11:15 am Aug. 21, 2012
In Jacob and Willhelm Grimm’s original version of "Snow White," The Evil Queen tries to dismember, asphyxiate, and poison her young daughter.
The Queen is eventually punished for her sins; forced to wear hot iron shoes, she ultimately dances to her own death. Originally conceived as “children’s tales,” the Grimms' stories were not well received, and had to be rewritten, editing out the violence and brutality. Later, of course, Disney co-opted "Snow White" and whittled it down further, editing out all the more gruesome elements; parts that weren’t suitable for children; parts that would scare them away.
Despite the repeated attempts to sanitize them, pretty them up, the tales' subjects remain unaltered: envy, suffering, loss, despair—the dark and the ugly side of human nature. Artist Jean-Michel Othoniel’s works have always been pretty, a fact much in evidence at his new mid-career retrospective, My Way, which opened at the Brooklyn Museum this weekend (and is up through Dec. 2), but those pretty exteriors mask the very dark fairy tales lying underneath.
“Is that a carriage, Mommy?” a little girl asked on Saturday.
Decorated with bright glass, the great wheeled object is actually a 19th-Century American prairie wagon. The 2008 piece, titled A Secret Happy End, has red, gray and gold baubles hanging off the wheels and draped along the sides; glass finials are attached to the roof; flat, color-strewn glass panels replace the traditional canvas cover. The wall text reads: “[Othoniel] seduces to reveal a world haunted by loss and desire.” The wagon—an emblem of migration and social change, and a reminder of the violence and upheaval such migrations can engender, is altered with the addition of the glass decorations, yet the wood remains worn, sagging, revealing its age and the only things it still carries: the weight of memory. Most, if not all of Othoniel’s objects contain such duality, telling twinned stories of light presence and dark absence.
Othoniel's work reflects the singular, idiosyncratic vision of someone intent on making art that isn’t just pretty. With artistic influences like Felix Gonzales-Torres, there is an amount of suffering at the heart of Othoniel’s work. Drawing from Minimalism through monumental proportions and impressive use of space, Othoniel creates dream-like pieces that first pull people in then ask that they reexamine the space around them.
“Othoniel came of age in the heyday of the AIDS crisis," Lisa Small, curator of the exhibition, said to me on the phone, “He lost close friends. Issues of the body of missing people informs all of his work.” Just as Gonzales-Torres complex relationship to AIDS and the AIDS epidemic was embodied in his piles of multicolored candies, Othoniel’s despair rests just beyond his shiny, pretty, very fragile objects.
My Way marks Othoniel’s first museum show in the United States. It includes around seventy pieces, spanning his twenty-five years as an artist. The only through-line, visually, has been his choice of materials: first sulfur and wax, then obsidian (volcanic rock or glass formed from cooled magma), and, for the past fifteen years, Murano glass. All of them reflect his obsession with metamorphism, the possibility of healing wounds through pliable materials.
Born in 1964 in Saint-Étienne in east central France, Othoniel started experimenting with different forms, concepts, and materials rather early.
“I wasn’t into minimalism and conceptualism like other artists,” Othonial told The New York Times last year, speaking about his early work in Paris. “Nor was I related to free figurative style, pop and so on. I always had to justify myself to my teachers. My work was too beautiful. There was no cynicism in it.”
You could say Othoniel has commitment issues. He doesn’t like the idea of permanence. He wants everything he works in to move or have the ability to change. He’s obsessed with mutability, the possibilities that arise between two fixed points: be they artistic movements or states of matter. Through the years such interests have brought his fascination to glass, which can change shape and character through heating and cooling.
And it's the work in glass for which Othoniel has received the most attention. His glass works have taken the form of long strands of multicolored globes, hung on the wall like giant necklaces, falling in strands and arcs from the ceiling, or draped over wood or aluminum constructions, from furniture to covered wagons.
Othoniel teams up with glass blowers to create his exceptionally polished glass globules. He then threads these onto metal rods that have been manipulated into different shapes. Othoniel is careful, however, to never produce a glass ball as a perfect sphere. He asks his crew of glass blowers to “scar” his works, create divots; bruise the otherwise perfectly polished piece. In a way, these “scars” serve as a reminder that violence, suffering or despair can emerge from beauty. It’s like the moral of his private fairy tale.
Each installation in the show feels like a corner of little girl’s bedroom. The jewel-like glass sculptures hang in every room, bright, shiny, and in brilliant colors. The pieces have an amazing, glimmering sheen, and tap into the common appeal of simple, ravishing aesthetics: light, color, shine, and sparkle. It's the stained-glass cathedral and the fireworks display wrapped into one. “I want to seduce you with their beauty then lead you to other themes,” Othoniel says in a video that accompanies the show. In the scene, a glass blower presses molten glass into a star-shaped hole, slowly expelling his breath at one end of a long metal tube. The colored glass at the other end, piping hot, expands like a swirling balloon. Othoniel looks on like the conductor of a symphony.
The show inducts the viewer with a dualism: My Way spells out that phrase in pastel-colored glass as a bright, multicolor invitation to the exhibition. To the right, the color is washed away with Othoniel’s monumental piece Black is Beautiful, 2003. Often making glass balls look like a string of pearls, this piece is a double strand necklace of opaque black glass. Each pearl is a different size and looks deformed. Somewhat dimpled, the circles look like big blobs rather than beads. Light and darkness, invitation and closing off.
Othoniel’s earlier work in sulfur and wax show how he first began tinkering around with transformative materials and using the concept of negative space to suggest absent forms—the lost or missing body. As a preliminary play on this idea, in L’Âme moulee au cul, ("the soul moulded in the bottom") 1992, Othoniel filled the cavity base of a bottle with liquefied sulfur and the result is a dome-shaped yellow mound on a slate base. Since sulphur is corrosive to silver, the mound eats away, altering its silver base over time.
Necklaces play a fairly prominent role in Othoniel’s later work. They are his visual benchmark for absent bodies, often used as surrogates for people. In White Necklace, 2007 and Black Heart, Red Tears, 2007, the necklaces overtly refer to Mardi Gras, but obliquely reference the lynching of slaves in the South. A quote from Othoniel is on the label text: “a necklace is like a shadow of a missing person.” Othoniel hung similar necklaces around tree branches in front of the New Orleans Museum of Art. In 2000, he decorated a Parisian Metro station in his signature aluminum rings and vibrant baubles, giving straphangers a moment of amusement and wonder before descending into the train station; without the specific context of the New Orleans works, these too evoked a ghostly sense of absence. Othoniel's works, even those not created for outdoor installations, can feel somewhat stunted inside a museum, but they don’t fail to grab the viewer’s attention.
Perhaps the most fascinating pieces in the show, My Bed, 2002 and Golden Rain, 2002, together make up one large installation. A four-poster bed frame, made entirely of aluminum rings and glass globes, resolves in a crown-shape above the center of the bed. The bed is covered in a pink felt blanket with red tassels, while in Golden Rain, light aqua panels of gauzy sequined fabric lined with ribbon (each embroidered with the words, “I believe in fairies’) are mounted on the wall all around the bed.
“Oh wow, those are my favorite colors!” another little girl said, then ran over to the bed.
“Don’t touch honey!” her dad yelled to her.
This is Othoniel’s most evident use of fantasy. The installation is whimsical, a bit magical, yet also suffused with a great absence. What at first appears to be a child's bedroom gives way to an eerie feeling of vacancy. The bed’s blanket is dotted with nipple-like flowers, insinuating a body without providing one. The bed, through its color and kitsch, has a cute, timeless quality but is also saturated in a sense of mystery, loss, and emptiness: this bed belongs to no body. Similarly the phrase on the walls offers a positive statement of belief, but in the gallery, there is no mark of truth to that statement, only emptiness and silence.
More by this author:
- For Charles Clough, a solo show that raises the question: What was the 'Pictures Generation' really?
- Steven Soderbergh describes his last good shot