New York

Michel François

Curt Marcus Gallery

At first glance, Michel François’ recent exhibition resembled the playroom of an affluent child blessed with an unusual collection of oversized toys. Shiny objects hung from the ceiling, and cushiony surfaces were spread along the ground. Large video monitors sat on the floor in both rooms of the gallery space, while two gigantic, almost Oldenbergian spoons leaned against a wall. Yet if the show as a whole initially seemed to offer a kind of youthful, if precious, fun, on closer inspection the works that comprised it circumscribed the limits of play. Just as an overprotective parent reins in a destructive child, the pieces seemed to issue a warning: look, but don’t touch; sit at the table of art, but don’t eat.

The video loop Frigolith (Styrofoam, 1995), perhaps the show’s most effective piece, was emblematic of the entire installation’s restrained, self-conscious play. Here Styrofoam balls were blown by an invisible force toward the camera lens. The balls crowded the screen, as if jockeying for position or engaging in a kind of frantic dance. An arrhythmic, crackling sound—perhaps that of crushed Styrofoam—comprised the accompanying soundtrack, and filled the exhibition space. The pressure of suffocating confinement and the urge for transgressive freedom seemed to do battle in this piece, whose meaning resided somewhere in the flicker between the two.

This kind of not-quite-ludic play, a play that confirms the systematicity of a system, also serves as a metaphor for the artist’s relation to the art world. Much of François’ work seems to pose an implicit critique of artistic value while not claiming exemption from that value system. Or (Gold, 1996), a stack of oversized, golden cardboard, coinlike disks in a corner of the gallery, suggested that while artists cannot always make money, they can occasionally still make “money.” Unlike counterfeits, these gold pieces bore no imprint—as if they had been somehow effaced—and were obviously valueless. Yet the light hit this pile of currency in such a way as to cast an auratic halo around it. Engaged in some kind of inside joke with Or was Argent (Money, 1996), a tower of Brazilian coins stacked from floor to ceiling and held in place by a wire running through the metal (a piece astonishingly similar to Jac Leirner’s strings of Brazilian paper money). These coins were “real” and thus “marked,” but because Brazilian inflation and subsequent economic reform had rendered them obsolete, they were now literally worthless—except, of course, qua installation.

While François sought to disturb facile notions of artistic axiology, there was a truth-to-materials ethos here that couldn’t entirely be put to rest. Take Lit (Bed, 1996), for example, a six-foot-long “bed” of carved white Styrofoam. The piece, placed on the gallery floor, advertised an uncomfortable insubstantiality. You can’t sleep here, it seemed to want to say, perhaps with a touch of schadenfreude. This is a show preoccupied by lightness and François everywhere explores the logic of suspension. In Lampes (Lamps, 1996), he hung lightbulbs of various colors and sizes, covered with little nuggets of Styrofoam, from a wire running the length of the gallery. The suburbanization of inspiration? Something more playful? More sinister? Left hanging along with these questions were paper-cutout numbers of various sizes, held by clothespins from another wire (Nombres [Numbers, 1996]); balloons covered in varnished newspaper from the business section (Ballon [Balloon, 1996]); gold-painted cardboard shot so full of holes that it resembled Swiss cheese (Cartons Troués [Perforated cardboard, 1996]); and broken plates suspended from the ceiling, called (what else?) “Assiettes Cassées.”

In the gallery’s reception area stood Coudes (Elbows, 1996), a photograph of a faceless figure wearing an old wool sweater, bare elbows toward the camera in a demonstration of either poverty, bohemianism, or both. How this document of “wear and tear” was meant to reveal the (absent) thread that connected the various pieces of the show was a bit of a mystery. The press release, in almost inimitable art-speak, suggested something about “a collection of residues of human activity which lay somewhere between leisure and survival,” as if this “somewhere” were not, in fact everywhere.

Nico Israel