by Jill Conner
Jean-Michel Othoniel creates monolithic gem-like garlands made with shiny orbs that appear as larger-than-life beads. The surfaces are mesmerizing while the colors trigger longing and desire for glamour, an impossible feat when standing in the presence of such large scale installations. As a result the opulence of Othoniel’s work transforms art observers into miniatures of a vast, marvelous curiosity.
In 2012, Jean-Michel Othoniel swept New York City beginning with My Way a grand, mid-career retrospective that opened at the Brooklyn Museum on August 17th and remained on view until December 2nd. Since the early 1990s Othoniel’s art has appeared in Los Angeles, Miami and New York. However this year, the Brooklyn retrospective was highlighted by a show of Othoniel’s new work that took place at L&M Arts from September 6th to October 6th, located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Both shows in New York served as a cornerstone for the artist’s increasingly notable success.
On December 12th, the Musée Eugène Delacroix in Paris will feature watercolors and a sculpture by Othoniel, to be seen alongside the sculpture of Johan Creten as well as several flower paintings by the master of 19th-century French Romanticism, Eugène Delacroix. The process of art history is not ostentatious but, rather, modest and honorable. In 2013 Jean-Michel Othoniel will unveil a permanent, site-specific sculptural installation in the gardens of Versailles. His work will be the first permanent piece of art added to the grounds of this historic site in over 200 years. In 2000, Othoniel installed Le Kiosque des noctambules over a Paris metro station, in the same manner as the earlier Art Nouveau structures designed by Hector Guimard.
The connection of Othoniel’s current work with the cultural history of France firmly joins his oeuvre to the scope of art history. However when I met the artist in Brooklyn for a tour of My Way, we started looking at his earliest work from the 1980s where he was exploring the aura of the body and its erotic orifices. “I began working in photography, studying its chemistry,” Othoniel explained. But at this time AIDS started to spread aggressively throughout America and Europe, turning the representation of the body into an index of hollow irony. Meaningful art was in demand but what would it look like? The artist added, “The idea was to make a space of enchantment, to bring hope and re-enchantment to the world.”
In the early 1990s the artist traveled to the south of Italy and watched sulphur explode from a volcano. “I also discovered glass coming from the volcano, and I wanted to recreate this in a laboratory, to melt it. To use the remnants of this violence coming from the earth, and it was the first time that I started working with glass blowers. I started working with a team of people around 1992 and was more like an architect. I soon discovered the world of glass blowing.” Tears (Lagrimas) from 2001 is a 16-foot long wall installation of sealed glass jars containing distilled water, wood and aluminum fragments that appear like encased charms. This piece functions like a memento mori, using encased objects to suggest a relic or memory.
Memory then becomes manifest as a dream and fantasy in My Bed (2003), a free standing sculpture made as a bed that consists of a steel, aluminum frame and a canopy made entirely of large Murano glass beads. The transparent colors of turqoise, blue, yellow and purple set against the silver bed, along with its pink cushion and juxtaposing blue wall suggest a sheltered environment where everyone is momentarily an innocent, roaming free of harm. Hanging Lover (2010) suspends from the ceiling like a glass tassel made of yellow, white and blue orbs.
The crux of Jean-Michel Othoniel’s sculptural installation in My Way was his repeated representation of the Lacanian knot as a writhing strand that would not touch other fragments while twisting, thus remaining free. The necklace serves as a template for this part of the artist’s work. In fact, the body is suggested through its absence and also through one’s own juxtaposition to the outsized scale experienced in each piece.
Monumentality as a means to preserve cultural memory is significant to Othoniel: “I love to work on public projects. I like moving beyond the framework of the museum, or the gallery, in order to take the risk to show the work to people in the street and try to have a connection with them. The subway project changed my life because it made my work more familiar to the general public, and it’s permanent.” Since the early 1990s, the artist has been to Italy, Mexico and India creating art in each country. Orthoniel describes his work as nomadic, showing the final pieces in different countries from where they were initially made. The Water Theater Grove in the Gardens of the Palace of Versailles is his next project, a commission that is set to be unveiled in 2013. Selected from 140 artists, Othoniel states, “It’s a big statement for the castle. For me it’s amazing since it will be public and in the garden. It’s a site with a lot of emotional feeling and very moving as French artist.” Versailles will become a site where the nomad can unwind.
Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.
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