Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"L'Occupation" Review in C Magazine 118

My review of Robert Tombs' exhibition "L'Occupation" appears in issue 118 of C Magazine.

Robert Tombs/L’Occupation was an exhibition at ParisCONCRET from 5 to 26 January 2013. With reference to "L’Occupation" as well as the artist’s previous work, and using Dominique Laporte's Histoire de la merde as a guiding text, I explore the manner in which Tombs underscores the base materiality of his practice. Tombs is an Ottawa-based artist who has been developing a conceptual practice through a series of reductive paint installations. For "L’Occupation," Tombs covered the walls of the gallery from floor to ceiling with canvas and systematically filled it with a repeating brushstroke of gold paint. On the surface, with its formalist concerns and its minimalist aesthetic, Tombs’ work fit right in with the mandate of the gallery. ParisCONCRET is an artist-run space devoted to the exhibition of “Concrete Art,” or non-objective, minimalist, reductive, abstract art in a pristine, white-cube setting. However, elements of the installation underscored the economic and political significance of art’s materiality and rubbed against the grain of the space.

The context of Tombs’ installation is as important as its content – or rather, it is through its context that content is smuggled into the space it occupies. The title of the work carries most of the weight. "L’Occupation" signifies on one level the activity of the artist himself. He is making a painting installation about painting. He is also occupying the space with his work for the duration of the exhibition, and in this regard, the work occupies as much of the space as possible by covering all of the available walls. On another level, Tombs is explicitly positioning his work within a history of “occupations” of Paris. In his artist statement for the show, Tombs claims that the work can be considered to allude to the Occupy Paris movement, to the occupation of France by the Nazis during World War II, to the reigns of autocratic kings that led to the French Revolution, and even to the reign of French Academic painting. If the stripped-down aesthetic of the installation allows for multiple, suggestive readings, it is largely due to the geographical location of the gallery, and the long history of Parisian seizures and conflicts in which the installation takes part. Tombs also points out that the process he used to cover the walls of ParisCONCRET is a variation on the technique of marouflage used extensively at Versailles, a palace symbolic of the French royalty’s power and influence. With a touch of self-mockery, Tombs draws attention to the display of power through art, marking out his territory with luxurious gold strokes.

The gold smears also suggest other more fecund matter that Tombs probably did not have in mind. In order to get behind "L’Occupation"’s fa├žade of power, Dominique Laporte’s Histoire de la merde (Prologue) is a handy tool. An improper admixture of Marx and Freud that was written independently but contemporaneously with O’Doherty’s white cube essays, Laporte’s text rephrases Freud’s “Where id was, so shall ego be” as “Where shit was, so gold shall be,” suggesting that in both psychology and the economy that which is repressed returns in a sublimated form. Laporte examines the history of the rise of the Modern Capitalist State and Subject and determines that it rests on a foundation of the elimination and the denial of human bodily waste. Concerns in "L’Occupation" then, if they are linked with French history, can be traced back to the year 1539, when edicts from King Francis the First began processes that would aim to not only purify the French language but also purge the excrement, waste and offal from the streets of Paris. The beauty and order made visible in displays of royal wealth, as in the palace of Versailles, ironically rests on taxation and profit from the raw and filthy resources of the nation and colonized territories kept far from the seat of power. By using Histoire de la merde as a guide, one can in addition to bringing in its wider historical context, draw out the stinking underside of a hygienic looking white cube gallery fastidiously adorned with gold.

For the complete review, check out C Magazine 118, available at the finest bookstores, newsstands, and libraries near you.