Bertrand Lavier

Villa Medici

Bertrand Lavier’s crowded universe of objects is taken from an iconographic territory that seems to have no limits. This stimulating survey, curated by Giorgio Verzotti within the historic setting of the Villa Medici, poses questions about genres and artistic languages—and provides responses that are sometimes disorienting, sometimes enlightening. The well-paced installation summarizes all the so-called chantiers (construction sites) . . . thematic types that repeat over time in Lavier’s production, with thirty-three works ranging in date from 1986 to 2008.

Lavier’s chosen strategy is irony. La Bocca/Bosch, 2005—a red sofa shaped like a mouth, placed atop a freezer—welcomed visitors into the Villa’s atrium. Named only by their brands, the objects Lavier displays are mere material, mass-produced. Yet at the same time, they generate a proliferating combination of meanings, always indicating an alternation—and a short circuit—between “high” and “low.” In the cosmetic-like quality of the thick, uniform paint that covers a grand piano (Steinway & Sons, 1987), or in the trivializing patina of nickel that coats precious artifacts in a group of sculptures from 2008, mutation is part of the genetic code; the works are enveloped in an inexorable spiral of associations that collapse, one upon another. In a move reminiscent of Haim Steinbach’s particular treatment of the readymade, Lavier rescues everyday objects from consumption and moves them from a utilitarian to an aesthetic context, as in the various Objets Soclés (Objects on Pedestals), 1995–2007—a refrigerator door, a lock, an electric saw, a skateboard—presented on pedestals. They lose their function, creating an anomalous distance and a disturbing perspectival relationship between viewers and the objects.

Lavier’s taste for distortion is most striking in Sociétés Générales, 2008, an installation of eight colored ceramic pieces created for this show, each of which is a manipulation and simplification of the logo of a different international bank. Placed in niches and alternating with the ancient bas-reliefs on the interior facade of the Villa Medici—conceived by Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici as an open-air museum of his collection of classical and Renaissance marbles—the logos become heraldic, contemporary coats of arms. They are expressions of economic power, like that of the Medici, the first true bankers and financiers of the ruling European houses. Stripped of any geographic or cultural reference, decontextualized, unrecognizable, their plain, neutral graphics—neutral and interchangeable—evoke the very essence of global financial power, dislocated and elusive.

The Villa garden also held two works that clarify Lavier’s relationship to the dynamic of high and low. Fontaine (Fountain), 2000–2008, is made of colored hoses gathered at the center of a basin, where the various elements spray water around randomly, in a mocking reference to the Baroque concept of the urban fountain, seen everywhere in Rome. Walt Disney Productions 1947–2008, 2008, a sculpture in blue resin with vaguely modernist forms, is taken from a 1947 Mickey Mouse comic strip, in which the famous cartoon character embarks on a detective adventure in the Museum of Modern Art in Mouseton. The cartoon and the work both parody the very concept of modernity, but in different registers—indicating the faint fissure between vulgarization and artistic value, a territory as thin as a razor’s edge but one in which Lavier moves slyly, producing unequaled destabilizing effects.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.