Taking its name from a 2006 feature in National Geographic, Sprüth Magers’ latest London exhibition, From Wings to Fins, features the work of color-field painter Morris Louis and Cyprien Gaillard, a young French artist recently established within the international circuit. While Louis’ position is firmly mid-century, Cyprien Gaillard is a locus of tragic postmodernism. Drawn to modernism’s ideals, contradictions, and historical failures, Gaillard has risen on his ability to seek out and create tensions between stability and precarity, utopia and ruin, beauty and entropy, memory and amnesia. In the past, these tensions were variously converted into spectacles, as when Gaillard constructed a mountain of beer in Berlin or vandalized Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) with a fire extinguisher; intimate objects, such as the series of etchings the artist commissioned picturing dilapidated tower blocks among lush scenery; or meditations, notably in video works like Cities of Gold and Mirrors (2009). At the core is Gaillard’s fascination with the aging and crumbling edifices held up as inevitable sites of utopian failure within landscapes of historical violence.
In From Wings to Fins, these tensions are more subtle still, working between legacies embedded in objects. Culled from an unspecified collection, the two Morris Louis paintings, Beth Samach (1958) and Gamma (1960), play multiple roles: They are asked to represent the ideals and aspirations of a historical moment of great confidence and aspiration, and to model the falling motion of collapsing buildings in their blooming color drags. In the main space, the wide Beth Samach hangs before two vitrines in which National Geographic magazines are arranged, each with pages curved back in floral loops. Nearby, mounted to the gallery wall, a replica of an architectural security device mimics these radial shapes. The work is titled Fence (After Owen Luder) (2013) and, like the beautifully encased magazines, this archaeological original—discovered among the wreckage of Owen Luder’s Trinity Square car park in Gateshead—has undergone an artistic transmutation, now recast in bronze.
In a second room, Louis’ portrait-scale Gamma shares a corner with Gaillard’s Gates BSC (2013), a rubbing of two manhole covers from Baltimore, Maryland. According to the gallery, Gaillard produced the work while touring Louis’ hometown, memorializing the civic architecture while tracing his kinship with the painter. Upstairs, another National Geographic vitrine shares the space with a heavily matted Polaroid of a second architectural defense, shown fixed into its original fitting beside a concrete staircase. Next to this, an antique telescope points out of the gallery’s window, aiming at a bottle of Captain Cook white rum on a nearby roof. This last piece, Untitled (Captain Cook in the Distance) (2013) is perhaps the exhibition’s most opaque, though the first hint of the artist’s humor, which is otherwise absent in From Wings to Fins.
While billed as a group show, calling From Wings to Fins a two-man exhibition is a bit of a stretch. Louis’ work exists at the exhibition entirely at Gaillard’s pleasure, culled from the annals of modernism to function within Gaillard’s conceptual scheme. While the move is less radical than routine (by now we’ve all seen paintings brought in to function as artifacts, arranged in concert with other art or art-like objects), it effectively releases Louis’ work from its unimaginative role as illustration for Clement Greenberg, opening the work for new meanings. And one has to envy the compositional possibilities available to the blue-chip Gaillard, who can so swiftly select chunks of physical modernist canon.
From Wings to Fins will be on view at Sprüth Magers in London until November 16, 2013.