By Leigh Werrell
on view through December 8th
Clusters of rectangles confer as shadows and reflections reveal their dimensionality. A pattern on a rug hanging high in the gallery appears as flooring in a painted room, and a group of engine parts speak in the same whispers as four glass cups. Groups of items are formed and reformed into clans through the direction of painted walls and echoed forms and textures. In Nathalie Du Pasquier’s Big Objects Not Always Silent at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, it is clear that each object, as well as the installation itself, was precisely arranged through a logical process deliberately revealed by the artist. Ambiguously narrative and tinted by multiple historical aesthetics, the work in her current retrospective allows the viewer to explore her stories from a personal perspective.
Overseen by the artist, the installation of the work in this exhibition is dense, with paintings in an exhausting variety of style and subject matter including still life, surreal landscapes, renderings of fictional architectural structures, and compositions made out of dimensional, geometric forms. All of them, however, share a similarly quiet, contemplative touch and flat, soft tones. The work is curated not chronologically, but with consideration of the connections between them. The walls have been painted in bright patterns and blocks of color or wallpapered, each corresponding to a single piece or group of works. There are many hidden rooms holding gem-like drawings and paintings, and one with a surprising sound piece inside. Large, vividly colored rugs and black and white assemblages of striped and dotted patterns loom over much of the main space. There are also three-dimensional pieces that mimic the objects in the paintings, such as brightly colored water bottles made out of porcelain, adobe-like formations, and a geometric, oddly proportioned piece of furniture.
Du Pasquier was a founding member of the 1980s Italian design team, the Memphis Group, though she has dedicated the majority of her professional life to painting. Though slightly toned down, the geometric patterns, bulky forms, and bright colors that are signatures of Memphis Design are featured in many of her pieces, especially the more recent, geometrically structural work. The installation at the ICA is distinct, in that the entire space seems to be designed as its own object. There is also an explicit “object-ness” to all of the items in the gallery that is impossible to escape due to this unique set-up. While aesthetically compelling, the paintings become almost as utilitarian as a chair or table because each has its own specific place – walls have been painted around it and other pieces are there to be in conversation with it. Paintings combine to form odd shapes. Each piece is a small shrine to objecthood, and this quality is mirrored in the closely examined items within each painting, making them even more powerful.
Curiosity compels the viewer to unravel a formula for each work, and it is in this process where richness of thought is found. The quiet arrangements invite the viewer to create narratives of their own, and to appreciate the aesthetic virtue of common objects. One drawing, Still Life with Bricket, transported me back to my childhood pastime of building structures with blocks. Each square or rectangular block had a particular occupation in my mind: one was the chimney, one the gate, and another served as a person who lived in the castle I made. In Du Pasquier’s paintings, the environment she creates out of the objects ascribes meaning to them. Objects that seem to have nothing in common – such as a head of lettuce and an electric drill – tell viewers about the artist’s life by encouraging them to connect the dots. Perhaps a visitor will relate to a life that includes snacking on a pretzel while working with pliers, or pretending her shoe is an airplane. Sticks are arranged ceremonially, as are teacups, an orange, and a bottle of dish soap. A paper cup and a crystal vase share a pattern of circles; the latter’s drunkenly leaning shadow thwarting any delusions of grandeur it might have held. In life these objects may have different values, but in this work they have no hierarchy.
While there is a particular ‘80s aesthetic to her design work due to the sweeping influence Memphis had on that era, the only features that age Du Pasquier’s paintings are the odd cordless phone or Olivetti typewriter. It also seems that she has taken inspiration from a number of historical painters. Ominous, Dali-like landscapes appear as monochrome backdrops in sharp contrast to blocks of bright color. Her starkly populated and neatly ordered still lives are evocative of Morandi, and her skewed perspectives and flat tones conjure up the paintings of Horace Pippin and other outsider artists. Her practice has gone through multiple eras of style in which she changed the way she painted light, what materials were used in the set up of a still life, and how close to reality the paintings come. It is fascinating to see these developments as one walks through the exhibition, and also to discover what remains consistent within the work.
The spatial awareness and intuition necessary to become a successful designer is a clear advantage for Du Pasquier, who deftly deconstructs space and has an uncommon skill for creating personality in inanimate objects. The ambiguous narratives and visual surprises found in each painting – and in the space itself – make them playful and exciting to explore. Together, Du Pasquier and the ICA have put together a retrospective that interweaves ideas of objecthood and design into an exhibition that prioritizes both aesthetics and storytelling.
Leigh Werrell is an artist living and working in Philadelphia.