Raymond Hains

Galerie Passages

Raymond Hains' work is as disturbing as it is moving. Born in 1926, Hains already had quite a long history behind him when the critic Pierre Restany coined the term “nouveau réalisme” (new realism) in 1960 to describe the work of a variety of artists—including Arman, César, Hains, Yves Klein, Martial Raysse, and Jean Tinguely—who by that time had begun to use everyday materials, existing artifacts, and similar concrete approaches to art making. Although the inclusion of Hains among this group was justified by his direct appropriations of fragments of reality, such as the removal of affiches (advertising posters) from walls and other outdoor surfaces, even then it did not encompass the totality of his art. Since the late '40s he had not only discovered the principle of “affichisme” but had also used a special, grooved lens to make some distorted photographs and abstract films. This is the same lens that led Hains to his “ultra-lettres,” letters distorted to the point of near-total illegibility; his major work in this mode is Hépérile éclaté (Hêpérile burst apart, 1953), in collaboration with Villeglé, an optically distorted photograph of a phonetic poem by Camille Bryen.

There is a verbal infrastructure underlying all of Hains' work. His interest in language was apparent even in his “affiches,” where the random pattern of tearing would often produce chance instances of wordplay. This recent exhibition, which included Hépérile éclaté in addition to a large assortment of works from 1987, demonstrated the range of Hains' verbal constructs: puns based on homophones (as in the title of this show, “Paris—Pâris,” a juxtaposition of the names of the French capital and the mythical Trojan hero), double entendres, deliberate mistranslations, witticisms, and displacements of customary meaning or natural order. They add up to a method that Restany appropriately referred to as a process of “associative logarithms,” the results of which constitute as much a way of thinking as the matrix of an artistic production.

The show here at Troyes—sponsored by the Fonds Régional d'Art Contemporain de Champagne-Ardenne and curated by its director, Catherine Bompuis—was conceived principally in terms of the interplay of several historical, geographical, and linguistic conjunctions. The name of this lovely little town an hour and a half's distance from Paris is pronounced exactly the same as Troie, which is the French name for Troy, the legendary city of Greek antiquity. Several of the works in this show are based on this particular coincidence—for example, the large Cibachrome photograph of a box of Le Cheval de Troyes chocolates (with its punning reference to the Trojan horse), and another of a coin discovered in the 19th century in that district with, on one side, the profile of Priam (the king of Troy and the father of Hector and Paris) and, on the other, an image of the city of Troy itself. Other works refer simultaneously to this theme and to certain episodes in Hains' career. Thus, one could regard the small chocolate sculpture of a horse as a simple evocation of the Trojan horse, but it also refers to the installation that Hains and Christo made together in 1963 for an exhibition at the Musée d'art moderne in Paris. That installation, “Néo-Dada emballé” (Neo-Dada wrapped), consisted of a gigantic wrapped horse, since “dada” means horse in colloquial French. Still other works are examples of what Hains calls “personalized abstractions,” most of which are simple emblematic signs that have come to be associated with certain artists (such as the color blue or gold with Klein, stripes with Buren, etc.)—hence the photograph of ,“monogold” candies alluding to Klein, or a wall relief based on the Shell Oil insignia (a reference to Mimmo Rotella). Unfortunately, there isn't enough room here to describe—or explain—all of the elements in this excellent exhibition of an artist who knows better than anyone else how to weave together and to unravel the various threads of selves, objects, and images of art.

Daniel Soutif

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.