Claire Fontaine’s New Conceptual Work Is a Feather-Thin Facade


So much of what passes for neo-conceptual art — and there is a glut of it these days — would be more accurately labeled “conceptually art.” (Aside: Isn’t neo always the first clue that the end is here?) If conceptuallyism insists that it is bursting with ideas, transcending the vulgar material world for higher-minded artistic pursuits, its visually
underwhelming if not utterly vacuous projects suggest other forces are present: risk-aversion masquerading as insider cool; some smug strain of labor shame; and the hand of the artist aspiring to wield the power of a brand.

Claire Fontaine has skated the line between conceptualism and conceptuallyism from the moment she was conceived in 2004, when a Paris-based collective created the fictitious “readymade artist,” appropriating the name from a popular French brand of stationery. Supporters have praised the art of Fontaine as a wily move in a Duchampian endgame played against authorship, authority, capitalism, and other grand targets. Detractors have regarded Fontaine’s practice as hypocritical, cynical, a black hole of theoretical bluster where art is made to eat itself. But regardless of whether you’re a fan of the Fontaine industry, it certainly has had its moments, enervating the art world with clever projects that puncture all positions save its own.

Its latest show at Metro Pictures, cheekily titled “Stop Seeking Approval,” is not one of those moments.

In the exhibition’s entrance hangs a video, Untitled (Why your psychology sucks) — all works mentioned here are from 2015 — in which an African-American woman stands in front of a white backdrop and speaks to the camera about one of the First World’s most profitable problems. “You are causing your own
depression,” she explains, and enumerates the cures: authenticity, exercise, meditation, passion, and a sense of purpose. Strategically patronizing if not at all sharp, the video sets a tone regarding the dubiousness of self-improvement or empowerment. But of course tone is a tricky thing when an artist wants to have “her” cake, eat it, and sell it too. Just around the corner, a diptych of industrial light boxes, Untitled (advertising, advertising), introduces itself as “art history in search of characters” and proclaims that “readymades
belong to everyone.” Beneath images of art-book spines featuring names such as Lee Lozano, Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, and Andy Warhol is the fine print: …To be an artist you don’t need to be gifted with your hands….[Y]ou need to understand that readymades belong to everyone because we are ourselves readymade subjects until we break this spell and reinvent life….

And so on and so on. Blame the inevitable march of time, but aren’t democracy and capitalism now so utterly entwined that we’re in fact living in the era of alreadymades? Fontaine is wry enough that we clearly can’t take this rah-rah seriously, but what’s strange is that her creators are the ones who seem to buy what they’re selling. I suppose that’s the mark of good salesmanship.

A series of monochrome paintings in black, red, and gray fill the gallery’s largest room. With Fontaine, it’s standard audience procedure to ask of a straightforward gesture: What’s the catch? Here the canvases have been slathered with “anti-climb” paint, a medium that never dries. Developed as a security product to dissuade intruders because it would goop up their clothes, in the gallery context it only threatens to irritate an art handler or an overzealous collector. The point is dispiritingly dull. Dull to look at, dull to think about. To make the obvious joke, and perhaps the one Fontaine intends: It’s as interesting as watching paint dry. (Another aside: Would a greater command of craft bankrupt Fontaine’s ideas? I doubt it.)

Other works in “Stop Seeking Approval” include two paintings onto which loose change (in euros) has been glued; a book cover wrapped around a brick; a midgame chessboard hung on the wall so that it can no longer be played. You get the picture. Claire Fontaine — by design unreal, unproductive — appears in this show to be stuck in a corner she has carved out for herself.

Archive Highlights