Galerie Baudoin Lebon

Ben’s “Thirteen Sculptures” show included some 50 paintings, readymades, assemblages, toys, machines, and other gadgets meant not only to be looked at, read, and listened to, but also written on, pushed, pulled, pedaled, and eaten. The resulting ambiance was somewhere between garage sale and day-care center, and it is worth noting that, in addition to the regular gallery-goers, there was a steady stream of toddlers-to-teens, and no one looked bored. Worth noting, too, that Ben ( né Vautier) began his career as the proprietor of a second-hand-store-cum-gallery in the late ’50s; that for more than 30 years, his Duchampian vision of “total art” has been continuously reincarnated in the form of objects, actions, Happenings, performances, and self-published tomes; and that from his resolutely provincial perch in Nice, he has become, through a combination of insight, wit, and sheer tenacity, the self-appointed conscience of the French art scene.

In a gallery conveniently located just a few blocks from one of the city’s largest temples of consumer culture, the BHV department store, Ben included several strong works dealing with the “business” of art. A quintessentially kitsch statue of a nude, which was hooked up to a recycling fountain of water, for example, was mounted on an ironing-board pedestal inscribed with the comment, “Today art can be found at the BHV. Why buy it elsewhere?” An old-fashioned cash register let out with a tape-recorded cacophony of sales being rung up every time visitors pressed a certain button. Nearby, a standard Ben-format painting (white handwritten message on black ground) indicated that “the exhibition continues at the BHV: hardware, lingerie, toys . . . ”

Outside this commercial interstice of art and life, there were lots of artsy in-jokes, visual puns, appropriations, and homages—an upturned felt hat (For Poor Beuys, 1989); a kind of manifesto-painting, Duchamp a dit (Duchamp said, 1986–87), that was bursting with quotes from the master on one side, his assemblage-filled profile on the other, and at the bottom, the disciple’s epilogue: “Ben says: what to do after Duchamp? Nothing? Anything? Everything? Speak the truth?”; Coiffeuse (Hairdresser, 1989), an exercise in existential anxiety consisting of a large vanity table equipped with headphones, which allowed the visitors to contemplate their reflections while having their identities called into question by Ben’s recorded monologues; and Machine à suicide (Suicide machine, 1988), a device equipped with a rifle and an elaborate pulley for setting it off, a last glass of wine, a last pack of cigarettes, a writing pad for last wishes, and a statue of the Virgin for last thoughts.

Even this blackest of black humor had its antidote: yet another ironing board, with a white sail rigged up at one end, an electric fan at the other, and next to the iron, the handwritten reminder that “anybody can have a dream.” Likewise, a chair, suspended from the ceiling, its entire surface decked out with the detritus of consumer society, from champagne corks and used batteries to feathers and plastic flowers, projected a strange beauty out of ugliness. Ben’s art seems largely oblivious to current notions of style, but it remains timely in its conviction and its creativity.

Miriam Rosen