Jean-Luc Moulène, Bi-face, 2016, coated and painted hard foam. Installation view. Photo: Florian Kleinefenn. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Jean-Luc Moulène, Bi-face, 2016, coated and painted hard foam. Installation view. Photo: Florian Kleinefenn. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Jean-Luc Moulène

Jean-Luc Moulène, Bi-face, 2016, coated and painted hard foam. Installation view. Photo: Florian Kleinefenn. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

PROTOTYPE AND PRODUCT, sculpture and document, corporate brand and abstract object: Jean-Luc Moulène’s protean sculptures stubbornly resist our efforts to classify them. Yet the sheer multiplicity of his work, whether generated through high-end fabrication or via skilled traditional craftsmanship, inspired by esoteric mathematics or base bodily matter, is not simply meant to provoke or obscure. Rather, Moulène’s objects are produced in service of an ambitious investigation of complexity, a rigorous, near-metaphysical study of how things hold together, either on a small scale, as with the parts that make up a single sculpture, or on a large scale, as when he addresses the relationships between one sculpture and another, or between a sculpture and the world.

The Paris-based artist first came to acclaim in the early 1990s as a producer of singularly enigmatic, at times profoundly visceral photographs; only in the past decade have audiences begun to recognize his equally significant sculptural practice, which Moulène has underscored via a sequence of prominent international exhibitions: at Carré d’Art—Musée d’Art Contemporain in Nîmes, France, in 2009; Dia:Beacon, New York, in 2011; and the French Academy of Rome, Villa Medici, in 2015, to name just three. The artist’s current show, a midcareer retrospective curated by Sophie Duplaix at the Centre Pompidou, adopts a similar focus. In fact, photography plays only a marginal role, relegated to printed matter around the exhibition’s entrance. Copies of Quiconque, 2016, a forty-eight-page newspaper that Moulène printed in an edition of 131,000, sit in a stack on a wooden pallet. In a vestibule, four books contain photographic series made by the artist between 1996 and 2011. Aside from these examples (plus three videos), the remaining works are objects, all of them new, and most made using 3-D digital modeling.

Speaking with critic Jean-Pierre Criqui during a public conversation at the museum this past fall, Moulène joked that the show is the opposite of a retrospective; it is really his first “prospective.” It is also installed in a bewildering way: There is a total absence of clues suggesting why individual sculptures are placed where they are. At the entrance, visitors are greeted by Bubuglu, 2015–16, a small imaginary, nonanthropomorphic bronze deity, which reads as though it were an icon meant to protect the rest of the sculptures. The two largest works are installed at the opposite ends of the show: These are Bi-face, 2016, a slick, undulating object sculpted from foam and coated in bright blue and red pigment, and No, no, no, 2016, a work consisting of three types of barriers cast in Jesmonite—one, a tetrapod, meant to keep waves at bay; another a highway noise barrier; and the third a Jersey barrier, designed to keep cars from lurching off the highway. The other pieces—oscillating between barrier and focal point, border and center—are counter-intuitively scattered throughout the open space, eluding any rational layout or defined path. Adding to the confusion, visitors can view this dizzying array from both inside and outside the museum: External urban elements—the Pompidou’s colorful pipes, an advertising kiosk, a bus stop, pedestrian barricades, even the noise of traffic—penetrate the membrane of the museum’s glass-curtain walls.

Moulène is not drawn to complexity in itself, however, but to the fact that complexity can be made visible—that it can be revealed through an image.This is the genesis of the artist’s interest in advanced mathematics. A previous body of sculptures took inspiration from knot theory, a branch of topology that studies mathematical properties such as intersection, continuity, and surface. As much a tool for formal invention as a method of classification, the knot presents a radical challenge to classical sculpture’s division between interior and exterior, opening up new possibilities for reckoning with—or even systematizing—surface, form, and matter. The works at the Pompidou build on those observations, variously employing a set of procedures inspired by set theory: laterality, intersection, and cut. These are executed using 3-D design software and fabricated using cutting-edge industrial tools.

Moulène employed at least one of these procedures to make each of the works on view. The first, laterality, simply involves joining individual forms together in a row, side by side. This action—which is visible in works such as Indexes, 2016, and Voyelles (Vowels), 2015—yields sequences of juxtapositions that might involve, say, quotidian domestic objects and intricate abstract shapes or, as in the case of the aforementioned No, no, no, three types of barricade. Intersection, meanwhile, involves using CAD software to make objects overlap in three-dimensional space, so that they simultaneously occupy the same volume. The works in this category include Voiture&Fille (Car&Girl), 2016, featuring a somewhat inexplicable (and unavoidably Ballardian) form overlaying volumes in the shape of a car and a female torso, as well as Un os bleu qui voit (A Blue Bone That Sees) and Monsieur Propre jusqu’à l’os (Mr. Clean to the Bone), both 2016, composed via intersections of a bottle of Tide laundry detergent and a human knucklebone. The third of Moulène’s procedures, cutting, is self-explanatory, most commonly realized as an incision or slice, as in the Hans Bellmer–esque Jeanne and Bouboulina, both 2016. In some works, however, it manifests in more oblique ways. To create Bi-face, for example, Moulène undertook a complicated series of interventions to stretch the primary surfaces of the weld line in Voiture&Fille.

By foregrounding these procedures in his work, Moulène may bring to mind Richard Serra’s famous Verb List, 1967–68, a catalogue of processes such as “to split” or “to scatter” that could guide an artist’s relationship to materials such as lead and rubber. For Moulène, however, intersection, cut, and laterality are not used to modify forms but to imagine relationships. They propose ways in which we might classify, organize, or interpret; they model possible systems. As Moulène says, somewhat whimsically, “Since in the street, there are bodies and cars, then let’s make bodies and cars intersect! We’ll see what it looks like.”

To this end, one should also consider Bleu de costume (Dungarees Suit), 2016, a men’s suit inspired by (or, should I say, intersecting with) the typical French worker’s outfit, produced in an edition of five hundred and sold for 140 euros at the BHV Marais department store a few steps from (and nearly lateral to) the museum. Here what matters, according to Moulène, is the layer between the work’s interior surface and the skin of whoever wears it—a space that can only be revealed with a cut.

View of “Jean-Luc Moulène,” 2016–17. Center: No, no, no, 2016. Photo: Florian Kleinefenn. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

THE SHOW’S ECCENTRIC INSTALLATION makes it difficult to determine the part of the viewer, if there is one. “The role played by people in this exhibition is not at all calculated,” says Moulène. “There is no scenography or choreography; the distances between works are not measured for the observer. Essentially, man is necessarily foreign in this space: he is welcome, yet foreign.” The visitor’s sense of estrangement only intensifies when he or she is face-to-face with the sculptures themselves, which are strangely indifferent. They neither ask for interpretation nor seek an external gaze to attain completion. They are alien objects. And it is often impossible to determine, simply by looking at them, the methods by which they were fabricated, the by turns luxurious and extraordinary material from which they are made (carved stone, porcelain, bronze, concrete, wax, polystyrene, foam, sintering powder), or even to approximate their weight. More than touch them, I would have liked to lift them up, to verify them. (In fact, the burnished-bronze works Ça propre [trou] [That Clean (Hole)] and Ça propre [anse] [That Clean (Handle)], both 2016—intersections of a Tide bottle and a coffee mug—even sport handles.)

While Moulène’s works may originate in such familiar ready-made forms as cars and detergent bottles, his deformations and intersections frequently conceal those origins, rendering the final object wholly nonreferential and abstract. In works such as Un os mauve (A Purple Bone), 2016—a warped, striated, lacquer-covered foam object with indeterminate folds and curves—we fundamentally have no real grasp of what the object is. It exists in a state of raw indeterminacy and otherness, rejecting our efforts to make sense of it. Moulène’s use of digital modeling and fabrication with these unorthodox materials echoes the most ambitious sculptural experimentation of our time, undertaken by artists such as Charles Ray and Jeff Koons, yet Moulène forthrightly rejects the figuration and representation that so viscerally inform their work.

There is, however, a through line connecting many of these heterogeneous materials and morphologies. Moulène repeatedly resorts to a substance that, curiously, could not be more bodily: namely, bone. This can be seen in works where the artist has taken the shape of the bone and fitted it together with other objects: Os météorite (Meteorite Bone), Body versus os (Body Versus Bone), and La fille de l’os (The Bone’s Daughter), all 2016, as well as Monsieur Propre jusqu’à l’os, Un os bleu qui voit, and Un os mauve. He also uses real bone: Moulène made Âne (Donkey), 2016, by filling a rubber donkey mask with wet concrete, submerging an actual donkey skull in this cement-filled mold, then violently cutting the thing in two after the concrete hardened. Real mammalian teeth project from the far end, embedded in the material like a fossil. The head—broken in two halves, in a play on the near-homophony in French between âne (donkey) and crâne (skull)—sits at the center of the show, like a fulcrum.

According to Moulène, the bone is “what’s left of us when we die; it is the ‘noyau dur’ [‘core’], but it is also an internal object, seen as whole when separated from the body.” Amid his knots and sets, cuts and intersections, what is Moulène doing with bone, the noyau dur of sculpture? Bone indicates a kind of timelessness: As much as it is something that speaks to us of and from the past—a relic of deep, archaeological, and indeterminate time—it is also what remains of man after death, which survives his extinction. It implies deep structures or organizing principles that are otherwise unrealized or unseen. Bone has an essential quality: It functions not alone, but as an armature.

“Jean-Luc Moulène” is on view through Feb. 20.

Riccardo Venturi is an art historian and critic based in Paris.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

View Jean-Luc Moulène’s portfolio of photographs “M. Chaudin’s Garden” (April 2012).