Brooklyn Invades Paris
The Brooklyn in Paris Exchange
by Vincent Falivene
When I arrived at Galerie Les Filles Du Calvaire in Paris, I encountered a wrought iron gate and a small courtyard before reaching the glass front of the gallery. Once inside, I stood in a small office with three women, a bar on the right side and the exhibition space in front of me. I was somewhat shocked by the immaculate white, well-lit space, expecting something similar to its grungier Williamsburg counterparts. “Je ne parle pas bien français,” was the sentence I rehearsed over and over during the flight the previous night. The possible language difficulties were explained in an email to Christine Ollier, director of this gallery, and along with Alun Williams of Parker’s Box (Williamsburg) the driving force behind the exchange. I was finally greeted by Marie, Christine’s assistant. Marie got me oriented with a glass of wine. I had a meeting scheduled with Christine for the next afternoon, but I wanted to introduce myself. This proved impossible as a steady stream of people were already arriving and Christine was busy schmoozing.
The gentle Spanish music of Adriana Arenas’ installation, “Don’t Say I Never Loved You,” drew me through the black curtain which separates the exhibition space from the office. I was met by swirling lights and people gathered in front of the small monitors at either end. Even with the language barrier it was easy to see the overwhelmingly positive response to the installation. The same can be said of the work on the second floor, where Guy Richards Smit’s videos, including the conceptually innovative “Ballad of Bad Orpheus,” vie for audio dominance with Christoph Draeger’s disaster video. Smit’s water colors and Sebastian Bremers well-crafted photograph/ paintings demonstrate that this exhibition is not just about video and installation art. Their work is a reminder that traditional media is still as vibrant and innovative as their video counterparts.
The following afternoon I had the opportunity to sit and talk to Christine over a cup of coffee. Christine Ollier has 20 years experience in private and public galleries, as well as museums in both Paris and New York. She has warm, round eyes and is genuinely excited about our discussion, but is exhausted from the previous night’s festivities. Christine confirms my analysis. The opening was a great. Several important collectors came. My remark that the amount of hard work and planning was staggering is met with an emphatic “yes,” and a long drag of her cigarette. All of this began during a March 2001 encounter with the Brooklyn galleries at the Stockholm Art Fair. Christine capitalized on her intentions to orchestrate what she sees as imperative to the survival of small galleries and emerging artists.
As I had noticed earlier in the day, the Marais is stocked with gallery spaces, some of which are large and profit-driven like many of New York’s Chelsea galleries. Christine explained that these galleries, which in many cases are run like corporations, have an international network where galleries in Chelsea, London and Berlin, for example, agree to promote an established artist. The network does not exist for small to mid-sized galleries and new artists. The Brooklyn in Paris Exchange is an attempt to build these relationships. Long gone are the days when a single gallery can support an artist. Establishing this network is integral to the survival of small galleries and artists they promote.
Christine sees the pioneering, artist-run Williamsburg galleries as fertile artistic laboratories and a valuable resource internationally. Over several years Williamsburg has grown, and there is currently a high level attention on the forty plus galleries in this Brooklyn neighborhood. Christine would like to see it continue to grow without sacrificing its commitment to new and emerging artists. She shares the same goal for the many Parisian galleries in the north Marais, where there is a burgeoning contemporary art scene.
The most difficult aspect of the exchange was matching galleries with one another. Each had to be a curatorial fit and the physical capabilities of the respective spaces had to be taken into account. Ultimately the exchange involved a totally of 18 galleries and institutions. Though the galleries on both sides of the Atlantic are innovative and dynamic spaces in their own right, they are quite different. In response to visiting Williamsburg’s gritty, industrial spaces, a representative from Paris telephoned Christine playfully exclaiming, “you want us to exhibit in a garage.” After touring the Marais, I came to understand the initial Parisian response.
The Marais is a traditional gallery district and one of the oldest neighborhoods in Paris. The subtle Roman grays, balconies, and Baroque ornamentation are a perfect setting for a group of galleries that are ideal art spaces. Most are well-lit, white, and elegant, with ample space for videos and installations that need to be set apart. The tremendous amount of work that went into matching two physically disparate galleries was obvious. What brings the post-industrial spaces together with the polished
galleries of the Marais? The communal goal of a resounding international voice for the emerging artist and the galleries who support them. Both groups are dedicated to innovation, experimentation and discovery in the visual arts. The differences
My tour of the Marais was one in a foreign land, yet upon entry to the gallery spaces the work of Brooklyn artists obviously abounds. In addition to Galerie Les Filles Du Calvaire, the list of galleries is long. The tour includes Galerie Anne Barault, Galerie Bernard Jordan, Galerie Michel Rein, Galerie Chez Valentin, Galerie Anton Weller, Galerie Eric Dupont, and Espace Huit Novembre. The many highlights include Stacey Green’s “Rohrsback Striptease”, Michael Ballou’s “Multiplex” (featuring an array of artists including Omar Fast), and Bruce Pearson’s “Silenus.” They bring to the fore the eclectic blend of videos, installations, paintings and mixed media representative of the Williamsburg art scene.
I asked Christine how she felt about the trend toward video and installation art in Paris, as well as in New York. Traditional media usually sells better for galleries. This, however, does not deter Christine. She looks for quality new work and actively seeks artists working in new media. As she stated, “Collectors are collectors, they are always in pursuit of something new. We need to keep the work we exhibit fresh.”
The other major hurdle to the Brooklyn in Paris Exchange was, of course, financing. The exchange brought together many funders including the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the French Embassy. The galleries themselves also had to split many of the costs. An important implication for the French galleries was the involvement of the French Cultural Ministry. France is unique among nations because of the power of the French Minister of Culture. Traditionally, private galleries have suffered from a certain degree of institutional bias with government support going to public institutions and museums. France had a financial crisis in the 1980s resulting in the closing of small and mid-sized galleries. In the 1990s these galleries began reappearing, and, like their Williamsburg counterparts, they operate for no profit and many times at a loss. Upon hearing of the exchange, the Ministry recognized its importance and became involved. Christine hopes this is a portent of things to come for the private sector who are largely responsible for the promotion of emerging artists. The new relationship is paramount to the continued growth of the visual arts in France.
Also like their Williamsburg counterparts, international recognition is integral for survival and success. For the French this may be even more important. Unlike artists from England, Germany, and other elsewhere, French artists have not immigrated to the United States and other countries. Because of this their work is little known outside of France. Christine believes the movements in French art have been obscured since the 1960s by major movements in the United States and recently by exposure for the “Sensation” artists of the United Kingdom. This truth is all the more surprising considering France’s place in art history. Christine hopes cultivation of this vast network will gain international recognition for contemporary French artists.
Oddly enough, shipping became a serious financial problem. With little or no money left for shipping, many of the Brooklyn artists flew to Paris to install their art with the missing but necessary materials purchased in Paris. In the case of Espace Paul Ricard this was planned as the artists were invited to create site-specific works, curated by Kathleen Gilrain of Smack Mellon. In both cases this bred a family atmosphere among the artists, the visiting gallery directors, the French gallery directors, and a myriad of assistants. In many cases the Americans were sleeping in the galleries themselves, working day and night until completion. It became obvious why I had entered such an intense party at the opening. It was much deserved.
Later in the evening, I went to the final opening at Espace Paul Ricard. This gallery is different than the other participants. Located in the glamorous 8th arrondisement down the magnificient sculptures of Place de Concorde and Catherine de Medici’s old hunting ground, Jardin des Tuileries, this gallery is every bit as posh as its neighborhood. Not only set apart geographically from its counterparts, Paul Ricard is a larger, modern gallery even more well-equipped to house the variety of sights and sounds that make up the exhibition titled “Flay, Splay, Play The invisible Scalpel of an Anatomical Aesthetic.” The opening had all the glitz of a major event.
My guide this time was Kathleen Gilrain of Brooklyn’s Smack Mellon. In the fist gallery the dangling mirrors of Simon Lee’s “How beautiful is the Turning Cabbage” was a fine introduction to the exhibition. A large room follows which houses several photographic collages by Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson, including the dream-like negatives of “Interior Monologue.” This section of the gallery also houses the video installation “Every Anvil” by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy depicting cartoon violence. Finally there are David Baskin’s urethane rubber sculptures, including “Well Hung Table.”
The bar was on the far wall, and I quickly had the first of many glasses of Ricard. Past the bar, the work of Eve Sussman takes over and I entered a room housing the installation “Fly Right.” The last room, in what begins to feel like a museum gallery, is the home of “Horror Chase,” Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s claustrophobic and wild video footage of a camera chasing a horrified man. It is the highlight of the exhibition.
During my journey through the gallery, it felt as if the space was specifically designed to house these works of art. Illuminating a difference between installing in Paul Ricard and Smack Mellon, Kathleen informed me that they paid careful attention to things such as completely painted bases and hiding wires in this elegant space. Many of these things they could overlook in the spacious but gritty Smack Mellon gallery.
Earlier that day I had asked Christine if the exchange fulfilled her vision for it. Those inviting eyes widened, she smiled proudly, raised her eyebrows, and took a long drag of her cigarette. Then her eyes narrowed and she told me she has had this idea for many years. She smiled again. This time it is as if she knew something I did not. She added, “…and I have many, many more ideas,” unwilling to offer me even a guess. Then she profusely thanked Alun Williams once more.
It was great to see emerging talent from Brooklyn prosper in Paris. The exchange opened many doors for smaller galleries internationally. Lasting bridges were built. More exchanges are being planned with many other countries. It was also a privilege to meet gallery owners who have not lost sight of an important aspect of their work, the promotion of new artists and media. These individuals overcame many financial and political obstacles to achieve the goals of this many financial and political obstacles to achieve the goals of this exchange. Without their diligence, enthusiasm, and willingness to take risks, transcendent and progressive art would not be seen by the public. It is encouraging to see the Parisian gallery owners share this philosophy with their Brooklyn colleagues. The exchange was a triumph for the galleries and artists. From what I can see, there is much more to come.