Ed Ward's Blog Leaves Europe After 20 Years and Returns To The U.S., Another Foreign Country. Currently, This Blog Is In Transition.
Thursday, August 4, 2011
Germans in Nîmes
I got an e-mail a couple of days ago from E & J asking if I'd like to go to Nîmes ("the city with an accent," as their current tourism campaign has it) to see the Albert Oehlen show at the Carré d'Art, the Norman Foster building which incorporates the city's contemporary art gallery and its public library. Since it sure beat sitting in front of the computer waiting to hear if my agent's sold my book proposal or not, I said sure, and also notified Gerry, the only person I know in Nîmes, that I was coming.
It's an easy drive on the motorway to Nîmes, and I hadn't been there since about six or seven years ago when it was raining hard all the time and I stayed in the scariest hotel I've ever stayed in, a whorehouse run by a former AP correspondent from the Caribbean. Yesterday, in contrast, was sunny and very warm, and the place seemed to have sprouted dozens of restaurants since I was last there -- or maybe they only come out for tourist season.
I was disoriented at first because the parking structure we parked at was being torn up in a big way. If it hadn't been, I'd have known where we were instantly, so after a bit of confusion we made it to the museum and Gerry was waiting.
Naturally, my photo does no favors to Foster's building, but when E offered to buy us some coffee, we went to the café on top of it and there was a nice view of Nîmes' historic center. That's where the picture of the spic and span Maison Carrée at the top of this post comes from. Last time I was here it was decidedly greyer, but on the other hand you could just walk in and see the miscellaneous antiquities. It's a former temple to Caesar the Romans threw up, and part of its renovation has involved a multi-media show of some sort, which is why there are so many people there on the front porch: limited access -- and no longer free unless you live in Nîmes.
Gerry had business to do before he left town for a visit to Quebec, but we went about doing what we'd come for. Oehlen interested me because he was a student of the late Sigmar Polke, who was probably my favorite contemporary German painter, mostly because of his sense of humor, something many of the guilt-wracked postwar German artists lacked. Not that Polke couldn't be serious, it's just that that wasn't all he could be. To me, that makes a difference. Oehlen has traces of Polke's influences in his work, and in his abstract (and semi-abstract) work from the '90s, he shows a real flair for color, one of the few non-pop artists I've seen who uses actual dayglo in his work and uses it intelligently, peeking out of a corner or coming through a window-like structure that's showing itself through another layer of paint. The next decade brought in his grey paintings, not as interesting, although there's a certain tension between representation and non-representation. It also brought the paintings which are the only out-and-out clunkers in the show, early primitive computer graphics, obviously from something like an Apple ][, blown up to ridiculous size. The things I liked best were paintings with the FM label, short for Fingermalerei, or finger-paintings. These consist of blinding white canvasses with smears of paint, sometimes very bright colors, streaking along them. They look like they were done very fast, although it's also possible Oehlen spent hours worrying over the next move.
Some of them are done over photos, like the one excerpted for the exhibition's posters, which takes a huge photograph of an old woman at a swimming pool, slices it so her face isn't recognizable and then turns it 90° on its side and takes up the right hand of the canvas. Running along the bottom, in some kind of joke, are three stripes in the colors of the German flag.
The pictures are big, but there really aren't any blockbusters here. I suspect his best work is to come.
Downstairs, the permanent collection is a surprise. One kind of expects mediocrity in provincial museums, and one is almost never surprised, but nestled in among the so-so works here (one of which is a long text-driven set of photographs by Sophie Calle, who I'm beginning to suspect might be France's answer to the over-adored German Josef Beuys) are some very pleasant surprises -- many of them by German artists like Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter. They show they're aware of recent trends, since there's a Big Photo by Massimo Vitali of a beach, and a couple of nice Andres Serranos, and, in a dark part of the museum, a really amusing work by Hans-Peter Feldmann which casts magical shadows from really mundane sources turning around on little carousels, and, in the final room, a very subtle work by Christian Boltanski, who has made a career out of obsessing over the losses of World War II while creating works of such deep humanity that you never feel like you're being preached to. I'd say that the curators of the Carré d'Art in Nîmes are doing a good job, given their budget, focussing in on the best stuff they can get. Oh, and the latest acquisition? A FM by Oehlen that's one of his best.
We wandered around a bit afterwards, stumbling on the École des Beaux-Arts that Gerry's wife Shoko is attending, which has a nice staircase in it.
Then we found Nîmes' most enigmatic Roman ruin, which doesn't show up on any of the tourist maps and isn't marked in any way. It is, however, right on the ancient Via Domitia, the Roman road which went through a lot of this area and can be seen marked on the motorway at various points as well as in downtown Narbonne, so who knows what it used to be?
Then we drove back and I got home to find a message that another publisher had turned the book down. Ah, well, there's always another day!
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I'll really be getting out of town next week, heading to Cro-Magnon country to get in touch with my roots. Meanwhile (and utterly irrelevantly), here's a link to me talking about meeting Little Richard.