Launched last September by artists Amy Granat and Annina Herzer, Parapet/Real Humans occupies a windowless, appointment-only exhibition space on St. Louis’s residential south side. It has already built a reputation for single-artist shows featuring understated, domestically scaled works. Swiss painter Olivier Mosset’s recent exhibition exemplified this approach. The show comprised only an untitled 2004 series of black-and-white geometric prints. Hung smartly in a row toward the back of the room, the four works feature the same composition: two black rectangles or a white letter “E,” depending on how figure and ground register. These basic elements are rotated 90 degrees from one print to the next so that the “E” appears to somersault across comic-strip panels.
Sharing the space with vintage ceiling fans and beat-up electrical outlets, Mosset’s piece did not so much preside over the room as eavesdrop from the side. Anyone who came to the show expecting to be immersed in the septuagenarian artist’s body of work, which dates back to the 1960s and includes refined large-scale monochromes, may have found the subtlety of the experience downright jarring.
Parapet/Real Humans seems engineered to play with expectations, both in terms of how viewers should encounter works in a gallery and how art institutions should address their audiences. Visiting the show revolved less around the act of looking (there was only so much to see) than around having a conversation with Granat, who curated the exhibition, organized a number of related public programs and facilitated each appointment. Granat recounted to me her ties to Mosset, now based in Tucson, who has become a friend and connecting figure among her peers around the world. The convivial register of our discussion recalled an old tradition of artistic sociality, the casual back-end dialogues conducted in studios and apartments that range across topics and explore the works in question from numerous angles and perspectives.
In this way, Parapet/Real Humans, ostensibly an experiment in curatorial strategy, feels better described as an act of translation—an attempt to make a private, even intimate, form of exchange between artists public. At the same time, this inevitably puts intimacy’s perennial handmaid—exclusivity—on display. Visiting the gallery involves negotiating a number of barriers to entry: catching word of the project, making an appointment, second-guessing which shuttered corner storefront to enter and so on. The setting discourages passive or distracted spectators; viewing art here requires effort.
In a city predominantly marginalized in the art world, Parapet/Real Humans quietly invites its small, invested audience to briefly enter into a node of exchange in a dispersed but tight-knit global network of colleagues. (Granat and Herzer’s initiative pairs the St. Louis space with a curatorial project that stages exhibitions with various national and international host institutions.) These are fitting conditions for Mosset’s work, which often emerges from engagements with friends and collaborators. In the 1960s, he produced anti-expressive abstract paintings as part of the BMPT group with Daniel Buren, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni. More recently, Mosset has passed off his paintings as the work of fellow Swiss artist John Armleder, and he is known for intermixing his own work with that of friends in ostensibly solo shows.
Mosset regularly attempts to diminish his authorial position by blurring it into those of his colleagues. These playful moves are important to his long-term effort to undermine auratic readings of his paintings and drill down toward their position in systems of production and exchange. If Mosset’s material virtuosity was somewhat tempered by the particularity of the Parapet/Real Humans setting, his characteristic concern for exchange networks was brought to the fore in this space that hangs ambiguously between open gallery and closed studio, hovering just above the local scene even as it makes connections to a global one. The venue’s emerging logic of intimacy and Mosset’s established one reciprocally threw one another into relief.
Most of the reviews you’re likely to read about Olivier Mosset, conceptual/minimalist/anti-art painter, begin with a history lesson—a well-padded rundown of this prolific 66-year-old artist’s career, including his early days working as an assistant for Jean Tinguely and Daniel Spoerri in Paris, his friendship with Duchamp and his involvement with the anti-art BMPT group. Judging from this strongly confrontational two-venue exhibition of paintings, reviewers can leave Mosset’s dossier unopened. The work itself asks us—perhaps even challenges us—to encounter it on its own announced terms.
All of Mosset’s output in these shows looked fresh enough to have been made yesterday. And, indeed, to a large degree, it was. The 39 untitled works (all 2010) that were on display at Leo Koenig’s Chelsea space are entirely black canvases painted with a rubberized polymer commonly used for truck-bed linings (to keep out moisture and prevent slippage). The paintings both absorb light and reflect it, depending on your position and the time of day. Most are 4 feet square, save for one large rectangular canvas (7 by 21 feet) installed in the back gallery. The smaller works impressively engaged the space, creating a tight grid on the gallery walls and a resulting figure-ground “pop.” In addition to a weird smell (somewhere between hardware store and truck stop), the works had a quiet presence that rendered the space theatrical (think of sound-absorbing stage flats or acoustic panels). Suddenly, footsteps became more noticeable. Likewise, the smells of takeout lunch and trivial workaday conversations behind the gallery’s front desk. There were no distractions of color and form and, perhaps most importantly, the ponderousness of an artist’s “intent” hanging about the room. It’s as if the paintings, in filling the space, were asking not to be noticed.
Mary Boone’s uptown gallery (its front room hung with minimalist Mosset works ranging in date from 1984 to 1990) was party central by comparison. Here were canvases in a high-key palette of juicy oranges and pinks, hot red, lime and sea greens. Juke (1990, 7 by 19 3/4 feet) resembles a line graph; the only slightly smaller EN (for enough), 1988, features the abstracted forms of its titular letters. Boone’s buffed floor reflected the riot of color like a calm sea under a flotilla of carnival boats. Meanwhile, in the side room, a “sister” grouping of the paintings at Koenig lay as if in wait. All were made in 2010 of the same rubberized polymer material, only this time in off-white—and the difference was startling. Whereas the black works could be construed as having a decadent, almost sensuous presence, the white works (equally wide, but 8 feet high) were depressing, cadaverous, like flesh drained of all color and life. Not quite paintings, not quite sculptures, they seemed to fling our gaze back upon itself.
Paintings that could pass for sculptures; geometric minimalism; artworks that subvert the art world: an artist 40 years Mosset’s junior could have made every work in this show, and we’d have been none the wiser. In our current art market, that passes for a compliment. It’s uncanny how well Mosset always points out just where it is we are.
Photo: View of Olivier Mosset’s untitled polyurethane-on-canvas paintings, all 2010; at Leo Koenig.