New York

Anne and Patrick Poirier

Sonnabend Gallery downtown

The givens of the exhibition—an imaginative reconstitution of the Necropolis on the Isola Sacra near Ostia Antika—point up the ambiguities currently accruing to an art almost exclusively centered on manual finesse and archeological Proustianism. Anne and Patrick Poirier, through varied techniques ranging from calligraphy to relief-making, delineate an explicitly Western and self-consciously cultured orientation of their ensemble. It is not for nothing that the artists were pensionaries at the Villa Medicis for three years as Prix de Rome recipients. Instead of emphasizing the ironies implicit in this cultural disfiguration vis-à-vis the modernist rejection of culture, they persist in stressing the beauty of the later Roman style, as if its beauty were something to be taken for granted rather than questioned. Instead of placing irony over method, the Poiriers wax nostalgic. Their sense of the visual is linked to ritualized estheticism: the exultation of the fibrousness of rice paper; the associative beauty of dried flowers and plants picked on site and mounted; the insistence on doubling the experience of the past through paper masters modeled against the eyes and mouths of Roman fragments; the delicate bas-relief of Roman epigraphy (fibrous surrogates duplicating the experience of the original stones and sarcophagi). Associatively, their snapshots of Isola Sacra photographically transferred to the kind of ceramic plaques that adorn modern Italian funerary monuments again emphasize the morbid nostalgia of the work. 

We wandered in the by-ways of the Sacred Island until we were penetrated by our contact with the marble and their scratchings, and they suddenly emerged into meaning, which, in turn, took on a concrete form of an ensemble that remains.

Without using either process orientation or an external theoretical system which forces objects into existence, the Poiriers oblige the meaning of their art to lodge within the nature of the subject matter itself. In this sense, they are not dissimilar from, startlingly enough, Gilbert and George, who recently chose as their archeological site the Edwardian drinking saloon nostalgically experienced through (I believe) self-hating, petty-bourgeois visions. 

Like Gilbert and George, the Poiriers cannot evolve except only insofar as they are able to choose still another historical era for exploitation. Unlike Gilbert and George, theirs is an environment still in search of a performance. Their evolution becomes a function of an enthusiasm for style, something of external rather than internal formal necessity. 

Still, in the face of a larger art scene dominated by principally formal issues, the Poiriers perhaps sound a salutary note. The academic motifs that nourish their art—the mock folio floor plans, the enormous marble site plan, the fragile paper statuary—denote a commitment to the highest genre—history painting, awaiting a noble subject. Thus, their work suggests far more ironies than It embodies. 

This dichotomy is perhaps more relevant to European Conceptual art than American insofar as the requirements of access assumed as normative to this work is at the outset a scholastic one. In this. sense, the Poiriers’ archeology, the classicism of Kounellis, the period fixations of Gilbert and George, the terror of death recorded in Christian Boltanksi’s ongoing journals, the provincial schoolmasterly insights of Jean Le Gac, all embody a consciousness of time past which appears to be unthinkable in American Conceptual activity. The Necropolis of the Poiriers—past style as the symbol of death—can neither be bettered nor be more revelatory of our national disparities. 

Robert Pincus-Witten