Gilles Barbier: Travailler le dimanche (Working on Sundays)
March 26 through September 26, 2021
By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, April 2021
Gilles Barbier’s promiscuous presentation at HAB Galerie in Nantes is funny, sad, elegant and decadent. His show Travailler le dimanche (Working on Sundays) is a classic timeless postmodern discourse about the nervous narrativity of language symbols. It features an abundance of large, laboriously created, beautifully copied-by-hand, gouache drawings of pages of Le Petit Larousse Illustré: the massive French-language encyclopedic dictionary.
The absurdity of its eloquent, high-toned, oracular scopophilia is a useful corrective to the dogmatic excesses of viral realism. By looking languidly long at all 24 of them, the French language takes on a phantasmagoric blasé aspect; losing importance, and gaining in dramatic dreamlike softness of a grandiose guignol going on way too long.
The amount of work that went into each drawing is gob smacking and a bit gloomy. This sumptuous detail of De “Garcette” à “Grossesse” (2010) conveys the anal retentive brimful atmosphere of all 24. Behind their linguistic mental-machine lavishness lay all the complexities of muteness. They reminded me of something the intriguing American philosopher Alphonso Lingis wrote in his essay The Murmur of the World (where he calls us into the realm of subliminal background noise): that it is wrong to suppose that only the meaning attached to words communicates. Rhythm, tone, periodicity, stammering and silences also speak.
It became apparent to me that this is the grueling work-ethic work of an artist-artisan who is exacting and ambitious and uncompromising within a private ritual of expiation. Alas, their exquisite if prissy execution of strict systematization produced something like a mild sense of repulsion in me. The longer I went from one to the other and looked, the more I began channeling what first seemed orderly-eternal into a phlegmatic festival of glut. The work is both teeming and tedious. A soupçon of pimped-out outsider art obsession with compulsive detail permeates the work and is what makes these decadent folkloric drawings melancholic. The hand hard at work is the frame one views the dandy phonological excess within. I suppose this is particularly true if you’re not into the minutia of the French language, as I. This unforthcoming installation to non-Francophiles turned my mind towards the flamboyant gratifications of glossolalia. Regardless, this impressive rigorously structured collection of eccentric-compulsive drawings ~ all the same large size and tonality and all framed identically in black frames ~ can take on, if you let them, the repetitive splendor of Erik Satie’s proto-minimal musical composition Vexations (circa 1894): a work that repeats 840 times in succession an enharmonic musical theme with accompanying chords.
Within that dominant theme of difference and repetition ~ evocative of the 1968 book by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, Différence et Répétition ~ Barbier’s bitchy humorous sculptures lighten spirits as only a sacred jester’s mental meanderings might, by mocking pampered narcissists. Punctuating the repetitive minimal-maximal mordantly witty language scene are some incredible aberrant hyper-real wax figurative sculptures of striking élan. Such as the posh-pathetic vanitas sculpture Vieille femme aux tatouages (Old Woman with Tattoos) (2002).
What a wicked-good piece of spectacular kitsch that punctures perfectly the drone of surrounding verbosity. Easy to perceive, it is the kind of art that is loved by people who hate the art world. The laid out lady is as appalling as she is compelling: tattooed with the names and logos of the cosmetic companies she buys from. Even as an idyllic odalisque, she looms up over language and her unexpected presence takes command of the setting. Making the dictionary drawings seem like shadows of oblique intensification.
In another, smaller sculpture, Logorrhée (2009), Barbier seems more interested in the skullduggery of a freaky language virus ~ in the parlance of William Burroughs. Also a small smug-looking (rather than macabre) Smiling Skull (2008) opens the show with a taste of the nasty comedy to follow.
With his sculpture Barbier is tremendously blunt in his mocking of triumphalism: whether that of intellectual verbosity or the vanity of the wealthy. I admire him for it, but what struck me as most exact to his voluminous visual propositions is his peripatetic brooding on the loathed theme of ignobility.
Barbier is an artist whose art is rich in connotations of travesty ~ conveying both revulsion and recreation. As such, he is perfectly in tune with our time and its prevailing cultural sensibility of failing to transcend clichés of spent rationality. He talks out of both sides of its mouth. WM
Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.view all articles from this author