Mountainville

Anne And Patrick Poirier

While the various pieces in Anne and Patrick Poirier’s recent installation stood out on their own, there was a strong sense of cumulative vision expressed in the ensemble. Entitled “Wandering into Memory,” it continued the artists’ investigation of and preoccupation with the idea and syntax of classicism. Theirs is an ongoing effort to understand the classical as a precedent and to assess its potency as a language and contemporary symbol. It is a grand obsession that produces occasionally erratic results. At times their powers of interpretation, modulation, and transformation of this stringent lexicon are riveting. But there are moments in the work that are flat and tiresome—that seem to indicate a thin infatuation with form rather than an inquiry into meaning. What the pair does produce, in all cases, is a more ambitious, if still problematic, analysis of the classical than has been seen in some time.

The exhibition included both sculpture and works on paper. In one of the indoor gallery spaces here, the Poiriers showed four large black and white photographs, depicting classical statuary and architectural elements, printed on aluminum plates. The images focus less on some overall scene or composition and more on the pitted, damaged surfaces of ancient stone—the shattered fragments of collapsed buildings, the serene face whose nose has been lost to vandalism or acid rain, the gracefully posed, dismembered torso. The tough, grainy quality of these images intensifies the impressions and injuries of time, and the fragility of material culture. Across each photograph is a Roman inscription written in blood-red paint. The word “void” is written like a slash across a stone face whose recessed eyes seemed both vacant and demonic; “collapse” is written across a photograph of barrel-shaped pieces from a classical column, strewn about as if they were diminutive toys.

In several pieces, the Poiriers play with the word “ROMA” and its reverse “AMOK.” Roma = Amor, 1988, a modest, compelling outdoor installation, consists of four five-foot bronze letters propped up by gnarled branches. From one side, the slightly askew letters suggest images from ancient Rome. From the other side, through the skeletal structure of the sticks, the letters evoke more individual tales of passion and adoration. The dialectical relationship between the institution and the individual, the public and the private, is cleverly intimated by the word play.

The scale of these pieces and projects ranges from the monumental to the miniature. The materials include the classical substances of stone and bronze, as well as polished aluminum and neon. This spectrum suggests the tremendous resilience and adaptability of the classical vocabulary. We live with its forms and derivations in our schools, houses of government, places of worship, and shopping malls. Its most reflexive use reflects a latent desire for sureness and stability. In this somewhat distorted capacity, the classical represents a formal equivalent of received authority. But the Poiriers are skillful interpreters who know that expectation, memory, and ideas do not always faithfully coalesce. In an untitled marble sculpture from 1986, they have fashioned a fragment from a colossal visage. The right eye is blank with the exception of an epitaph—Oculus imaginationis (Eye of the imagination)—that inscribes the area of the iris. Placed almost precariously on a pedestal, the piece does not convey the assurance of the republic or the steadfastness of the institution. Rather, it presents an idea of the classical that is complicated and enriched by that mode’s affiliation with and representation of paganism, sacrifice, and other more unruly, irrational forces of the human spirit and community. The Poiriers excavate a facet of the classical that is frequently suppressed. Their work encourages the memory to wander, but not without destination. They subtly, but willfully, direct that meandering to forgotten sources.

Patricia C. Phillips