, came flooding back from my experience of the rabid culture surfing and anti-identity-confirmation sampling within La Maison Rouge’s Theatre of the World show. That show placed scrambled, amnesiac, topographical scenographies over distinct cultural values: an outdated, modernist, utopian, colonizer’s conjecture. Such a global-colonialist way of seeing the world (as supermarket) bothered me in how it, without apprehension, embraced non-differentiation.
Lizène, who likes to cut up and mix two different styles together, does just that in a flippant, cut-and-paste cultural appropriation he calls “Syncretic Art” (2011). It cavalierly fuses together elements from two very different non-white cultures. Lizène cut two figurative sculptures, one from Thailand and the other from an unidentified African country, and switched the bottoms, and thus their genders. Though these resulting hermaphrodite images carry the freedom of Surrealist surrender with them, and do delight the eye with their gender confusion, they also make for a dodgy commandeering way to get the lodestone rolling.
Thankfully, after attuning myself to this naïve reactionary rhetoric, the following galleries (16 in all) shifted the topic of focus to the firmer grounds of provocation and promise. Room themes that hint at counter-cultural utopianism included “Builders of the Imaginary,” to even grander themes like “Action,” “Nature,” “Cosmos,” and “Beyond.” The show climaxed with a “Senseless Beauty” room that seemed neither less nor more beautiful or senseless than any other. But along the way I encountered a plethora of hexing “younger” artists that shined: Cathryn Boch, Mathieu Briand, Steven Cohen, Duprat, Gronon, John Isaacs, Edward Lipski, Mari Katayama, and Stephane Thidet. They were placed to jostle with better known artists like Kurt Schwitters, Henry Darger, Christian Boltanski, and Lucio Fontana, whose controversial work here still kicks the beehive.
Once outside the non-differentiation dilemma, mixtures of isolated works from different generations and intentions satisfyingly operate. Vividly, each piece vies to preside over an emergence of the grotesque that is typical of the both scary and deep private dream register. Highlights in this regard must include Rachel Kneebone’s “Grief Study II” (2010) porcelain sculpture, imbued with teeming torque and verve, as it is, and Urs Lüthi’s audacious “Tell Me Who Stole Your Smile” (1974) series. Both seem unconcerned with popularity.
Thibault de Gialluly’s delightful deconstructive take-down of Marcel Duchamp, “Not Ready Made” (2010), and herman de vries’s simple but effective anti-fairy-tale assemblage “In Process – Life” (1996–2011), a boxed stack of small animal bones, have the emotive capability of pulling us back from the hyperspace of simulation. Then Pierre Ardouvin’s “Return of Abyssinia” (2018), a creamy digital 3D scan print of Ferdinand Cheval’s “Ideal Palace” maquette, itself a dreamy-gossamer work, put me back in touch with my make-believe realm. On the other hand, Hermann Nitsch’s bloody-hell-good “Untitled” (1984–1998) painting/combine seemed a circumspect zone of glorious past combat, while Berlinde de Bruyckere’s affective “Aanéén” (2003) sculpture, the human result of that combat. Also impressive is the acid-wobbly André Kertesz photographic print “Distorsion n°45” (1933). It is a breathtaking example from his Parisian Distortions series that began as an assignment for the French ‘girlie’ magazine Le Sourire. Oh La La!
Memories of Travel takes us to a thrilling world of outrageous abnormality, which positivist art history had ignored and repressed. It successfully endeavors to bring unusual audacity and pugnacity into the public eye so as to say something lasting about the human circus — about obsession and intensity — because many of today’s art collectors have grown overly consensual, aesthetically flabby, and conventional in their culture zapping. Indeed, culture at large has grown a little too obliging to popularity at the detriment of free-thinking individuality and transcendental aloofness.
Social media and the urge for brazen popularity may be making a lot of art silly, but Memories of Travel travels the extra mile inward — towards more radical responses to pop-culture and the void of selfie egotism.
Editor’s note: The author’s train fare to Grenoble was provided by Claudine Colin Communication.
Memories of Travel: The Antoine de Galbert Collection, curated by Antoine de Galbert, Sophie Bernard and Guy Tosatto, continues at the Musée de Grenoble (5 Place Lavalette, Grenoble) until July 28.
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