It may be one of the ugliest words in the English language (and one that is generally — some would say justly — unsupported by spell checks). Nevertheless, “recontextualize” is grudgingly useful.
Without it we’d have no shorthand for the change in our perception when such-and-such moves from here to there or pops up somewhere it doesn’t seem to belong.
Last weekend, Austin Thomas reopened Pocket Utopia, one of the founding social spaces of the Bushwick scene. The first incarnation, which ran from 2007 until 2009, was planned as a two-year experiment that would combine gallery shows, artists’ residencies, panel discussions and whatever spontaneous idea sounded appealing into an organic aesthetic.
The reemergence of Pocket Utopia — not in Bushwick but on the southernmost lip of Manhattan’s Lower East Side — in partnership with the uptown fine prints and drawings dealer C.G. Boerner, might strike some as an offbeat, even aberrant choice.
But having gotten to know Austin somewhat after writing about her solo show at Storefront in 2010, it made sense to me that she wouldn’t attempt to repeat herself. Her public activities are integral with her studio work, and in her studio once an idea is done, it’s done.
Pocket Utopia’s debut exhibition in its new location drives home that point of departure, and then some. It is arguably the strangest — and most beautiful — show you’ll see on the Lower East Side for a good time to come.
Strange only because the art in it is so radically recontextualized. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century prints from the French Academy, ladies and gentlemen, a block below East Broadway.
But that simple change in milieu, from penthouses to fish markets, infuses these images with a freshness and humanity that, in turn, reconnects us with the turbulence, grit and odor of their historical time.
Engraving, it should be noted, is a fiendishly difficult art to master. Unlike etching, in which the drawing is executed on a correctable wax or asphaltum ground and then burned into the plate by an acid bath, engraving demands that you carve directly into the unforgiving metal. The image quality is therefore that much more sumptuous, with deeper contrasts, breathtaking gradations of gray and rich, authoritative contours.
As the good modernists that we are, we continue to delight in the work of groundbreaking engravers such as Martin Schongauer (ca. 1445–1491) and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), but we seem to have lost interest in those artisans (they were not considered artists in their day) who perfected one of the earliest forms of mechanical reproduction.
This show is evidence of what a mistake that is. These works of art are made with consummate skill, but their finish fetish is the least of it.
Bounded by their social and artistic status, these engravers bored so thoroughly into their technique that, to our eye, they seem to emerge on the other side as virtual abstractionists. Just look at the insane tangle of hair in the “Portrait of the Guillaume de Brisacier” (1664) by Antoine Masson (1636–1700) and you’ll get a sense of how far they were willing to push the envelope into pure form.
The title of the show is “Artists and Other Frenchmen: portrait prints from Nanteuil to Villon,” and accordingly one wall of the gallery’s galley-like space is filled almost entirely with engraved portraits of painters and sculptors who never had to stoop to engraving to earn a living.
They were all members of the French Academy — an official aesthetic body anathema to our contemporary conceptions of art — yet their range of expression is surprisingly natural and unstuffy — far more real and affecting than the official portraits of kings and courtiers lining the wall opposite them.
If the engravers envied the artists they portrayed, it doesn’t show in their imagery. In fact, the Academicians seem to be depicted as kindred spirits, with the subject and the designer almost inhabiting each other’s thoughts.
The forthright gaze of the painter Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694–1752) becomes all the more soulful after we learn that his engraver, Jean-Joseph Balechou (1719–1764), was driven to suicide. And what about the bizarre smirk on the face of Joseph Marie Vien (1716–1809) in the engraving by Simon-Charles Miger (1736–1820)?
Vien was a painter bridging the Rococo and the Neo-Classical, a style brought to fruition by his student, Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). This portrait was completed in 1790, a year after the storming of the Bastille, although the pastel upon which it was based was exhibited in 1783.
Still, one wonders if Miger, through Vien’s smile, is reflecting on the ironies of excess, which they both spent their careers supplying and which now has brought the aristocracy low.
As the row of portraits of the above-mentioned ruling class ends, leading toward the door, there are two anomalous but oddly appropriate etchings from 1920 by Jacques Villon (1875–1963) of a plaster bust made in 1911 by his brother, Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876–1918). (We will leave aside mentioning their more famous sibling, Marcel Duchamp, 1887–1968.)
The bust is of the poet, critic and begetter of modernism, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). One of the etchings shows the sculpture with a pedestal, and the other without. They are portraits of a portrait, in keeping with the engravings of the Academicians, which were made not from life but from paintings or drawings, several of them self-portraits.
Having begun with the rigid artistic norms of the French Enlightenment, the show concludes with the poète maudit Baudelaire and the loosening of those bounds with the advent of French Modernism – an image of an image that points up the artifice of art and the Duchampian legacy of skeptical mediation (should art be on a pedestal or off?) that drives much of the creative inquiry in our own young century. An apropos passage from the gallery to the street.
But not quite. To the right of the Villons, at the end of the wall, there is a small portrait of the only woman in the show. Her name is Virginia Vouet, née da Vezzo (1606–1638), and the inscription in the oval surrounding her face identifies her as “da Velletri Pittrice,” or “painter from Velletri (Italy).”
She was married to the well-known artist Simon Vouet (1590–1649), who made his own voluptuous portrait of her as Mary Magdalen around 1627. According to the informative checklist prepared by C.G. Boerner (which supplied the above biographical information), Virginia worked “mainly in pastel.”
Just under the engraving’s oval frame-with-a-frame, there is another inscription, which praises the beauty of her art (“Mira le tele” — “Gaze at the canvases”) over that of her face and eyes, which one could read as a moral that physical beauty is temporal, while art is eternal.
Supposedly there is only one extent work by Virginia Vouet, an oil painting on the subject of Judith and Holofernes, that favorite of Baroque painters, currently in the collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France.
In the painting, which was made around 1624 or 1626, when Vouet was 18 or 20, Holofernes is nowhere to be seen and Judith is depicted resting on a chair, sword in hand, with a sleepy, contented smile on her face.
It’s a shame that we haven’t got a clue about what else the sweet-faced artist peering out from the engraving, which was made by Claude Mellan (1598–1688) around the same time as “Judith and Holofernes,” was capable of, because it is unlikely that a more ambiguous interpretation of this legend will ever be found.
Are we catching Judith as she contemplates the act of slicing off Holofernes’ head as he drinks himself to sleep, or has she just committed it? Either way, the effect of that dreamy little smile is as funny as it is chilling, pulled off with a pop-comic, Tarantino flair.
And so go it goes throughout “Artists and Other Frenchmen.” The longer you look at this show, the closer the parallels become between their time and ours. And like Einstein’s particles, they converge when you least expect it.
Welcome back, Pocket Utopia.
Artists and Other Frenchmen: portrait prints from Nanteuil to Villon continues at Pocket Utopia (191 Henry Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 25.