French contemporary art now - recent practice and newly emerging artists

Aurelien Froment, Theatre de Poche

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There can be little doubt that in recent years French contemporary art has powered its way to new international prominence, a significance which looks set to intensify as a host of emerging names begin to establish themselves as exciting newcomers to the art scene.

There's a distinctive flavour to much current French practice: conceptual with an intellectual bent, the days when the Left Bank seemed a byword for radical thought seem revivified through a wave of questioning, parameter-pushing artists - a disproportionate number of whom studied philosophy before turning to art.

While it's certainly true that, for the last decade, the French government has made concerted efforts to promote its contemporary artists internationally, the success of this venture has also nurtured local art scenes - with some extraordinary results.

Confident and progressive, current French art may well be setting the standards by which new conceptual practice will be judged for some time to come.


Etienne Chambaud

contemporary French art and practice: Etienne Chambaud

(Born 1980) An orchestrating hand is omnipresent in all works by Etienne Chambaud, yet simultaneously negated by accruals of meaning and incident beyond the formal domain of the artwork itself.

Many of Chambaud's pieces, for example, depend on the presence of a title or caption, texts which convert the works into constituents within a semantic game or philosophical conundrum.

Sans Titre (Les Titres et leur Objet) (Untitled (Titles and their Object), 2008, consists of a simple arrangement of wall-mounted fluorescent tubing. While exhibited, the title of the piece is changed daily, the series of new names recorded on a framed calendar. The work's nominal identity is thus called irresolvably into question: should it be regarded as a different piece each day?

Chambaud's series of works La Feuille Blanche (The Blank Page (2007-9), below, equally depend on their collective title for conversion into visual oxymorons. Although literally still blank, cut and reassembled concentric circles fill each sheet with new-found form.

current French art: Etienne Chambaud

Chambaud is far from alone in his ontological concerns which, as mentioned previously, characterise much current French art practice and are equally evident in the work of compatriots including Mark Geffriaud, Benoît Maire and Aurélien Froment (Chambaud has collaborated with both Maire and Froment).

Yet Chambaud's exploration of the nature and possibilities of art has consistently widened, leading to ever more ambitious works and a particularly expansive view of art's possibilities.

Le Stade des Sirènes (Paris, 2010, simultaneously produced in London and Rome as 'The Sirens' Stage' and 'Lo stato delle sirene' respectively) derives its title from the sirens' song of mythology, which is endlessly renewed for every listener.

Chambaud's piece likewise initiates a process of continual evolution and re-invention, a drama-in-the-making centred around a stage of named plinths collectively known as The Reef (below).

Etienne Chambaud

Here, actors occasionally rehearse fragments of a specially written script; Instructions, which change throughout the exhibition, outline performative actions associated with The Reef's specific components.

The show's evolution is recorded by an ever-present Copyist, who transcribes everything that is said or seen, including the arrival and movements of visitors.

Pinned to the wall, these notes form part of the sirens' song, both describing and replenishing its protean existence.


Benoît Maire

new French art: Benoit Maire

Like several of the artists featured here, Benoît Maire (who studied Philosophy before turning to art) concerns himself with how, why and in what states art can exist.

Typical of his practice is the 2007 work Lamia, Cancelled lines following II-81 (left), which deftly describes an artefact of cultural production which liminally hovers between opposing modes of being.

Referencing the epic poem 'Lamia' by John Keats, Maire reproduces the pen strokes used by the author to cross out a long passage from his manuscript.

Alluding to ghostly verses which, in terms of Keats' published poem, exist only as a rejection, the exact moment they became a kind of non-art is captured in the crossed lines.

As a record of artistic process and revision, Maire's work reflects on an excised potentiality that still remains unofficially part of Keats' poem.

A hugely promising young artist, we cover his work in more detail in an article on new art with a philosophical or intellectual basis.


Isabelle Cornaro

Isabelle Cornaro

Isabelle Cornaro is concerned with the revaluation of objects through their arrangement and juxtaposition. She examines, classifies and reconstructs meaning according to her own idiosyncratic conventions.

At first glance, the installation Paysage avec Poussin et témoins oculaires (Landscape with Poussin and Eyewitnesses, 2008, left) provides little obvious connection with the 17th century landscape painter in its assortment of oriental rugs and objects arranged on plinths.

That said, vases with floral patterns provide a semblance of foreground foliage; porcelain animals graze atop pedestals.

Viewing the meticulously planned arrangement, we may be reminded of Poussin's mission to achieve clarity of expression through classical 'disegno', an aim also highlighted here by Cornaro's carefully described perspective and the presence of optical and metrical measuring instruments within the installation.

French art now: Isabelle Cornaro

Everyday objects that reference themselves - fish knives with fish-shaped handles or coffee spoons adorned with a bean - are another of Cornaro's fascinations, and several such items form one of her series of Homonymes (1,2,3 and 4, 2010).

These grey plaster casts of assorted objects displayed on tablets include - besides the visual tautologies already mentioned - objects decorated in various forms of relief (left), and a selection of tools, boxes and cubic forms.

Gathered together and cast as a single mass, Cornaro aims for collective meaning above and beyond each item's individual identity.

Similar effects are sought in her video works. Film-lampe (2010) portrays an assortment of lightbulbs filmed from above, the bulbs glittering like strange jewels.

De l'argent filmé de profil et de trois quarts (Money filmed from the side and a three-quarter view, 2010) provides exactly what the title states. Shot in close-up, however, the reliefs and engraving on notes and coins take on the appearance of miniature artworks, their aesthetic rather than monetary value brought strikingly to the fore.


Raphaël Zarka

Raphael Zarka

(Born 1977) Emerging French artist Raphaël Zarka is also a long-term skateboarder, a fact which defines much of his practice.

His documentation of man-made forms is approached largely from the skateboarder's viewpoint, a stance which offers an unorthodox and intriguing entry point into the categorisation of physical structure.

As Zarka himself puts it, "... skaters prioritize a relationship with the work rather than a mechanical relationship aesthetic. For them, all the interest of a sculpture is the variety of movements that it recommends."

The video work Cretto (2005), is filmed within a vast outdoor sculpture, a cement labyrinth located in the Sicilian countryside.

Begun (though left unfinished) by Italian artist Alberto Burri in the 1980s, the camera follows a man blinded by a bizarre brick helmet as he attempts to make his through it.

His movements document spatial form with an emphasis on navigation and negotiation, focusing, like all of Zarka's work, on the potential for dynamic mobility inherent in structures rarely designed for such a purpose.

contemporary French artists, Raphael Zarka

The series of photographs Riding Modern Art (left) similarly point to a very specific appraisal of sculpture, as eleven skaters surf different examples of public sculpture. And in the 2008 Padova (top left), Zarka moves backwards in time, creating a version of an apparatus conceived by Galileo to study free-fall in a ball's descent of a slope.

Retaining the original structure's shape and dimensions, this 'documentary sculpture' reminds us how the skateboarder both defies and exploits the gravitational pull Galileo was himself investigating.

Zarka's formulation of an alternative reading of form certainly offers a unique addition to the ever-changing arena of artistic critique.

He is also one of very few artists to establish a truly viable interface between urban art and more establishment genres.


Tatiana Trouvé

Tatiana Trouve: French contemporary art

Like many artists, Italian-born Tatiana Trouvé endured a long and arduous route to artistic recognition, a fact reflected in the body of work that eventually brought her fame.

As a graduate in the mid 1990s, the artist found herself faced with various difficulties: job and gallery rejections, a struggle to show her existing work and little finance with which to produce anything new.

Her response was to initiate the Bureau d'Activités Implicites (Office of Implicit Activities, left) a project paradoxically aimed at recording the paucity of her artistic career.

The series of 'modules' that constitute the Bureau assume the utilitarian nature of standard office environments, both aesthetically through Trouvé's adaptive use of familiar office furniture, and in terms of their specific function within a bureaucratic whole.

The first, for example, (the Module Administratif, initiated in 1997) contains a continually expanding archive of administrative documents such as CVs, proposals, rejection and acceptance letters, all accompanied by office supplies such as rubber bands and paper clips arranged on a specially designed desk.

Tatiana Trouve

Several Modules d'attente resemble public seating areas, yet also provide unfamiliar functionality: in one, visitors can listen to sound recordings made by Trouvé while simply waiting for various things to happen.

At the heart of the entire project, the cylindrical Module reminiscence provides a storehouse for memories recorded on slips of paper and secreted in tiny pigeonholes; its mirrored surface is designed to reflect all surrounding modules (left).

In her most recent works, Trouvé has begun to explore newer formal territories, developing interests in the demarcation of time (a theme partially expounded by the Bureau's modular histories) and oneiric intervention into architectural space.

Tatiana Trouvé: French contemporary art now

350 points towards infinity (2009, left), is composed of dozens of metallic pendulums, frozen at various angles above the floor by magnetic forces.

Other installations, in which space is redefined by strips of brass, or viewers glimpse impenetrable corridors lined with doorways, reprise Trouvé's continual exploration of possibility; no longer purely autobiographical, but points of potential in which spectators are equally invited to participate.


Benjamin Swaim

Benjamin Swaim: French contemporary painters

(Born 1970). Benjamin Swaim is one of relatively few younger French artists working with painting and drawing.

However, like a surprisingly high percentage of the artists featured here, Swaim majored in Philosophy before turning to art, and his approach to image-making is underpinned by intellectual and conceptual enquiry, with a particular interest in psychoanalysis.

The Salammbô-Schreber series (left) draws associations between the novella by Flaubert and the autobiography of Daniel Paul Schreber (Mémoires d'un névropathe). Recounting episodes of psychosis, the Memoirs became one of the most influential books in the history of psychoanalysis, thanks largely to its interpretation by Sigmund Freud.

Swaim has stated that "What appeals to me is the mixing of the serious and the ludic, the grotesque and the tragic, beauty and ugliness...".

Such attributes are clearly apparent in his series of ink drawings Forty Guns (below), which subvert the cowboy movie genre into exaggeratedly brutal, cartoon-like vignettes. Similar techniques are used in the slightly later David and Goliath, and Swaim views both series as at least partly symbolic of an Oedipal altercation, a personal struggle with the father figure.

Benjamin Swaim: French contemporary painting

Freudian connotation is also suggested by the 2008-9 series Les sculptures de ma mre (below); grisaille abstractions which hypothetically represent a series of sculptural works his mother might have created.

French contemporary art now, Benjamin Swaim

French art now: continued >

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