Jeff Wall

2 Impasse Lebouis
September 9–December 20

Jeff Wall, Diagonal Composition, 1993, photo transparency on light box, 16 x 18".

Jeff Wall has built his reputation on precisely staged moments, often influenced by scenography from nineteenth-century canonical paintings. His exhibition “Smaller Pictures,” however, shares little with his signature panoramas—not just because of the difference in physical scale from the artist’s usual largesse but also due to the very scope of the pictures’ vision. The artist selected the display here from his personal collection, with each image intended for a more diminutive format. As Wall explains: “Some of these pictures simply refused to be included in larger plans I had for them . . . some were just accidents along the way.” Examples of these misfit images range from the stark color blocking of Diagonal Composition, 1993, which frames the sink in his studio, to The Giant, 1992, which features a naked woman on a stairway landing.

Throughout the first floor of the show, assorted surface details of trivial scenes are highlighted, including commercial boutique windows, cobwebbed panes of glass, textured tree bark, and peas and sauce in an aluminum tin on the ground. When the human body appears, it is seen piecemeal: cut off above the neck in Torso, 1997, or as a dangling foot near a pair of black heels in Picture for Parkett, 1998. A vitrine showcases facsimile documentation of the series “Landscape Manual,” images and text from a road trip that Wall took from Vancouver to the surrounding region between 1969 and 1970. Though Wall’s gaze has the frankness of a documentarian, the pictures—especially those mounted on light boxes and rendered incandescent—contain a sense of mystery and ambiguity that extends beyond their quotidian scale.

Sarah Moroz

Nina Könnemann

17 rue des Panoyaux
September 12–October 10

Nina Könnemann, What’s New, 2015, HD video, color, silent, 3 minutes 43 seconds.

Nina Könnemann’s ethnography of micro gestures and marginal spaces continues with the video What’s New, 2015. Projected silently and clocking in at three minutes and forty-three seconds, it’s calibrated to YouTube-era attention spans. But such brevity belies the extended observation undergirding its absorbing ends. The video surveys a single street-level billboard in Berlin over an indeterminate period of time, its posters changing along with the seasons. Variously framed to either show the whole display or focus on salient details, footage of the site is intercut with shots of concerts, a museum, a gas station, and a barbecue—each of which, we eventually realize, is promoted in the posters. The colorful, banal images of urban consumer experience compose a kaleidoscopic montage. None of this, after all, is terribly exceptional, and only as new as modernity itself.

One bill promoting late-night hours at the Gemäldegalerie for the cool-hunting crowd features Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia, 1602. A buckling seam between panels of the reproduction ruptures the painting. But shifting attention from this eruption of the real across the folds of painted flesh, a figure slips behind the billboard. Hands repeatedly grasp the post framing the advertisements as men duck out of sight, presumably for a piss, a tryst, or a puff. These adaptive behaviors make use of the display as a shield, which is redoubled by the projection screen. Könnemann captures such gestures at the threshold of the permissible. Against the incursion of spectacle into every aspect of administered life, to which the billboards testify, these urban passersby answering bodily urges might be understood allegorically. Their transgression, if it is such, is modest, but the artist manages to convey vitality in their moments of private sanctuary found in what was once called the public sphere.

Phil Taylor

Pedro Varela

6 rue Notre-Dame de Nazareth
September 5–October 10

Pedro Varela, untitled, 2015, acrylic and pigmented pen on cut paper and pins, 24 x 16".

Brazilian artist Pedro Varela approaches painting with a sketchbook sensibility, which is fitting since his last show at this gallery featured images drawn in blue Bic pen. The exhibition’s title alludes to Nuremberg Chronicle, an illustrated tome from 1493 on world history that muddled biblical tales with facts. Varela himself references common stereotypes ascribed to New World “exoticism” and enmeshes them with both accurate and imagined characterizations.

A selection of his recent paintings is divided into two rooms: one focusing on color, the other mostly black and white. The former room includes three paintings (all works untitled, 2015) with psychedelic Technicolor palettes in midnight-blue and acid-pink tones. Delicate petals and lush vegetation are depicted in fine brushwork over watery background washes. The flora has an enchanted forest quality, intercut with geometric shards. The latter room includes mainly small canvases, from a tiny vanitas skull out of which branches grow to a portrait of Cunhambebe, a chief of the cannibalistic Tupinambá tribe thought to have feasted upon sixty Portuguese colonists. Two of Varela’s works implement dimensional collage techniques: cut geometric paper forms are delicately pinned to the canvas, akin to taxidermied insects in a curiosity cabinet. Totems like the Brazilian Urubu, or black vulture, make an appearance, as do other dark symbols of violence, like guerrilla warriors, disembodied limbs, or the face of journalist Vladimir Herzog, who was tortured to death by military police under the Brazilian dictatorship. These references lie discretely couched, however, among compositions of trees, hills, and caves. Cumulatively, the works create a vibrant universe, shifting between geometry and landscape, still life and abstraction, history and fantasy.

Sarah Moroz

Laure Prouvost

place du Château
June 26–October 26

Laure Prouvost, The Smoking Image, 2015, tapestry, motorcycles, smoke machines, mud, carpets, eggs, cellphones, feathers, video, color, sound, 8 minutes 40 seconds.

Things move quickly in the ludic world of Laure Prouvost, so listen close and try to keep up. Unexpected liaisons arise between words in her loquacious videos, which spill into accompanying installations and artifacts. For instance, sitting amid the quirky tea service surrounding the Turner Prize–winning Wantee, 2013, one occasionally hears an anguished lament from an adjacent room, accessed by a diminutive corridor worthy of Alice in Wonderland: “They don’t understand! They don’t fucking understand!” the artist protests in a video titled Stong Sory Vegetables, 2010. But misunderstandings become generative opportunities for imagination in Prouvost’s work.

This is especially true when the artist moves between her native French and adopted English, as in The Smoking Image, 2015. Shot in part on the grounds of this museum’s historic chateau, the video swirls around a gang of local teens preoccupied by dreams of escape and sexual awakening. Anglophones beware: The subtitles make for misleading crutches supporting the teens’ rapid-fire slang. Literal translations from the French break down into phonetic transcriptions that rely on proximate English faux amis, resulting in such phrases as “On ear alone evite the era of LA and use that font.” Staccato editing splices cigarettes and motorcycles with lactating breasts and tongues licking electronic touchscreens. As mother’s milk dissolves into motor exhaust, the video marks a jump-cut leap from childhood to adulthood.

Images have tactility in Prouvost’s videos. Likewise, the sensuousness of words can appear more important than their significations. It’s a quality that places Prouvost in a genealogy that includes dada poets and Lewis Carroll, but the instability of linguistic convention in her work also testifies to the estranged experience of leaving home. She’s a fabulist at heart, using the child’s expansive capacity to invent stories in order to confront the most confounding of situations.

Phil Taylor