Senior & Shopmaker
21 East 26th Street
January 27 – March 5, 2005
Paul Vinet, a young French artist currently based in Washington D.C. , first exhibited “Learning From New York” at Jan van der Donk Rare Books in Chelsea in 2000/2001. This series of color photographs depicts the city from a pedestrian’s point of view, with a slight alteration: the artist paints over signs or other text in the image with creamy white paint. Vinet has a background in photography, graphics, and museology, and his interest in issues surrounding visual culture in the public sphere underlies the work. “Learning From New York” was exhibited in Brussels , in Paris , and at other venues in France during 2001 -2004. Critical reception in Europe has been enthusiastic. Fabienne Boulineau raved, in France Amérique (International edition of the Figaro, January 2001), “Forget the City as you know it, and transport yourself into a world without billboards, void of all types of advertising, commercial pollution, or visual aggression – a world where the eye feels free… Maddeningly, deliriously: it’s an excruciating pleasure to behold.”
With only five pieces on view at Senior and Shopmaker, Vinet’s presentation in an intimate, gray-painted alcove of the gallery is just right and just enough. Three selections from “Learning From New York” depict a straight-on view of the Met; a street scene on a block with a rare absence of retail stores; and a building encased in scaffold and construction scrim. The white-painted areas cause the eye to pick up on strong lines in the rest of the scene, be they corinthian columns, crosswalk stripes, or repetitive units of industrial architecture. The paint handling is done in a straightforward way; brushstrokes form regular yet leisurely patterns. Two new works from 2004 feature crowd scenes where the background is entirely white (probably a Kerry rally, but they’re entitled “People” without further ado). White paint around the crowd scenes has an amorphous liquidity, as if the artist had dripped paint onto the image horizontally at close range. All of the works are mounted on aluminum and measure around 4 ft. by 3 ft.
The title “Learning From New York” borrows cleverly from “Learning from Las Vegas,” a book by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour published by MIT Press in 1972. This entertaining study of the architecture, neon signs, and urban design of the famed casino capital is surely the first scholarly analysis of the Sunset Strip as a multifaceted urban phenomena. The idea was to learn from it what “urban sprawl” is, how it developed, how it works. As a book, it’s is a marvel of maverick design. The architects orchestrate a graphically rich collaboration between themselves, their Yale students, feisty local media and business entities, and several pop artists, notably Edward Ruscha. Here’s a quote that sets the tone and, toward the end, cues into Vinet’s project:
The streetlights function superfluously along many parts of the Strip that are incidentally but abundantly lit by signs, but their consistency of form and position and their arching shapes begin to identify by day a continuous space of the highway, and the constant rhythm contrasts effectively with the uneven rhythms of the signs behind. This counterpoint reinforces the contrast between two types of order on the Strip: the obvious visual order of street elements and the difficult visual order of buildings and signs. The zone of the highway is a shared order. The zone off the highway is an individual order. The elements of the highway are civic. The buildings and signs are private. In combination they embrace continuity and discontinuity, going and stopping, clarity and ambiguity, cooperation and competition, the community and rugged individualism [my emphasis]. (Learning From Las Vegas, MIT Press, MA, 1972, p. 31.)
Vinet’s notion of interrupting the photographic syntax of each color image with white paint is a quite simple idea, but nonetheless striking. Its conceptual bent and homage to “Learning From Las Vegas” link it to Ruscha’s work, recently seen in depth at the Whitney. Whereas Ruscha’s play with billboard signs and advertising text for its own sake eliminates the urban context, Vinet erases the sign and leaves the view on the street intact in “Learning From New York”.
Boulineau’s observation that “the eye feels free” might be applied to both Vinet and Ruscha, but for different reasons. When Boulineau capitalizes “City” in reference to Vinet’s work, he refers not only to the artist’s interventionist cityscapes of New York, but also to a growing acknowledgment that urban places are becoming an Everywhere as a result of globalization’s insidious commercialism. Ruscha’s work, paradoxically, derives from public space but doesn’t reflect on it; graphics float, unmoored, in pictorial space.
An alternate comparison might be made between Vinet and his more senior fellow French artist, Daniel Buren. Buren’s work centers on installations in the public sphere that have questioned the context of art display since the 1970s. Buren is a theorist as well as an artist; his work has achieved international acclaim as well as great prominence in France. Vinet was educated at Ecole du Louvre in Paris, and perhaps his work bears a trace of Buren’s influential social and conceptual approach to artistic practice. The beauty of Vinet’s conceit is that it’s a kind of proposition: a photograph can be less a statement of the obvious than the obvious reconfigured as a question. There are constraints on what can appear in the public sphere, but the public does not have a say about the resulting ensemble. Much to his credit, Vinet doesn’t judge the rightness or wrongness of this arrangement. He simply proposes an alternative, like a novelist. The precise word for what Vinet does is interpolation: he makes an insertion (the white paint) into an existing order (the photograph). It’s superficial, and it’s profound.
The main gallery at Senior and Shopmaker displays exquisite collages and box constructions made by Hannelore Baron, a European emigre who came to New York in the 1930s and died in 1987. Her work’s evocatively worn, tatterdemalion aesthetic has been related to Paul Klee’s surrealist ethos. Stuttering lines of ink and frayed textiles allude to speech and the body moving through the world, vulnerable to world events, yet possessed of a transcendent soul. Baron’s subtle engagement with ancient cultures is a reflection of her sensitivity to social issues. She narrowly escaped from central Europe with her family as an adolescent during WWII, and made a new life for herself in the Bronx. Like her American contemporary Joseph Cornell, she retreated into her own universe of collaging cast off things and marking upon them. With their sense of secrecy about language, they provide a rich counterpoint to Vinet’s work.print