In Paris: 1,2,3 Data Group Show; Suter’s Radial Grammar; and VHILS’ Fragments Urbains

Reviewed by Arabella Hutter von Arx

1,2,3 Data group show, Batia Suter’s Radial Grammar, and VHILS’ Fragments Urbains are three exhibitions of contemporary art taking place in Paris this season. While they vary greatly in form and content, they all use found materials as the source for their art and address the relationship of humans to their environment, both natural and manmade.

VHILS, Fragments Urbains (19 May — 29 June 2018)
at Centre Centquatre, Paris

The Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto, who goes by the street tag VHILS (his favorite letters to spray as a teenager), came to fame for his street art first in his native Seixal, and then in a number of metropolises around the world. He created images by stripping, tearing, scratching through layers of posters on billboards, in what he calls an archeological process.

Farto’s other signature work involves carving giant human faces into the walls of abandoned buildings. Whether he’s working the outdoor or the indoor, his source is always the city and its people. The Centquatre Cultural Center introduces us to his latest work in six distinct rooms, each hosting one of the techniques he has devised to move his street art indoors. Aptly named, “Viscera” might be the most touching and effective work in the exhibition. A large image of a man’s face, looking as if created by a stencil, is projected in the darkness of a room on the wall facing the entrance. Thick, heavy curtains of black velvet isolate the galleries of the VHILSexhibition, from the 104 Art center’s main hall and from the city at large. The light, as visitors push through the curtains, changes the look of the image, making it nearly unreadable. The face seems African, adding drama, as we wonder if it will completely vanish, like the African immigrants drowning in the Mediterranean. When we choose to enter or to leave, we have a responsibility in the appearance and disappearance of the face, establishing an emotional relationship with the individual.

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VIHLS, The Camadas: Face Steles

The Camadas (“broods,” “litters” in Portuguese) series presents the closest transliteration of VHILS billboard pieces. Instead of working with existing layers, his team of assistants glue layers of posters into monumental steles. The artist applies his stripping technique after adding a coat of white paint. The faces produced are highly effective visually. Large and stylized, the images’ photographic code is inspired by the traditional street art technique of stenciling. The individuality of the subject is blurred by the rendering’s lack of expression or of detailed features. As street art, these renditions of individuals stress the loss of humanity in the cities. The societal context of the city is lost in the gallery, but both the humanity and the materiality are regained by the steles and their weighty thickness. The paper layering conveys an impression of handcraft and ageing, while there is a pharaonic monumentality to the faces towering over the visitor. The stylized patterns that crawl into the pieces as if of their own accord add to the impression of traditional craft. They bring to mind antique techniques such as Navajo pottery or the border decorations of Hellenic vases. In another room, a large installation made out of styrofoam also plays with bi- and tri- dimensionality. The blocks of various heights represent a city in all its anonymity and uniformity. The visitor has to walk around the installation before an added element is revealed: the reflection of the city in a huge mirror on the ceiling delineates two faces, 3D turns into 2D to introduce humanity to the piece.

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Stripping paper is only one of VHILS’ forays into creative destruction. After literally drilling faces into walls and facades, VHILS has turned to the rather boastful technique of dynamiting. The exhibition shows a number of videos where an image is revealed after a blank wall undergoes an explosion. Some of the dynamited walls reveal a message, the words just another code that replaces the codified faces of his earlier façade work. There is a suggestion of randomness to the result, certainly drama: we discover the outcome at the same time as the camera. But the artist has actually etched the image into the wall before adding a softer stucco on top of the work. He knows what is under. The promised act of chance is not really delivered as the results from the explosion are predetermined, with very little variation to be expected. This contrivance in “Diagrama,” as well as the reflection, lacks the expressive potency of the steles, or of his street pieces.

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Diagrama

The challenging transition from public space to gallery, from ephemeral, gratuitous work to collectible pieces for posterity and prosperity, is often met with suspicion by the street art community. Protesters famously broke in and tagged an entire gallery showing “street art” in Brazil, — whether the work increased in value from the double layer of authorship has not been recorded. VHILS produces gigantic works that are bound to be noticed, and has developed his own combinations of techniques, the Makita hammer drill having been long his tool of predilection, to produce content that is homogeneous and recognizable: they constitute his brand. This marketable package gets attention in the art world, and puts pressure on an artist to stay within his own parameters. A series of wide angle, super-slow motion videos from major cities around the world demonstrates VHILS’ willingness to explore new avenues in terms of content and style. A mobile human subject, such as a cyclist in Hong Kong, is kept right in the center of the lens, while the city seems to revolve around that figure. With their stylized sound, the videos are reminiscent of Bill Viola’s seminal works in the 80s and 90s, such as Ascension. They reaffirm VHILS’ focus and attachment to the humanity of the individual threatened by the anonymity of the large city, by its forbidding architecture and economically driven urbanism.

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The gallery attendance is sparse on a weekday at lunchtime. The 19th arrondissement locals, mostly immigrants and/or working class, have not chosen to push through the galleries’ heavy curtains. Instead, they are spread all around the gigantic hall the exhibition galleries look onto. A group of aspiring actors rehearse a play on a platform, a bunch of highly diverse individuals juggle on a large floor, while all sorts of dancing, hip hop, modern, folk, go on everywhere. Owning the space the Center makes available to communities, they perform for the pleasure of expressing themselves, without an audience, without remuneration. The 1900s building, with the harmonious dimensions and flooding sunlight of a Belle Epoque train station — and with the vibrancy of authentic community participation — does not retain the slightest gloom from its original function: a funerary parlor. Inaugurated in 2008, this miraculous experiment in urbanization demonstrates how to win the fight against the inner-city alienation that VHILS denounces.

In the alley leading to Le Bal Art Center, two incongruous posters at eye level picture the same gigantic image of a shoe. With the dimensions of a billboard high up over a highway, they could be mistaken for an advertisement, but the brand name is cleverly chopped off by a fold in the wall, and a small cartouche in the lower corner spells out the exhibition’s title. Seen myopically close, the images come across as monstrous, obscene in the paradox between their size and that of a human foot, in their remoteness from function and context. While one shoe could house a whole family of migrants living on the streets of Paris, they point ironically the way to the art center’s entrance.

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Batia Suter

Le Bal is named for the dancehall the building housed at the time of Toulouse-Lautrec. Since 2010, its team has been curating intriguing shows focused on the “document-image” and its relation to society and history. Batia Suter is the latest artist to be offered the duplex gallery for a carte blanche. On the first floor, a geometrically simple installation invites the viewer in. A long table in the middle of the room is laid with hundreds of pieces of plastic food packaging set in neat rows and columns. In a parallel installation, photos of uniform size, in regular rows and columns, cover three walls of the gallery. The black and white images, mostly of people, look like they were scavenged from handbooks and encyclopedia in flea markets. And for the most part, they were. Suter admits to buying a second-hand book for just one image that captured her eye. None of the found images are contemporary, the most recent ones dating from the 60s, but the people all look like we should know them. Is that Greta Garbo or just another star from the 30s? Is that Velvet Underground’s Nico in dark glasses? Certainly a socialite from the 60s. Is the man eating spaghetti the French comic Fernandel, famous for promoting a brand of pasta? In addition to the celebrities, the images also display familiar types: a jeering American redneck who might be attending a lynching; a family man from a 50s advertisement, brand and slogan suppressed; the face of a dead soldier; a glutton. A few images are in color, just to prove the creator can break her own rules. Photos of oil portraits, statues and film stills are also featured, referring more to the interest our Western world has invested in a particular culture (Pharaonic, Persian, Renaissance, German Expressionism, and so on) than to its essence. Most of the art is ancient, the photos vintage, and the people pictured probably dead, as in these dejected encyclopedias that have lost their raison d’être: convey valuable information. In addition to the enlargement and the elimination of color, Suter applies various distortions to the images. This results are an impression that a stereoscopic device would be needed to restore perception. Whether the deformation should be attributed to Suter or the author of the original image can be ambiguous, as in the merged portrait of Mao and Marilyn, or in a reproduction of a painting that looks blurred until we recognize the brush of Chaim Soutine. These distancing techniques mute the specificity of the images, turning them into mere motifs in the larger work intended by Suter. Just as the packaging exhibited is empty of its original food, whether crackers or lentils or candy, the photographic enlargements poached from our frenetic culture, and its massive production of images, have been divested of their individual content. They become source material, the paint box the hoarding artist uses to create her work. . .

To read the full review, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/123-data-suters-vhils/

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RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

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