Review- Jean-Luc Moulene at Modern Art Oxford

Words can be tricky little creatures. As an English student, I’m more fond of them than most, but there’s no denying the nuisance they can be sometimes.

Particularly when used to discuss aesthetic value. For instance;

My brother’s girlfriend to me this weekend: “You look really pretty today!”

Me: “Happy Christmas”

Aye. Smooth. Certainly within the world of art, there exists a great tension between the words and the works. The commentary we attach (from reviews and theory, to the labels mounted on the very gallery walls beside the pieces) can hang uneasily against the works themselves which are often in essence built on the premise of articulating that which cannot be spoken or written.

At Modern Art Oxford at the moment, their ‘main space’ exhibition in its current state exposes this tension to the point that we almost seem to hear it scream. Words are resisted. Down to the labels on the walls, sparsity is sought. The minimum is revealed to us; the piece’s title and some practical details are given but no interpretation is given, to influence exerted over the viewer as to what interpretative conclusion they can make about the work. I found myself, like a teenager who has suddenly been a parent free house all weekend, not quite so ready for this independence as I had thought. Although that perhaps says as much about my own want of maturity as an art-looker-at-er as anything else.

This current offering in the main space is French artist Jean-Luc Moulene, kicking off their Autumn programme with what they are billing the ‘first major exhibition in the UK’ of the seminal French artist born in 1955-

We present works spanning the last decade including sculpture, drawing, photography and a new film commissioned for the exhibition… tracing his practice from the mid-nineties to the present. The relationship between image and object forms a central theme of this exhibition. Structured as a ceremony or procession…

And the collection is very varied indeed. Moulene rejects defining terms for different mediums of art, instead referring to all of his works as ‘des objets’ (objects).With etchings done by BIC ink pen, glass sculptures, photography and film all competing for the viewer’s attention (to name but a few of the mediums Moulene uses) this doesn’t seem quite like the exhibition of one artist, but more like a show put on by the graduates of a particular art school. Just as a graduate exhibition may contain the hallmark of a particularly dominant or influential teacher in the school but strewn throughout many interpretations and across many disparate media.

The end result seemed, quite frankly, to be about as consistent and coherent as the Daily Mail’s list of household items which cause cancer.

This confused vision may be due to the lack of awareness we have of the French artist in the UK, it is, after all, his very first show here. However, it seems that a rather ambitious attempt to present Moulene in this exhibition and sum him up through such an extensive range, may have missed the mark. I can’t help think that perhaps a focus on certain key ideas or items might have been better received. Indeed, as Moulene’s fame in the UK grows (as it no doubt shall after this exhibition) we may also gained a crucial contextual understanding of the works; his aims, ambitions and own background which all help us understand an artist and, in turn, his art.

However, if any theme can be discerned throughout the exhibition, it is perhaps that of purity and containment versus mess and unruly-ness. In one of the little side rooms, (in my opinion the best section) only two frames adorn the walls. One has a black and white photograph of a water valve on a busy city street spewing open and the liquid bursting forth. In the black and white scheme, the water is jet black. On the opposite wall, this image is confronted by an inversion of itself; both in colour scheme and energy. A white page presents us with a black bottle of ink, an ordered and potential scene of chaos waiting to happen.

This idea of pure forms and potential energy is continued in an adjacent room as we see a diamond perched atop a cheap bottle of water. (Although I wonder if this connection might have been made clear to the viewer if the gallery had not placed an intermittent maze of Moulene’s biro etchings, photography and glass sculptures between the ink pot and water bottle). The diamond and the water are two substances which here seem very much a subtle and suitable match, once we get over our original confusion. The water’s quiver as the footsteps of the gallery viewers reverberate through the bottle is matched by the flicker of light on the diamond’s shards. The clear substances seem to work in harmony.

In the final room, projected on to the full space of the wall are images of nude women, entitled The Three Graces, standing in a field as casually and bored as though they were waiting for a bus. As the viewer comes closer to this wall, their own shadow is projected in black. The black ink bottle of the earlier room seems to have now burst in the form of the viewer’s presence; a dark blot on this peaceful scene.

All in all, I found this exhibition to be worth seeing for an introduction to Moulene who is certainly one to watch. I did not get the impression that this was the artist’s work presented at his finest, however, I have no doubt that this will not be his last exhibition in the UK and hope that this exhibition will be the precursor to something greater yet to come as Moulene establishes himself further on our art scene.

Jean-Luc Moulene is exhibited in the Upper Galleries at Modern Art Oxford until 25th November. The artist will be in conversation with the Tate Modern Director, Chris Dercon, on Thursday 25 October at 7pm, booking of which can be done via Modern Art Oxford by clicking here. Tours of the exhibition are free and will be held on Thursday 8th November 6pm and Saturday 24th November 3pm. Tours are free and booking is not required, simply turn up on the day.