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Carol Rama

MUSÉE D'ART MODERNE DE LA VILLE DE PARIS (MAM)
11 avenue du Président Wilson
April 3–July 12

Carol Rama, The Mad Cow, 1997, mixed media and collage on canvas bag, 32 x 27".

For those who would produce art irreducible to simple categorization and the constraints of genre and gender, this exhibition offers an intrepid model. An ambitious retrospective, it argues that Carol Rama’s seven decades of work challenges normative modes of art historiography. While largely unfolding chronologically, additional thematic overlays chart the recursive nature of Rama’s interests in particular motifs and strategies.

Often Rama uses contamination to question rational knowledge, placing contrasting systems of representation in a single pictorial field, such as pulsating mythic figures suspended over architectural plans or glass eyeballs affixed to inky matrices of mathematical and linguistic code. Curiosity is here associated with erotics as a means of discovery, with the earliest works on display depicting figures shitting, masturbating, engaging in ménage à trois, penetrating animals, or having serpents emerge from their orifices. The artist is posited as embodying a “Queer Povera,” especially in works that incorporate rubber bicycle inner tubes and tires that hang detumescent or that are sliced and arranged in welted bands across her canvases, such as in Movement and Immobility of Birnam, 1977. Rama valorizes the visceral, at times to the point of delirium. In the mixed-media panels of The Mad Cow, 1997, she identifies herself with the figure of the diseased creature—undoing the opposition of human and animal.

Rama risks being an insider’s outsider, concurrent with the lately renewed interest in creators operating apart from the so-called art world. Likewise, there’s a tendency to pathologize this work when her predilection for the irrational or transgressive is a deliberate strategy with important precedents. It’s necessary to remember that Rama’s previous invisibility was the result of exclusion and occlusion—not withdrawal or ignorance.

Phil Taylor

Harry Gruyaert

MAISON EUROPÉENNE DE LA PHOTOGRAPHIE
5/7 rue de Fourcy
April 15–June 14

Harry Gruyaert, SUÈDE. Malmö, 1982, Inkjet print, 13 x 19.5"

This exhibition positions Belgian-born photographer Harry Gruyaert as a European equivalent to Saul Leiter, Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore, or William Eggleston—iconic photographers who made vivid color one of their signatures. This precept, rather than any thematic threads, guides the selection of the photographs. Gruyaert used Cibachrome, a dye process known for its color purity, to deepen a saturated palette, until he replaced it with digital processes in the twenty-first century. His color spectrum seems to widen the farther he travels, although the moments he captures do not feel specific to geographical context. Images of cloudy, pallid shores in France and Belgium near the exhibition’s beginning give way to vibrant scenes abroad, in which he creates a kind of chromatic hysteria. A blue-tiled bathroom in Moscow has an almost hallucinatory effect, swallowing up a man as he gazes into a horizontal mirror. Elsewhere, riotous floral wallpaper and jars of preserved lemons are illuminated by the sun in Meknes in northern Morocco, while human figures remain in shadow.

The wall text cites the artist: “Color is more physical than black and white . . . You have to be instantly affected by the different tones.” This immediacy is captured by his visceral snapshots of live TV—freeze-framed before the advent of VCR. “A good image is a controlled chance, a kind of small miracle that arises when you’re receptive and concentrated,” Gruyaert furthermore noted. Several such “small miracles” are featured in the last room, notably among them a tightly framed image of a woman’s hair from behind, her stunning red tresses evoking a pyre.

Sarah Moroz

“Yves Saint Laurent 1971: The Scandal Collection”

FONDATION PIERRE BERGÉ - YVES SAINT LAURENT
5 avenue Marceau
March 19–July 19

View of “Yves Saint Laurent 1971: The Scandal Collection,” 2015.

Not all survivals are happy, and not all citations are affirmations: Yves Saint Laurent’s spring–summer 1971 collection retrieved the austere women’s dress of the Vichy era that Dior’s New Look hoped to annihilate some twenty years earlier. Inspired by the styles of the wartime years, the presentation provoked a rancorous response among the press, which deemed the collection “bitchy,” “hideous,” “deplorable,” and “insulting” to fashion. Drawing from and designing for the street, Saint Laurent brought couture and prêt-à-porter uncomfortably close, while evoking a period many would have preferred to consign to oblivion.

He reportedly could not forget the trauma of seeing the garishly attired prostitutes of Rue Saint-Denis in Paris as a child immediately after the war. The collection’s eveningwear appears as the deferred action of this primal scene. Fox fur boleros are layered over crepe dresses with plunging necklines, worn by models whose rouged lips matched their scarlet nails. Designs for daytime recall the deprivation of the German occupation but eroticize the pantsuits and uniforms they cite. The final looks offer a series of pleated dresses featuring prints inspired by Etruscan vases, including a bridal gown emblazoned with explicit scenes; one commentator associated the motifs with Nazi virility.

The chasm between the critics’ censure and the works’ widespread influence announced the crossing of a historical threshold. Explaining his collection’s significance to Vogue, Saint Laurent said, “Young people, they don’t have any memories.” His clothes were made for contemporary women propelling social transformations and who held very different attitudes toward work and sex than previous generations. These pieces came to be known as the Liberation collection, invoking feminism and the end of another era of oppression. This exhibition’s wall text argues that the bridal gown was apotropaic and that the brash designs made a battlefield of the runway. It’s a bracing reminder that fashion’s working over of history might register already simmering discontent.

Phil Taylor