The French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel, who created the baubles for the jewel-like Palais Royal Métro entrance in Paris and who was the first artist chosen in over 300 years to create a new permanent sculptural fountain in the gardens of the Château de Versailles, is showing his work over the summer in two locations in the South of France.
The two halves of this double exhibition, called “Geometries Amoureuses,” are 30 kilometers apart: one is in the Carré Sainte Anne, a deconsecrated Baroque church in the historical center of Montpellier, and the other in a regional arts center in the scenic fishing port of Sète.
The two shows could not be more different, yet together they form a comprehensive survey of the artist’s career over the past 30 years.
The Carré Sainte Anne exhibition presents pieces from Othoniel’s personal collection of his own work, ranging from his early days, when he worked with sulphur, to his transition to glass and his signature giant glass-bead necklaces. Against a rich backdrop of Italian Pompeian red, his scintillating and reflecting multicolored glass pearl sculptures gently waft in the summer breeze around a carpet of mirrored blue bricks that flows like a crystalline river.
With Othoniel’s work, however, what seems enchanting and beautiful at first sight often reveals a darker significance on closer observation. An example is his “Collier Cicatrice,” which refers to lynchings in the American South.
The second exhibition, at the Centre Regional d’Art Contemporain (CRAC) in Sète, shows Othoniel’s latest creations in a white-cube space. Unlike those at the Carré Sainte Anne, the works here are mostly monumental and essentially monochrome (apart from a series of preparatory watercolors and drawings shown on the upper floor).
The star sculpture of the exhibition, a menacing giant glass wave that fills the main hall of CRAC, takes your breath away.
This enormous, shimmering sculpture, which Othoniel has been working on for the last two years, is made up of 10,000 glass bricks infused with a mirror-like substance. Weighing in at 25 tons, it is supported by a skeleton framework within which each brick has been carefully placed in small groups of 40.
The wave appears to be suspended in space, a dark elemental creature thrusting itself forward and transforming into a rolling monster. The translucent bricks reverberate with color: black, green and occasionally sea-blue suffused with tinges of red. The wave will grow and expand for its next exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in in November 2018.
In the next room are paintings – a new medium for Othoniel – inspired by a sculpture, “Black Lotus,” the centerpiece of the room.
In this show, he also explores the sculptural possibilities of obsidian, an ancient volcanic material, and presents sculptures inspired by tornados and the violence of the elements. These kinetic installations with grandiose, swirling steely beads, suspended in space or balanced on a single axis, represent a remarkable engineering feat. “For me, the tornado is a metaphor for creation itself,” says the artist.
The gravitas of the monochrome sculptures and paintings in Sète make a nice counterpoint to the color and exuberance of the exhibition in Montpellier. Yet the final Sète piece is a suspended mobile in a profusion of colors that contrast sharply with the prevailing shades of black: a metaphor for creation?
Othoniel’s artistic career was launched in Sète when he was invited, as an emerging star, for a residency at the regional centre’s forerunner. Today, nearly 30 years on, it is only fitting that he return to the town at the peak of his international success. Traveling from Montpellier to Sète, we can trace the evolution of his style and practice, moving from sulphur to glass to obsidian but always staying in the realm of the mineral.
Carré Saint Anne: 2, rue Philippy, 34000 Montpellier. Tel.: 04 67 60 82 11. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-1pm and 2pm-7pm. Free admission. Through September 24, 2017. www.montpellier.fr
Centre Régional d’Art Contemporain Occitanie/Pyrénées-Méditerranée: 26, Quai Aspirant Herber, 34200 Sète. Tel : 33 (0) 4 67 74 94 37. Open Monday, Wednesday-Friday, 12:30pm-7pm; Saturday-Sunday, 3pm-8pm. Closed Tuesday. Through September 24, 2017. firstname.lastname@example.org