New York

Jean-Luc Moulène, Blown Knot 1 (CIRVA, Marseille, June 2014), steel, glass, 18 1/8 × 15 3/4 × 15 3/4".

Jean-Luc Moulène, Blown Knot 1 (CIRVA, Marseille, June 2014), steel, glass, 18 1/8 × 15 3/4 × 15 3/4".

Jean-Luc Moulène

Miguel Abreu Gallery | Orchard Street

Jean-Luc Moulène, Blown Knot 1 (CIRVA, Marseille, June 2014), steel, glass, 18 1/8 × 15 3/4 × 15 3/4".

After visiting Jean-Luc Moulène’s “Torture Concrete” at Miguel Abreu Gallery this past fall, one would have been forgiven for scratching one’s head. The artist’s diverse, astringent work, which has ranged from monochrome paintings and landscape photographs to enigmatic sculptures comes wrapped in an aura of obdurate difficulty—the implacable air of the deadly and complex. Split between the gallery’s two spaces, this show displayed thirty-seven pieces in various media, many (though not all) belonging to “Opus,” 1995–, a series that was the subject of a major survey at Dia:Beacon in 2011.

In a 2009 interview with art historian Briony Fer, Moulène articulated a mission statement of sorts: His work, he declared, is born of a desire to create “any nondescript object with exactitude.” The original French uses the adjective quelconque, which can also be translated into English as “anything whatever” or “unspecific” and points to the phrase’s self-consciously wry inversion (if not involution) of Donald Judd’s “specific object.” Fer goes on to invoke Judd’s statement that a “form that’s neither geometric or organic would be a great discovery.” Moulène responds: “We know about other mathematical models, other, less dualistic geometries.” Could such geometries lead toward the quelconque? To be sure, several works in the show see Moulène borrowing from the esoteric netherworlds of higher math—specifically, from a branch of topology called knot theory—where he has found a rich vocabulary of forms and procedures in which the categories of geometric and organic break down.

In fact, one way to view this exhibition was as a veritable Wunder-kammer of topological knots. At the Orchard Street space, a pair of nuzzling blown-glass sculptures modeled something called the Hopf link; seven glass and bronze works mounted on vertical poles at Eldridge Street reconstructed the first five prime, or “nontrivial,” knots; nearby, a compact ravel of red, blue, and yellow blown-glass loops expressed Borromean rings; and a group of concrete heads cast from Halloween-mask molds were, the press release informed us, “another variation of the knot in its most condensed, simplest form of a single loop surface” (or a self-contained sphere). The prevalence of blown glass was fitting, as the plasticity of that substance in its molten state has a natural affinity with a mathematical discipline that studies the continuous properties of three-dimensional objects in a dynamic state of change and deformation. And deform these knots Moulène does: He seems to relish destruction through creation. The majority of his sculptures—particularly the seven based on prime knots—steadfastly flout math-textbook ideals of depictive clarity. Rather than reveal their structure, the bronze Noeud 5.1 Varia 02 (Paris, 2012) and its ilk are blasted, bony wraiths.

That’s because for Moulène, knots are a means, not the end. They are tools. “We can consider the surrounding world not in terms of forms and colours, but topographically,” he said in his interview with Fer, “in terms of the number of holes.” A concern with holes, and with classifying the world by holes, evidently inspired Blown Knot 1 (CIRVA, Marseille, June 2014) and Tête-à-Cul (Paris, spring 2014)—two works that, at first glance, could hardly be more different. To make the former, the artist shaped a length of wire mesh into a trefoil—the second of the prime knots—and then inflated a blown-glass vessel inside it. As the heated glass expanded to fill the metal structure, it bulged outward around the wire, swelling like a strangled balloon. For Tête-à-Cul (Paris, spring 2014), meanwhile, Moulène began with an actual balloon, and inflated it inside a very different kind of object—an assemblage consisting of the jawbone of a boar affixed to the pelvic bone of a deer. Here, the swelling is disturbingly bodily and considerably more extreme: Latex protuberances spill like tumors from between the sculptures’ gaps.

The shared submission to the forces of inflation, constriction, and distension in these works—this squeezing of substances through orifices and holes—suggests a vision of the world as a continuum of homeomorphisms. It is a place where the organic and the geometric might meet or entangle or overlap as they collapse onto a spectrum of continuous flux, as destabilizing expressions of the quelconque.

Lloyd Wise