New York

Anne and Patrick Poirier

Sonnabend Gallery

“It is wrong to believe that these myths and ancient geneses do not concern us anymore. The human soul is made of memory and forgetfulness; these constitute being.” So Anne and Patrick Poirier once wrote, referring to the classical culture of the Mediterranean. The art that the Poiriers built on this faith in the ’70s and ’80s—microcosmic reconstructions of ancient ruined architecture, arrangements of outsize fragments of Greco-Roman sculpture, and related works—was among that period’s many signs of an esthetic shift: after the sublimities and stringencies of formalism, Conceptual art, and Minimalism, a return of history, allegory, anecdote, and the depiction of things seen and imagined. And though I suspect the Poiriers’ rehabilitation of classicism always made best sense on their French home turf, their pursuit of a vanished past, as a way of vitalizing the life of the present, had an interesting sublated energy.

If memory grounded the Poiriers’ earlier work, their latest large piece speeds through that territory without touching the pavement and winds up in fantasy, or perhaps in a perversely backward-looking futurism: it is an imaginary lost city that despite its classical foundation distinctly recalls the intergalactic spacecraft in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. One’s recollection of that circular flying tube is jogged by the fact that steel cables hoist the Poiriers’ scale model of their city to eye level, an Atlantis of the air. A wall text explains, “Our latest excavations have laid bare the remnants of the city of Ouranopolis . . . . The City of the Sky. A place we have not yet been able to locate on any map of space or time. We are now showing . . . a tentative reconstruction of this vast architectural complex.”

Ouranopolis (all works 1995) is a room-sized wheel of smooth white-painted wood and milkily opaque Plexiglas. The wheel’s outer wall is studded with little brass grommets containing lenses through which one peers one-eyed at the structure’s interior spaces, which are reminiscent of the Poiriers’ earlier classical miniarchitectures. These largely all-white halls and theaters are realized in sufficiently impressive detail, number, and variety to suggest the amplitude of a city. Their pristine peoplelessness, though, cancels or at least subdues much of the vibrancy one would expect might result: immaculate though they be, they whiff of the same evacuation and loss that the Poiriers used to find in the ruin.

Accompanying pieces support this ambitious object, a little unsuccessfully. Journalde l’archéologue (The archaeologist’s diary) is a grid of wall-mounted cards taped and stuck with a medley of appliqués—gloves, leaves and other vegetable matter, postcards, the messy remnants of life that Ouranopolis itself omits. Yet the glow of this perhaps overly pretty work is dampened by the silliness of the many inscriptions listing what the Poiricrs are thinking about these days—mainly abstract nouns, it seems, like Idée, Verité, and of course Vide. (“Le vide,” we learn, “est absolument parfait” [the void is absolutely perfect].) To handwrite “Sexual Drive . . . Appetite . . . Aggression” is to say nothing much. Journal de l’architecte (The architect’s diary), a large drawing, plans a library on a cranium or brain shape, tersely correlating the inner world of sensory and mental consciousness with the outer one of created culture, its structures and monuments. But the Poiriers have worked this metaphor more effectively in earlier sculpture, setting a ruined classical temple, for example, inside a half skull. The Ouranopolis Finds achieves a literal transparency with its all-glass vitrines of broken glass urns and other vessels—suitably ethereal kitchenware for a race of people who, according to a jotted note in Journal de l’architecte, “built a city according to the maps of the sky.”

The Poiriers seem to be at a career stage that often gives artists difficulty: having begun with a cogent signature idea (or, I guess, Idée), they now must refine or expand on it, or else just repeat themselves. The Ouranopolis project, unfortunately, seems like an experiment elaborated beyond usefulness—the detail and ingenuity with which it is realized have outrun the work’s initial impetus. But on my visit a little boy whose mother was lifting him up to look through those peepholes thought the views were awesome.

David Frankel