Bernar Venet: Paintings at SeMA

Friday April 29, 2011

I went to the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA, 서울시립미술관, exit 2 from City Hall station 시청역) for the first time, thanks to friend-of-a-friend 신이슬, on Sunday April 10, 2011, just after the Chagall exhibit finished. I'd been thinking of going to that Chagall exhibit for some time, but alas it was not to be.

We went to see the Bernar Venet exhibit. I was interested because I heard that he used math in his paintings. I was further interested because when I went to wiki him, I was unable to find an English-language wiki page. French yes, German yes, but no English wiki for 베르나르 브네. He's better known for his big arc sculptures, and some of them are even in the US. I was more interested to see this show, which I guess was first shown in the Centre Pompidou (Paris) because he seems, at least by wiki standards, less well known in the English-speaking world.

Bernar Venet
Paintings 1961-2011. A Retrospective

I've never encountered such strict restriction of photography in a gallery. Here's a picture of the exhibit brochure.

I had thought initially that Venet was the kind of guy who used mathematical techniques or computer graphics or something to make pretty works of art. But for the most part really what he does is make big painted enlargements of illustrations from math textbooks and technical journals. It wasn't what I was expecting, but it was actually pretty fun. Some of the stuff is easy to recognize and understand, like the examples shown above. In his later work, however, he just has overlapping, unreadable text from proofs (some from Gödel, for example) and long lists of numbers. I doubt whether the artist himself really knows what all the symbols mean. Here's the text from one of the explanations on the wall, in Venet's own words:
I do not rule out the idea that the paintings I produce can be seen as attractive. This is certainly a matter of taste, of a tendency to derive pleasure from a cold, non-expressive aesthetic. I would say: it's an aesthetic specific to them. But let's be careful: what appears beautiful to some people does not appeal to others. Often enough, incomprehension results in rejection. Some people think it's necessary to decipher these equations in order to appreciate them. This raises a question that seems interesting to me about what is meant by 'understanding' works of art. The various characteristics that we are in a position to perceive while looking at a work of art, even the most conventional, are infinitely less than the total number of characteristics belonging to that same painting. Certain people find beautiful only what they understand and can clearly identify. With my new paintings, viewers are challenged by a high level of unreadability, and are either ignorant of, or insensitive to the context that has generated this type of work. The average spectator turns away and cannot even imagine that one can speak of aesthetics.

I really did think the paintings were attractive. Especially the ones with math, graphs, numbers etc. that I didn't understand at all. They were just pretty. They could hang easily in a living room or a dentist's office. The explanation continues:

During my conceptual period, any relation to formal or aesthetic problems was excluded. My works remained austere, and as neutral as possible in order to focus attention on their contents. I did nothing to improve their presentation; I had to avoid the risk of seduction. As I've grown older, I've learned that jouissance is not prohibited and that pleasure is not outlawed. So color has been introduced into these new works - why not? 
Here color has a function, a signaling function. These colors have no poetic connotation. As far as the murals are concerned the color could be changed according to the place where I exhibit them. The choice of color has no particular significance.

I thought the exhibit was really well designed. It started with a very early painting, from when Venet was just 18, and which is vaguely figurative and symbolic (called something like "Life is a reprieve from death" in English). Then there was a series of paintings all just black, black, black. Not even paintings - Venet found some tar somewhere outside, just natural tar, I guess, and he spread it across a frame (probably not even a canvas, I guess; maybe just over wood?). So he made these big, black rectangles. The tar is glossy, thick and luxuriant, almost like lava flows. The interesting thing for me was how in his later pictures, the background colors and even the character of the painted text was similar to the consistency and sheen of those old tar paintings. It's somehow glorious, rich and natural. The absoluteness of those colors was part of the beauty of the paintings, for me, and somehow connected all of Venet's painted work across his career.

A very nice exhibit!

This post was originally hosted elsewhere.