Denis Savary, Ostende, d’après James Ensor (Ostend, After James Ensor), 2011, elastomer mask, couch, overall 71 7/8 x 26 x 29 1/2".

Denis Savary, Ostende, d’après James Ensor (Ostend, After James Ensor), 2011, elastomer mask, couch, overall 71 7/8 x 26 x 29 1/2".

Denis Savary

Galerie Xippas | Paris

Denis Savary, Ostende, d’après James Ensor (Ostend, After James Ensor), 2011, elastomer mask, couch, overall 71 7/8 x 26 x 29 1/2".

Featuring works in video, installation, and sculpture created between 2006 and 2011, this show emphasized contemplative aspects of Denis Savary’s art, rather than the straight-facedly humorous, cool side for which he is also known. Perhaps more important, it reaffirmed the Paris- and Lausanne, Switzerland–based artist’s interest in exploring simple pleasures in his own “backyard,” in the bucolic yet cultured French and Swiss farming country, evocative of the region around Lake Geneva where he is from. For Savary, it is an emotional and, to a certain degree, physical “stillness” in such places that deserves to be recorded and remembered. This ordinariness, which is derived from staging or noticing everyday situations and occurrences around him just when not much out of the ordinary is happening, is reinforced through a deliberately restrained use of technical means. The depicted world appears familiar; nonetheless, without claiming any overt individuality, it is neither generic nor banal. Various little idiosyncrasies constitute its uniqueness: a sudden shift in scale, an awkward movement in space, an unexpected noise. These happenstances are supposed to communicate more than the eye can see, and they do.

The French hamlet of Saint Erme and a pathway in the natural park in Les Arques, which appear in one of Savary’s videos, are hardly extraordinary, but they are not devoid of charm or mystery. In this work, Frau, 2006, a woman visible from behind walks through a wooded area, speaking (though we do not see to whom, as her voice is almost drowned out by the sound of chirping birds). Her movements are slow, implied by the movement of the foliage in the foreground rather than by her body. The same work was played on six identical low-tech monitors placed on traditional pedestals facing a tall canary-yellow wooden fence (Untitled, 2011). Image and object communicated with each other in a carefully staged sensory interplay between the near-stillness on the screens and the chromatic seductiveness of the fence, a mass-produced object that resembles a subtly brushed abstract painting. With such a sensual interaction, Savary created an engaging spatial dialogue, using the gallery as a stage for art, and thus making viewing this show a unique experience, as one walked simultaneously between the two works, admiring their serenity. In the looping Saint Erme, 2009, which records the cutting of a tree branch with a chain saw, the main question is not so much, Who is doing it? but rather, Why it is being done in a heavy fog? There must be some logic—it may be simple stubbornness—beyond disregarding unfavorable weather conditions for the sake of getting the job done. We don’t see who’s holding the saw; we just hear the noise produced by the action, which, surprisingly, does not significantly disturb the odd tranquility of the scene.

Although Ostende, d’après James Ensor (Ostend, After James Ensor), 2011, looked visually more aggressive than other pieces in the show, it spoke to a similar desire to stay in the artist’s own backyard, but this time it referenced one of the canonical European artists of the fin de siècle, whose expressive symbolism was often perversely scatological. In Savary’s work, a life-size replica of a bizarre mask that Ensor owned was placed on a secondhand sofa. This peculiar arrangement inside a claustrophobic space—the piece was placed in a small room isolated from the rest of the exhibition by a staircase—offered an unexpected and unsettling voyeuristic glance at the private world of fantasies that in the other pieces in this show remained hidden or veiled behind a gentle mist.

Marek Bartelik