Jean-Luc Moulène

FOR THE ONGOING PROJECT “Documents,” begun in the late 1990s, French artist Jean-Luc Moulène creates photographs that explore the interconnections between public commerce and art. Two well-known series within this project are “Les Filles d’Amsterdam” (Amsterdam Girls), 2005—close-up portraits of naked prostitutes, crouching so that their shaved genitals have equal billing with their hard-looking faces—and “Objets de grève” (Strike Objects), 1999–2000, which document what Moulène calls “objects of altered production” made by striking French factory workers: bright red shoes, strike maps, political figurines, a red adaptation of the original iconic blue Gauloises cigarette pack. Rather than keeping any of Moulène’s series intact or otherwise conforming to the conventions of the retrospective format, however, his recent exhibition at the Carré d’Art instead emphasized the links between his photographs and his elegant pencil, graphite, and felt-tip-pen drawings, on the one hand, and his wood, rock, plastic, concrete, and metal sculptures, on the other.

Taking his cue from the grid of the glass box designed by Norman Foster for the Carré d’Art in 1980, Moulène arranged eighty works made between 1977 and 2008 along a kind of conceptual pathway. In the first gallery, which served as a kind of foyer, he presented works documenting what one might classify as the evolving construction materials of civilization—two color photographs of overgrown rock fortifications on the Corsican coast and one, titled 3 Standards, 2004, of a suburban house, backyard playhouse, and doghouse; and sculptures, including one of a section of I beam with a miniature man seemingly swimming across it, and a concrete post whose top inspired the work’s title, Bitte à fruits (Fruit Knob), 1999. The next room focused on iconic human images in various manifestations, with a cartoonlike child’s head made of sandy concrete; a cluster of cut-up photographs of shaved female genitalia; photographs of a peeled orange (Orange nue [Naked Orange], 1991), a man with a scythe (La Faucheuse [The Grim Reaper], 2000), and a naked pregnant woman doing an awkward push-up (Sphinx, 2003); and two drawings—both titled Le Nœud coulant (The Noose), 1997 and 2007—made from cutout photographs of eyes and connected by a drawn loop, suggesting a means of knotting together sight and its representation.

The following gallery was the largest, in which, the artist says in an interview with art historian Briony Fer included in the show’s catalogue, “the programme bears on certain ambiguities of representation and therefore proposes images and objects, tools of vision.” The circular, cloudlike shapes in the three drawings in the gallery were clearly associated with the three spherical sculptures—Quelque chose noir (Something Black), 2005, a twelve-pointed star known in topology as a hyperbolic icosahedron; Boule fixe (Sphère de Lisbonne) (Fixed Ball [Lisbon Sphere]), 2007, a globe covered with black paving stones from Lisbon; and Quelque chose généralisé (Something Generalized), 2007, a large skeletal sphere made of criscrossing triangular wooden lattices. These drawings and sculptures in turn played off the three photographs in the space—of two piles of blue-gray bowls, chalkstones washed by waves, and blurry sunlight on a checkered floor—in differing degrees of abstraction, up and down the ladder of logical types between handmade and photographed representations.

The rest of the exhibition built on this approach, with various arrangements of sculptures, drawings, and photographs, along with a side gallery featuring a video shot with a camera phone aimed directly at the sun and two galleries that contained only drawings. The through-line that emerged seemed to circle around the vague objectivity of the notion of quelconque, literally “whatever” but translated here as nondescript, a word Moulène brings up repeatedly in the catalogue—describing, for instance, his work’s probing whether it is possible “to produce [a] nondescript object with exactitude.” The generic words in Moulène’s titles— ball, basin, something, standard, star, etc.—likewise function as leitmotifs relating such terms to specific objects, pointing to the back-and-forth movement between the photographs and the drawings and constructions. Like spare concrete poems, the latter works function as abstracted forms around the revolving specificity of Moulène’s photographs, connecting old physical patterns to new ones, like archetypes to clichés, with their spheres, crosses, and primary numbers recalling an imago mundi with a transcendent heaven and ignominious hell.

Moulène has claimed that “negation is the founding act of creation” in his critical reckoning with reality and his transformation of reflections into forms. Yet since Moulène confers iconic status on what he depicts, this negation paradoxically becomes an act of affirmation: Icons affirm rather than negate. Moulène’s use of the color yellow, which he favors for its inherent link to light, offers a telling continuity here; the color appears in a number of the sculptures, such as his cemetery-scale Croix jaune (Yellow Cross), 2004–2005, and in photographs, including Nuquirit (Laughingnude), 2004, in which a naked actress (Jeanne Balibar) giddily emerges from a lemon-yellow background. Like Moulène’s photographs of quelconque products such as plastic bottles and chairs, linoleum floor grids, and working and idle people, this photograph questions its subject’s role in the hierarchies of culture and commerce. This is a world in which happiness is immediately suspect, and Moulène’s starkly aggressive image, as off-putting as it is nakedly suggestive, literally and figuratively, brings to a head the sentiment that courses through his work even as it raises an unresolved problem that artists have been dealing with ever since fine art first began reflecting on its association with commerce: What kind of art can bring us beyond the escapism of a product-driven world whose images stimulate desire without actually fulfilling it, while they simultaneously steal something once called the soul?

Jeff Rian is a writer living in Paris.