artbeat (2006-40)

Paris in Americans

Making heads or tails of XV Biennale de Paris

by Leslie Wylie

"And sure it seems easy now but I tell you what, we were perplexed, finding the needle in the needle’s disguise….”

Most people, if they have a room in need of painting, either do it themselves or open the yellow pages and hire the job out. But the proprietors of the Art Gallery of Knoxville aren’t most people.

They called up a company in Houston called That’s Painting Productions and shipped its French-born founder, Bernard Brunon, to Knoxville to repaint their gallery space white (its walls had been painted black to accommodate an exhibition last month). This afternoon, Brunon is hard at work rolling broad, spongy panels of white across the formerly dark expanses. Gallery co-director Chris Molinski stands on the sidelines, arms crossed, looking strangely intrigued.

“I was really surprised by how moving it’s been to watch him paint walls,” he says. “I didn’t expect it to be sort of an eye-opening experience.” The fascination, he explains, stems from a renewed awareness not only of surfaces but also of the surfaces within those surfaces—in this case, the black paint and the white paint under that and the plaster under that.

“What’s underneath will just be gone,” Brunon explains in his lyrical French accent, pausing for a moment from his work. “It’s there, but it’s not there, and if you want to see it, you really have to think about it.”

The Art Gallery’s October exhibition, XV Biennale de Paris , operates on a somewhat similar premise, Molinski explains. It’s about highlighting the invisible relationships that come out in space. “Especially with the idea of this being a Paris show,” he says. “You know, Paris is not here; we are not in Paris. But because you know that, there’s a sort of emphasis on ideas that are invisible that are influencing what’s happening but are not present.”

The original Biennale de Paris was created in 1959 by Raymond Cogniat, who was at the time commissioner of the French pavilion in Venice. It died out during the ’70s but was revived in the late ’80s, no thanks to the unsupportive formal Paris art community. So it re-emerged as a lawless, formless type of celebration, curated by no one and existing within no real geographic bounds. Today, nearly 100 projects in more than 20 countries are participating in the XV Biennial throughout the month of October. The Art Gallery of Knoxville’s incarnation is the only XV Biennial project in the United States.

Molinski explains why they chose to take it on. “This show, in particular, has something to do with creating systems of power,” he says. “For instance, the [concept of a] biennial is traditionally this power structure—there’s a certain amount of control and emphasis that people have on these big shows—so to turn that around and have it totally independently created on a different basis is a way to create a different type of relationship.”

The artwork in the show, he says, mirrors that same process of exchanging order for anarchy, swapping structure for spoof. Included is art by IKHEA, a fictitious company founded in 1998 that, according to its mission statement, “derives its strength from disorder, multiples pitfalls and prides itself on its complexity.” It published a French/English manual, IKHEA@SERVICES , presenting a gallery of rebellious ideas, one of which the Art Gallery selected to use in its show. It was the suggestion of “taking credit for the work of other artists or doing a remake without crediting them,” because “twice is better than once.” For the Biennial , Molinski says they’ll be remaking Douglas Gordon’s famous work “24 Hour Psycho ,” a slowed-down version of Hitchcock’s 1960 film.

Another art group whose work will be featured is IBK, the French publisher of another unorthodox DIY-project manual. This one comes with directions for “producing without any difficulty” a reproduction of a pre-patterned work of contemporary art. “They’re both examples of putting the ideas and the power in the hands of the audience, so the audience is moved to become part of making the piece,” Molinski says.

As for the Art Gallery’s imported French house painter, he is, of course, in on the project as well. His company, That’s Painting, proposes to have an ulterior motive—to claim house painting as artistic medium, a kind of installation art. Brunon explains that house painting employs the same materials, tools and gestures that painters use inside the studio, “but the result when I paint a room is, it’s not a picture, but it’s a painting, but it’s not a picture.”

It’s hard to tell, sometimes, whether Brunon actually believes what he’s saying or whether he’s just learned to keep a straight face while telling the joke. It could be one of the biggest hoaxes in the art world today, this Frenchman who goes around commanding big bucks for painting houses and calling it art. Or maybe it really is art. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Brunon’s work, like the other works in the Biennial exhibition, and maybe like all art, is about seeing what you want to see, what you need to see, and what you’re able to see. Maybe it’s the surface, or maybe it’s what’s buried beneath.

What: XC Biennale de Paris