In his essay on contemporary art, the philosopher Jean-Paul Curnier notes: « The question of freedom in art isn’t asked in formal terms, but rather in terms of complacency and a political alliance, or the lack thereof, to a dominant cultural mode, whichever it may be ». Refusing to comply with the peremptory renewal of forms, reflective of an unconditional submission to the laws of the market, Michelle Lopez has been pursuing for years now a double exploration. On one hand she keeps on questioning what still lies at the root of the sculptural act, while inscribing these interrogations in a broader process that we could analyze Lopez as a critic towards the dead-end of Western thought - not to say American.
Let’s use as an example both « Chandeliers » (2015), two seminal works that open and close the exhibition. The extreme simplicity of the device immediately strikes us; it seems almost obvious. The two lead crystal cast pieces are indeed sculptures and not creations stemmed from the field of design. The « Chandelier » isn’t by any case an object diverted from its original purpose, some sort of appropriation using neo-pop proceedings, or even a brilliant but slightly vain variation on the past and that touch of nostalgia that keeps visiting our culture. On a closer look, the complexity of the references becomes evident. When we look towards the history of sculpture, they seem to dialogue directly with a vocabulary developed by the 20th century modernity (from Naum Gabo to artists such as Dan Graham, Eva Hesse or Bruce Nauman). But beyond that constellation of aesthetic references, the title indicates a register radically committed to a critical interpretation of knowledge and our own cultural understanding.
While chandeliers during the Classical era took part in the display of the aristocratic power, and then, during the 19th century in the spreading of the Democratic power within the public space, visible in the ornamental aspect these same objects took in railway concourses, courthouses, or town halls, these two Chandeliers reverse their initial properties. What they shine a light on or stage isn’t the monumentalized exhibition of a power - whichever it may be - but its absence, or more to the point, its disappearance in the contemporary market economy. And what should we say about the body! It metaphorically re-emerges in the abstract outlines of their shapes. These two pieces might as well be comprehended as a testimony: testimony for the residual imprints of a past gesture or sketches of a choreography of human gestures of which only outlines should remain, virtual and luminous convolutions, similar to these antic study photographs on locomotion and dance developed by Jules Etienne Marey. Their essence - to distribute light - reinforces the analogy. The visitor suddenly becomes a spectrum, with vague outlines hardly sketched on the walls and the floor. This absent body lacking physicality takes the shape of a metaphor, in which a civilization is one of media and information, where the virtual tends to replace the real in our collective mind; where shadows become as important as light. The individual becomes part of an endless show where the world is nothing but an illusion. “Chandelier” would thus become the achievement of a prophecy stated in the early 70’s by science-fiction writer J.G. Ballard « Our universe is governed by fictions of all kinds: mass consumption, publicity, politics considered and managed like a branch of publicity, instantaneous translation of science and techniques into popular imagery, confusion and telescoping of identities in the realm of consumer goods, the right of pre-emption exercised by the television screen over every personal reaction to reality. We live at the interior of an enormous novel. It becomes less and less necessary for the writer to give fictional content to his work. The fiction is already there ». If Chandelier is a fictional reality, then the other works in this show answer to it directly.
Thus "Smoke Cloud" (2016) gives another take on this appearance-disappearance process, but with a different amplitude and other means. Created on large-scale architectural glass, which is at first ionized by UV light rays, these pieces attest to a series of performances where the artist draws with silver nitrate (which has replaced, since 1835, the tin and mercury process). Once again, the result leads to the creation of ghost-like images that reveal themselves with one’s movements. The ambiguity is intentional, constructed, amplified. Far from agreeing with this end of an era melancholy, Michelle Lopez plays with expectations, shakes them up, leads the spectator to get lost as he constantly, and too eagerly, tries to apply his usual perception of objects that fill his cultural world. Without really stating it, almost by chance, by accident, these mirrors go after the widespread manipulation of our collective mind and put forward the irreducible power of subjectivity.
Here is an art that willfully refuses to clarify its aim, to make itself too demonstrative, too cynical, too allusive. Michelle Lopez by no means pretends to shock, put up smokescreens or give in to the expectations of scandal and disobedience the contemporary public is so fond of. She doesn’t care about propriety or fake morality that pretends to openly condemn our world. The political strength of her practice takes place elsewhere, through subtle shifts, by putting our reality to a test on a strictly visual basis. From then on, how could we not think of Tony Smith’s famous quote which stated, regarding his sculptures in the public space: « I think of them as seeds or germs that could spread diseases (…) they are black and probably destructive. The social organism can only assimilate them in its abandoned spaces, from its wastelands to the uncertain fringes of its territory ». Michelle Lopez’s works obviously aren’t destructive. They aren’t germs and spread no diseases; on the contrary, they lead the spectator to some sort of abyss into which historical references and cultural traits rush in a never-ending motion.
Her series « Flags » is exemplary of that mode of operation. The flag, may it be the symbol of a nation or a simple banner, usually consists of a logo metaphorically marking out an often spatial but also sometimes subjective, territory. Made of lead, Michelle Lopez’s Flags assert themselves as these emblems’ wrecked ruins. Their territory, besides that of the gallery, is symptomatic of a crisis within the contemporary signs. The lead is matte, muted, absorbing the light. The shape is uncertain, its finish deceitfully unkempt. The size and scale exceed the human thus reinforcing the sculpture’s artificiality. Handmade by the artist, each of these Flags functions as both an aesthetic and political visual deconstruction. The performative event that constitutes the base to the work isn’t directly presented to the public but rather intervenes in the arrangement of the materials, and in the way they codify a relationship to the world. On one hand Michelle Lopez breaks voluntarily from any attempt of affiliation with American artists from the 70’s, on the other, she conjures up a new cartography of the contemporary symbolic space, where the flag is now nothing but a blind witness to a collapsed order. She bets on the underlying power of these shapes, of these materials, on their capacity for strangeness, their ability to become impervious to the categories of contemporary art.
In a catalogue essay, the curator Amy Smith-Stewart noted: « the practice of sculptor Michelle Lopez explores the contested yet generative place where Minimalism and Feminism converge, diverge, and ultimately reunite ». The accuracy of this assertion deserves however a few explanations. If indeed part of Michelle Lopez’s vocabulary comes from an understanding of Minimal art (to which one should add conceptual art or anti-form), she nevertheless keeps her relationship to that movement at bay. As she was a student at the New York School of Visual Arts in the 90’s, the utopia once carried by the Minimalist and conceptual art already seemed worn out, as a few artists, such as Mike Kelley or David Hammons, had already demonstrated towards the mid 80’s with their openly antiheroic practice. If Michelle Lopez’s art seems carried by the Minimalist ancestry, it is only so she can experiment its limits and suggest ways to surpass them. The deceitful simplicity of means, the economy of forms, the tension between industrial finish and the handmade, the critique of repetition within mass production, the institutional exhibition space thrown into crisis and perceived as the work’s ultimate and accomplished form, the variation pattern in the work sequences, in short these traits of Minimalism all sparingly come across some of Michelle Lopez’s pieces, but devoid of all mannerism, of all affect. If we look at her art closely, it is easy to see how fiercely she refuses the underlying ideology. Minimalism staged performative codes in the production of an identity that were essentially male, and even tainted with idealism, a deliberate response to the consumerist society. As creators of some sort of counter-story of the American dream, these artists presented themselves as the society’s new heroes, mostly urban, heterosexual heroes, perfectly fitting into a linear art history that must be surpassed.
Michelle Lopez belongs to another history. She has long been aware of the importance of the performative body, that body which, in the act of producing, finds the conditions for an artwork to exist. The process as such is of no interest to her. It shouldn’t be exhibited or deconstructed. In that sense, she does belong to a Feminist trend engaged in the questioning of the great canonical tales of art history, which once used to be focused on an ethnocentric history, western by nature, from which women, outsiders, minorities and artists coming from the worldwide periphery are excluded. The multiplication of discontinuous tales, the abundance of overlapping, interlocking stories, that answer one another through various fields, lead her to incorporate what Beatriz Preciado called a « ren@rde » cartography*. This cartography doesn’t propose « an analysis in terms of identity as much as one in terms of production of subjectivity, more in terms of movement than position, of performativity than representation, less in terms of objects or bodies than in terms of political technologies and rationality ». This is how we should perceive « Invisible Object» a recent video that will be shown for the first time in this exhibition.
As the artist states « [the subject of the video is] to apprehend objects through the structure of “description“. [These descriptions] build “sculptures“ through spoken and gestural language, in order to contest the “present“ object ». On the screen, young women and a man describe spaces, objects. With their eyes closed, they allow words to emerge and expand, often but against the images that arise from their scattered memories. Silence sets momentarily. The gestures arrive, progressively, as if they had a power of assertion language no longer possesses. The camera switches, the utterly neutral backdrop, the lighting devoid of any particularities, it all leads us to scrutinize what these gestures and these words draw. Yet, what is put before us, to be seen and heard, is an absence, an invisible place barely outlined. In correspondence with the artist, Michelle Lopez states that this video draws its conceptual drive from Giacometti’s « Invisible Object » (1935), an emblematic work for that sculptor testifying to a swing towards an uncluttered figuration. Admired by Breton and the Surrealists, “Invisible Object” was then commented on with passion by critics, philosophers, writers. At the core of their analysis laid a mystery: what is the nature of the void held between the hands of the feminine figure? To Bonnefoy, for example, the reference to the Italian Renaissance Madonnas seems obvious. The hands of these Virgins do not lay upon the Christ Child, he observes, but rather on the void one could assimilate to the invisible presence of God, thus securing the connection between the Divine and the Earthly.
In the video, this outlined void has no metaphysical dimension, but falls within a heritage that - from the Madonnas to Giacometti - questions our world. Our culture is based upon a double belief - on one hand, an unfailing belief in the invisible, the founding principle of all the great religions. On the other, an unfailing belief in the visible, token of an objective relationship to the real. In the Western world, the visible remains the vehicle of proof and certainty. But at the beginning of the 21st century, such a dialectical contradiction loses its pertinence. What does it mean to see in this time, our time? Isn’t there nowadays a helplessness to see, an impossibility to seize what surrounds us? Cinema, photography, publicity, and even the products of our daily life, even our cities’ architecture, they all seem to belong more to the fiction category than to that of objective truth. That is what Michelle Lopez’s video surreptitiously questions. What it produces is nothing but beings suddenly turned into sculptures or more precisely into « trees of gestures » to quote Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous expression. Their words get lost, blurred, build a shield against the visible, when the gestures, on the other hand, reaffirm the power of the imaginary and its ability to forge productive relations with the real. In his poem « How sweet it is sometimes », Rilke mentions our human condition before stating we must be « a tree of gestures who momentarily slows down the stars in their rotation to build a life on ». And what if Michelle Lopez’s art aimed at nothing else other than that-- to slow down the stars in their rotation to build a life upon.
- The term « ren@rde » was invented by Beatriz Preciado after Antonio Negri’s theory which opposes the fox’s (« renard » in French) political strategies (Machiavelli, cunning) to that of the lion (straightforward). From that statement, Preciado came up with the term « ren@rde » that indicates a planetary and networking dimension.