Jean-Michel Alberola

Jean-Michel Alberola first gained public recognition in the early ’80s, and he quickly distinguished himself as one of the most outstanding French artists of his generation. However, even though he showed unusual talent right from the start, especially in pastels, a medium rarely used by his contemporaries, he might still have been regarded as just one more young artist of whom, as we can recall, there was no shortage at the beginning of the decade. Alberola stood out because he deliberately called into question the traditional relation of an artist to his work, chiefly through the suppression of his own signature and the use of a pseudonym instead. He chose the name Acteon and began to paint large inscriptions in Latin on his canvases—“ACTEON FECIT”—attributing them to this mythological character, the legendary hunter who was transformed into a stag and devoured by his own dogs for having surprised Artemis, the goddess, at her bath. And that was only the beginning. Soon Alberola’s work grew in complexity. In 1985, at the International Fair of Contemporary Art (FIAC) in Paris, he showed a series of pastels depicting African objects, each one clearly marked “commerce,” accompanied by some little sculptures on pedestals. That same year he was given a large solo exhibition at Paris’ Centre Pompidou that made it possible to assess the scope of his ambition. There, implicitly and explicitly recalling the spirit of Marcel Duchamp (and of Marcel Broodthaers as well), Alberola once again called the traditions of painting into question, this time by hanging his paintings quite high and by accompanying them with an abundance of various other objects—texts, photographs, found postcards, sculptures, etc. After that, Alberola continued to pursue his unusual ideas with the same emphasis. In 1986, in a show at this gallery, he presented a remarkable group of pseudo-African masks in stainless steel and a single photograph; and this past year, in addition to being included in the Centre Pompidou’s L’Epoque, la mode, la morale, la passion (Times, fashion, morals, passion), he put together an exhibition at a Dutch museum in collaboration with an economist.

The show that he just presented here consisted principally of five abstract paintings incorporating various figurative motifs, all from 1987, numbered consecutively—from Le Premier (The first) to Le Cinquième (The fifth)— plus a sixth canvas containing only the inscription “A. FECIT 1987.” As in previous shows, Alberola’s focus was less on the paintings than on their mode of presentation. Visitors were welcomed by a large posterlike sign—Avis de (Notice, also 1987)—that read “JMA tient à preciser que les 5 peintures qui sont exposées ici ne sont pas encore terminées” (“JMA wishes to point out that the five paintings being shown here are unfinished.”) Such an announcement cannot help but cause distrust and uncertainty in the minds of those who will view the paintings.

What should one look at? That which is already visible or that which is not yet so? That which is there or that which is missing? What exactly is a finished painting after all? In fact, the viewer found her-/himself in a relationship to these paintings (and more generally, in relation to all contemporary painting) that was similar to the situation of the people in a small photograph that Alberola had found and hung between his third and fourth paintings. It shows some men, fishermen perhaps, who are standing in a circle around a fish that is still alive and jumping. This quiet image, which at first was hardly noticeable, became increasingly intriguing and ended up projecting a metaphorical significance for the entire exhibition. Aren’t these “unfinished” paintings, and perhaps all contemporary painting, in the same situation as the fish that is still alive, but that on the verge of dying draws everyone’s attention onto itself?

Daniel Soutif

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.