Water has always been a fascinating subject-matter for artists, with its fluctuating nature and dangerous temperament, both a mirror of the soul in turmoil. The popularity of scenes at sea, ships and tempests, rose mainly amongst romantic artists of the 19th century. They never entirely left the peacefulness of pastoral scenes with their picturesque lakes and rivers, yet a definite shift occurred that made water a source of ambiguity and turmoil. Parisians lazing around on the riverside, or desperate shipwrecked sailors fighting against the waves?
These deep, dark waters now reflected an inner melancholy or torment that the forces of nature could both show and channel. Is this romantic ideal dead? Not according to Galerie Chantal Crousel’s most recent group exhibition, Dark Waters. The theme of water is used to host a large array of interpretations in many different mediums and subjects. The arrival of water in the gallery space is welcomed by its sound as we walk in; David Douard’s sculpture MO: need sets the mood through its complex and elegant structure of plexiglas, cables, metal and flowing water, reminiscent of a urban, futuristic fountain. Its twisting forms seem to complement Jean-Luc Moulène’s Drapé Nuit, a twisting, serpentine work in rubber and epoxy resin, creating a shape “pulled inside out, creating a void…” according to the artist. It mirrors his work on paper Cristal Vague, that seems to create a strangely ordered chaos on the page.
The desire to seek out an abstract way of representing water and its flow, while paradoxically immobilizing it, seems to haunt many of the exhibition’s works.This is particularly true in a less abstract but more cinematic approach, with Marcel Broodthaers’ projection and video installations from the 1970s, Bateau-Tableau and Chère Petite Soeur (la Tempête). In the first, fragments of marine paintings are projected, while the second captures in motion a boat in the storm. Set into motion through film it mingles into a video collage between picture and text. The words call out on the approximate capture through the image, seem to question how we could capture a storm in any aspect, either through video, sound or image, tie in with a vaster question of the way in which we can represent at all, only attempt to record a sensation.
Sometimes the most potent creations depicting water or recording its effects are those created partly by water, such as Gabriel Orozco’s Set of Ringstones, which are in fact river cobblestones he found in Mexico. In a sense the water also becomes sculptor, shaping objects just as it may shape entire environnements and people. It can either smooth out or destroy, remain pure or become “dark” in many different ways. In Darkwater IV by Tim Rollins and K.O.S, the darkness of the paint and water obscuring and destroying the pages of an old book corresponds to its content: Darkwater, Voices from Within the Veil, by W.E.B Du Bois, where “ever below is the water, – wide and silent, gray-brown and yellow.”
It would appear as a description that is a far cry away from the introductory quote of the exhibition by Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire in Proust et le miroir des eaux: “Reverie begins before a brook’s running water, the still water of a pond, the unpredictable water of the sea, it ends in a gloomy water that imparts strange and funerary murmurs.” Yet again, there is no concession made between the prosaic, almost documentary depiction of water and its poetic, almost abstract appeal, such as Tillmans’ Buenos Aires photograph where the down-to-earth shot of a gutter contrasts with the multitude of senses and colours it conveys with extreme precision.
Most of these works I have mentioned, and those completing the exhibition as a whole, are more or less recent, from 2000 and onwards, with a few striking exceptions such as Broodthaers. These exceptions also include notably two works on paper from the end of the 19th century and early forties: the first is Marina, by Edouard Manet, a delicate and elegant etching on paper of ships at sea, a drawing reminiscent of his own maritime travels and sketches, when he was still aiming for a career in the Navy, before devoting his life entirely to his art. Its powerful dark lines contrast with the second work on paper, Untitled by WOLS (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze). His watercolour depiction of a harbour seem lyrical and dreamlike, in soft tones of yellow and blue, yet its accumulation of details reflects the time he spent at de Camp des Milles concentration camp in 1939, fighting against confinement and anxiety. The presence of the two works on paper within a contemporary display give an additional sense of the historical context and aesthetic legacy surrounding seascapes, adding to the dialogues going on within the space from one work to another.
The theme of ‘water’ could seem simple. Yet this group exhibition, far from only skimming the surface, delivers a thoughtful and sensitive display of an uncontrollable element that we nevertheless always manage to appropriate as our own, in abstract and poetic terms.
Featured image: Marcel Broodthaers, Chère petite soeur (La Tempête) film still, 1972