The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

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APR 2015 Issue

CLAIRE FONTAINE Stop Seeking Approval

Stop Seeking Approval the current exhibition by self-proclaimed “readymade artist” Claire Fontaine at Metro Pictures, begins with a video of a woman in a black jacket and white shirt giving self-help advice against a vacant white background.  With an authoritative presentation reminiscent of Tony Robbins, the actress in “Untitled (why your psychology sucks)”(2015), asserts “the I that’s depressed, doesn’t actually exist,” “the ego is conceptual,” and that the solution is to, through meditation, “pretend like you’re dead.”  A brick covered with the jacket of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crackup (1936) in the gallery corner further suggests a distressed ego in search of dubious solutions.  Indeed, “Pretend like you're dead” (2015) is an apt motto for Claire Fontaine—an art collective that takes its name from the popular French stationary brand. Since 2004, Fontaine has approached the readymade, abstraction, and collectivity not as aesthetic ideals but as coping strategies in the symbolic economy of contemporary art.  If these practices have failed to kill the author, representation, and individualism, Claire Fontaine suggests, they may still offer a catalogue of readymade forms to remix and reassemble into an allegorical frieze of avant-garde aspiration and political frustration. 

On View
Metro Pictures
February 26 – April 4, 2015
New York

A theme of liquid that runs throughout the exhibition begins in the first room, where we encounter a painted illustration of Moby Dick (“Untitled [White whale]” [2015]), a metal downpipe painted with anti-climb non-drying paint that conceals a stashed knife, and a painting of a patent for a ridiculous toilet snorkel device that supposedly draws clean air from the toilet during a fire.  If these works present an overtly literal interpretation of Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917), a lightbox on the adjacent wall, “Untitled (advertising, advertising)” (2015) signals a more proximate source for Claire Fontaine’s approach by referencing French conceptualist Philippe Thomas and his fictive public relations firm readymades belong to everyone®.  Beginning in 1987 Thomas’s agency produced art for collectors who were then deemed authors of the works, liberalizing the Duchampian choice by outsourcing it to a paid professional. Here an advertisement for Thomas’ agency (“advertising, advertising,” 1988) that states “art history in search of characters...” and features a shelf of books on Andy Warhol, Marcel Broodthaers, and Duchamp is given a feminist counterpart with a corresponding shelf of books on artists such as Cindy Sherman and Louise Lawler, two important female appropriation artists represented by Metro Pictures. A text below reads “if you are not an ignorant and know how much social movements, technology, and ultra-liberalism have transformed authorship during the past 60 years ... then you must take action and make wonderful, extraordinary, and frightening artworks that will change people’s perception of reality and will touch their world like no political speech can.” 

The irony of this ambition becomes apparent in the next room of large-scale “fresh monochromes” made from anti-climb security paint that performs the distinctly extra-aesthetic function of smearing unwanted intruders with non-drying paint on contact. These large fields of gelatinous red, black, and grey are nearly devoid of incident, save for the areas where visitors have touched or brushed against them, leaving scrapes and marks on the painted surface and smudges here and there throughout the gallery. Even today, when the transcendence of the monochrome has been disabused by materialist and conceptual approaches to abstraction, the threat of marking the viewer as a perpetrator is striking for its aggression and impotence in equal measure. Like Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s sandpaper-covered Situationist book Mémoires sitting on a library shelf, the fresh monochrome lashes out from its seemingly inescapable institutional domestication.

The “Untitled (begging paintings)” (2015) in the next room swap liquid paint for currency­—Euro coins affixed to the canvas with magnets that present the painter as panhandler, and the canvas as piggybank or wishing well. By collapsing the abstractions of art and money, these works convey perhaps the most direct expression of Claire Fontaine’s contradictory anti-capitalist profiteering, her attempt to simultaneously subvert and benefit from a system that exploits producers.  The compromises of this approach are further suggested by “Untitled (Skewer)” (2015), a wall-mounted chessboard that diagrams a move known as a skewer: a bishop checks the king in order to capture the queen behind it.  The defending player must sacrifice the queen in order to save the king in a last ditch bid to survive.

In the beginning of The Crack-Up, Fitzgerald makes the widely quoted observation, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Stop Seeking Approval develops Claire Fontaine’s decade-old practice with juxtapositions of complicity and antagonism, aesthetics and anti-aesthetics, hope and hopelessness; by offering little in the way of originality or invention, however, these works leave viewers to assess for themselves the price of their ambivalent functionality.



Liam Considine


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

All Issues