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Stephen Squibb on Claire Fontaine


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View of Claire Fontaine, "Stop Seeking Approval,” Metro Pictures, New York, 2015

Art-Agenda Contributing editor Stephen Squibb has penned a new text on Claire Fontaine’s latest exhibition, “Stop Seeking Approval,” at Metro Pictures. What does “Stop Seeking Approval” refer to? Squibb has some interesting ideas.

At the center of Claire Fontaine’s new show, “Stop Seeking Approval,” is a series of monochrome paintings, in gray, a burnt red, and black. They have been painted using anti-climb paint, their colors dictated by price and availability. Anti-climb paint never dries, so in addition to making its object hard to climb, anyone who touches it is marked as having done so. These paintings are permanently wet.

They are also paintings, the classic objects of desire for the collecting class, and so the temptation is to read Fontaine’s no-climb monochromes as the artist getting defensive about making objects for the purpose of exchange. And the great pleasure of “Stop Seeking Approval” is that so much of the show works as a personal expression of the ready-made artist, in addition to the host of conceptual and political levels we’d expect. The title, for example, could just as easily refer to:

  1. A message from the artist to herself.
  2. An excerpt from Untitled (Why your psychology sucks) (all works 2015), the re-fabricated self-help video, alternately seductive and ridiculous, that greets us on a monitor as we enter.
  3. A commentary on the political strategy of Syriza.
  4. A hypothetical slogan for Claire Fontaine™.
  5. A distillation of the contradiction animating what Ève Chiapello and Luc Boltanski have called, in their 1999 book, The New Spirit of Capitalism, “artistic critique,” or the fundamental contradiction that animates any cultural production sensitive to the relationship between representation and institutional power.(1) To be told to stop seeking approval places us in a paradoxical position. Either we cease so seeking, in which case we have followed instructions—and so sought approval—or we disobey, and go on seeking approval. It’s a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose proposition, which is precisely why it has been so effective as the governing imperative of mass consumption. (Any American car commercial confirms this.) Under such conditions, there is no way to articulate a message of resistance that does not rely for its own transmission on that which it would destroy. Hence the contradiction. The injunction “Stop Seeking Approval” is like the white whale from Moby Dick, depicted in Fontaine’s painting Untitled (White whale): something we doggedly follow until it kills us. Or it is like the Toilet Snorkel, also painted in Untitled (Toilet snorkel/US Patent), and hung opposite, an apparatus of temporary distraction before we die anyway.

The democratic demagoguery of Why your psychology sucks—which serves as a kind of subtitle for the room containing the images of the whale and the snorkel—is mirrored by a corresponding video, You Can Cut Anyone, which encourages viewers to cut any offending or negative person out of their lives. This weird, two-faced universalism is literalized in Untitled (Rotary Spike; Noir profond/Blanc/Rouge Paris/Bleu de kossou), a sculpture made from an insanely dangerous modern equivalent of barbed wire, which Fontaine has painted in festive colors. Such is the message delivered to contemporary citizens: in order to survive you need to be willing to cut anyone who comes too close, but you must also maintain a positive attitude and look good doing it! This Sisyphean command is allegorized in Untitled (Mr. Skinny Legs), a drainpipe, half-painted with the same anti-climb paint of the monochromes, which references the nursery rhyme about the ill-fated, itsy-bitsy spider who climbs the water spout only to be washed away when the rain comes (at least until the sun comes out, dries the rain, and the poor creature begins the whole process again.) From a young age, Fontaine seems to be saying, we are taught to expect nothing from struggle except inevitable failure and pain, even as we are encouraged to go on climbing the anti-climb paint, which not only resists the same advances it suggests in the first place, but marks us for the suckers we are.