‘Bustes De Femmes’

A decade of Gagosian in Paris

L: Huma Bhabha.
R: Glenn Brown.

When American mega-dealer Larry Gagosian expanded his Gagosian gallery network in 2010, he opened with a booth at FIAC (the annual Paris International Contemporary Art Fair) and asked designer and architect India Mahdavi to design the inaugural stand inside the Grand Palais – a stone’s throw from their new Paris home. Ten years later and Mahdavi, famous for her “Orient pop” ceramics and vivacious interiors, was commissioned to design the celebratory decennary exhibition at Gagosian’s Parisian siege on the rue Ponthieu. Entitled ‘Bustes de Femmes’, the anniversary group show comes at an interesting time when contemporary ideas of womanhood are in a state of constant evolution — especially in the face of continuing threats to their most basic freedoms. Though in line with art history’s own patriarchal faults, much of the work is by male artists. Quite a few of the greats — Miro, Balthus, Man Ray, Lichtenstein and Richard Avedon — are on display.

By rejecting the traditional ‘white cube’, Bustes de Femmes’ ambitious staging created by Mahdavi sees walls splashed in vivid colours, reprising the hues from her 2019 ‘Flowers’ paint colour collection for French artisans Meriguet-Carrère. Set across two floors, female portraiture is celebrated through 25 works bunkered in her bright chromatic scenography, featuring an array of both contrasting and complimentary backdrops to the works of some of the most important artists celebrating the female form today. The results are unexpected.

Awar by Roe Ethridge, 2018.

On the one side, pistachio ‘Hammam Green’ sings as a backdrop to Anwar, 2018, the ceremonious portrait of a smiling, be-wigged Black model by American photographer Roe Ethridge. On the other, a wall of ‘Tendrement’ terracotta tiles the back of American artist John Currin’s oil on canvas, Squeaky, 2019. Here Currin, who often interprets female sexuality with the surreal and grotesque, portrays the actor Milly Shapiro, who was born with cleidocranial dysplasia. This allé-retour marked by the sharp corners between its contrasting colours is what sets the theme to every masterpiece throughout the show, perhaps symbolic of the male gaze — painted by a man, against a backdrop of colour from a woman’s perspective.

More substantial however, due to the evolving way women have been portrayed over the past hundred years — is the inclusion of emerging and Black artists to Gagosian, including Meleko Mokgosi, known for his pan-African studies of colonialism and nationalism in Southern Africa. In the painting series Objects of Desire, the artist comments on the saturation of racially-skewed hair campaigns in popular culture aimed at relaxing, softening, de-frizzing and lightening black hair, ultimately reducing its blackness to conform to societal standards whilst portraying ‘lightened’ women with bleached or edited skin. Pakistani-American sculptor Huma Bhabha’s grotesque creations, often dissected or dismembered, here featured a traditional woman’s bust bifurcated at the neck by white styrofoam.

In sincere homage, Bustes des Femmes celebrates several artists that have been part of Gagosian’s Paris programming since its early days. One rare inclusion is a female bust by the Polish French modern artist Balthus Klossowska de Rola, whose work was previously the centre of an exhibition in the gallery in January 2015, including the notorious, Jeune Fille à la Mandoline, which cast viewers as voyeurs of pubescent female subjects — a scandal in 1930s Paris. Other returning artists included Cy Twombly, Georg Baselitz and Glenn Brown.

Objects of Desire by Meleko Mokgosi, 2019.

“Human perception of the body is so acute and knowledgeable that the smallest hint of a body can trigger recognition” – Jenny Saville.

‘Gazing Ball (Rembrandt Lucretia)’ by Jeff Koons, 2015.

‘Torso Drawing’ by Tom Wesselmann, 1984.

‘Brigitte Bardot, Hair by Alexandre Paris’ by Richard Avedon, 1959.

‘Parade’ by Urs Fischer, 2020.

‘Not in London, the Arm from Vienna, the Head from Berlin’ by Georg Baselitz, 2011.

‘Squeaky’ by John Currin, 2019.

‘Moving In’ by Spencer Sweeney, 2020.

Elsewhere in the show, a 2015 work from Jeff Koons’ Gazing Ball series juxtaposes a replica of Rembrandt’s Lucretia from the seventeenth century with a blue mirror sphere in hand-blown glass – referencing the banal ornaments of American gardens. A bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin representing the Greek goddess Medea makes an appearance next to a Neo-impressionist portrait of a woman gazing into a mirror by British artist, Cecily Brown. The female figure takes on more literal seduction in the gaze of Brigitte Bardot seen by photographer Richard Avedon in 1959, and in an installation by Urs Fischer, where the artist used a shredded sepia-coloured portrait of the Hollywood icon, Gene Tierney against an aluminium panel. Cinema heartthrobs took over female representation through the late 50s and 60s where these artists and photographers primarily captured iconic women as muses, with Bardot’s Hair by Alexandre, Paris Studio shot by Avedon — only a few years after the French temptress burst onto the American socio-sexual scene following her star role in the film ‘And God Created Women’.

The British painter Jenny Saville also features in the exhibition. Her oil paintings transcend through experimentation with the female form as she said, “Human perception of the body is so acute and knowledgeable that the smallest hint of a body can trigger recognition”. Saville was amongst returning artists for Gagosian; as was Cindy Sherman, whose work is simultaneously on view in a private exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

In fact, Sherman’s work is featured inside A#16 Curated By Alessandro Michele. Cindy Sherman is the New York artist and photographer known for her series of self-portraits, depicting herself in various characters in a world filled with excess, exaggeration and the grotesque. Interestingly, the way women are portrayed through time here not only explores the female gaze, contrary to its title, but it also explores the exaggeration and changing figure of female representation through time as a result of social norms changing with it. What lacked portrayal, however, was the controversial yet timely way in which young women portray themselves today, through often edited images on social media accounts or surgically-altered bodies — creating a distorted and real vision of the female bust.

‘Bustes De Femmes’ runs through December 19th at 4 Rue de Ponthieu, 75008, Paris, France and is also partially available for viewing online at Gagosian.com


Words: Alexandra Castle

Christina of Denmark by Glenn Brown, 2008.

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