Portes Ouvertes de Belleville 2016: Back to the Future, in a Literary Mode

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In their array and arrangement of colors, Valérie Malet’s book bindings (above) evoke the work of Spontaneous Color inventor Sonia Delaunay. Examples of book bindings by Valérie Malet  courtesy and copyright Valérie Malet.

PARIS — If the Parisian theater scene is in a bad state — see my recent review of Tiego Rodrigues’s insular spectacle at the Theatre de la Bastille — the plastic arts are experiencing a renaissance which often finds its basis in expansiveness. And I’m not talking about the museums, which, with the laudable exceptions of the national and city repositories of modern art, continue to be pre-occupied with finding new ways to market the same old artists. I’m talking about the artisans of the terrain, who continue to create work which at the same time builds on France’s rich literary and artistic tradition and innovates in both its diversity of form and complexity of subject. This connection is not to be under-estimated in a country which often prizes the new at all costs, even when it is inferior to the old or blemishes classic landmarks. The latter is a trend fast turning into an epidemic, if one is to judge by the fake-naive or  art bruit installations recently implanted in the gardens of the Palais Royale, where one now has to navigate a field of tombstone-like upright mahogony two-by-fours attached by bolts to pass under one of the tree-shaded lanes, and the Pont des Arts, where the city, in its ongoing struggle to provide an institutional alternative to the love-locks which threatened to sink the bridge across from the Louvre into the Seine has now implanted a series of mammoth brass sculptures of Acteon flexing his muscles amidst a forest of industrial steel mounted on more two-by-fours, le tout seeming much more menacing to the structure’s stability than the metal locks. To get an idea of the crassness of this juxtaposition, it’s as if you gold spray-painted images of wrestlers onto your Pissarro. Meanwhile, the hastily improvised plywood — and thus love-lock proof — barrier adorned with fake graffiti which previously replaced the chain link fence has now been supplanted by a glass wall, a much less distracting and more neutral solution which will nicely refract the sunlight, should it ever decide to return to Paris.

The rant that ended the last paragraph isn’t as much of a digression as you might think. There’s a vast qualitative difference between most of the monumental art plopped down at public sites that I’ve seen in Paris over the past decade and the work of local artists I’ve seen in their ateliers. The former seems to have been picked expressly because it doesn’t go with its setting, either in its scale or substance,  while the latter seems genuinely connected to the pulse of the city and the artists’ fellow citizens, their concerns and fears, their diversions and distractions. And much more up to the standards that preceded them. Perhaps the city officials who curate these temporary exhibtions sould take a ramble around the Open Studios of Belleville. At last month’s annual edition, I was able to discover a score of artists who both sparked my curiosity about their methods and designs and sated my thirst for more of what I’ve always loved in French culture, specifically the marriage of literary depth and painterly brilliance.

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Raoul Velasco, “Icare.” Etching and intaglio. Copyright and courtesy Raoul Velasco. 

From an engraver who has integrated newspaper clippings into a series about a child’s — our — nightmares to make the point about how much the news has infiltrated our consciousness, to a water-colorist who caresses the paper with a light touch using bamboo pens, to an engraver and monotype maker on the mythic rue Menilmontant whose tinted shade of black furnishes the perfect tone for capturing the obsolete and desuet structures of the city’s outlying arrondissements and suburbs, to a book-maker / artist who has built up a steady client base for the ancient craft of artisanal book-binding to which she applies an eye for color that rivals that of Sonia Delaunay, what I found was artists determined to pursue their craft with an eye that is as open to the world around them as it is to the potential of the canvas in front of them. And, perhaps not surprising in a city which still offers specialist (and independent) bookstores tucked into every nook and cranny, just about all the work I saw was underpinned by cerebral thematics.

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Kristin Meller, “Candide.” Woodcut. Copyright and courtesy Kristin Meller.

I’d already been captivated by Kristin Meller’s limited edition and lavish artist’s book about the Theatre des Ombres, seen at last year’s Open Studios. This time around it was a four-part series starring a heroine or hero named “Candide” that drew me. The name is a loaded — and still relevant — allusion in France. Typically it’s meant to suggest naiveté. But naiveté is a close cousin to innocence, and (at least as I interpreted the series; Meller’s work is open to multiple readings, and she disdains none) it’s rather the confrontation between innocence and the malevolent forces and events of the world that spoke to me here. The form is perfectly suited to this juxtaposition: The base or background is bright, its dark luminosity evoking the black light posters popular in the 1970s. In the sample we’ve featured here, a child — or a child-like hero/ine — might be awakening from a nightmare… or to the nightmare of the real and increasingly fragile world.

Meller and her partner, Raoul Velasco, host an annual Dia de los Muertos exhibition and fete in their atelier/gallery high atop Belleville on the rue Cascades, l’Association pour l’Estampe et l’Art Populaire. (This last term  literally translates as “Folk Art,” but that implies an unschooled skill level which doesn’t accurately describe the high level of craftsmanship in either the engravings and woodcuts of Meller and Velasco or the students of the ateliers they lead in Paris and the border suburb of Lilas that I’ve seen. I’d put this work up against that in any gallery mounting established artists.) Last fall’s festivities featured calaveras, or skeletons, lampooning public figures and subjects, such as the disparity of wealth and the beauty media’s promotion of the thin body standard for women. That might sound ponderous, but there’s a wistfulness to both artists’ approaches that’s almost… carefree. In one recent comic strip, Meller depicts the saga of a skeleton… dying… after a long illness. This is a concept that doesn’t just make you think, it makes you think twice. If a skeleton can die (in another Meller strip a skeleton falls to his death after being pushed over a fence by a woman skeleton friend he’s raped), then… when we become skeletons, are we really dead, or are we entering another zone in which we’re still subject to the mortal pains and joys of living and dying…? Meller doesn’t necessarily press us to pose these heavy questions, but her work is open to such reflections.

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Raoul Velasco, “Flight.” Etching and intaglio. Copyright and courtesy Raoul Velasco.  To read more about Raoul Velasco and Kristin Meller’s Association pour l’Estampe et l’Art Populaire, click here.

As for Velasco, his etching and intaglio “Vol,” or “Flight” features a netherworld under a city sidewalk, inhabited by an upside-down figure apparently heading… upwards. I also see both artist-teachers’ influence in the technical adeptness of their students.

Also supporting the vision of symbols of the dead as vibrant sources of life is Ulrike Klett’s silver gelatin print of a tomb at the entry to a village in the southwest of Benin, Lobogo, which, she reports, is a popular gathering place for the town’s living residents.

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Ulrike Klett, “Entre du village de Lobogo.” Silver photo on film (scan). Copyright and courtesy Ulrike Klett.

Klett was the guest, at this year’s Open Studios, of Mirella Rosner, an artist as well as activist in Belleville, often engaged in campaigns to save mixed-use housing/atelier structures from demolition by a city administration struggling with an ongoing housing crisis. If Rosner’s political commitment is sincere, her work doesn’t bear the leaden quality of some artists who think flashing their politics is enough to validate their ideas. At last fall’s exhibition of the Artists of the Bastille, she occupied a whole room with a gigantic funnel-like mobile decorated with the detritus of consumer society. Her work on paper often features multiple mediums, clashing and blending with each other in a way that produces interesting textural contrasts, such as the example featured here which combines acrylic — diluted enough to resemble watercolor — and ink swirls traced with bamboo pens.

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Mirella Rosner, “GaelleS,” acrylic and ink. 24 x 31 cm. Copyright and courtesy Mirella Rosner. Rosner’s work is also on display through June 19 at the gallery of the Ateliers d’Artistes de Belleville in the group exhibition “Our Pandora’s Boxes.” 

Like Meller and Velasco’s Association pour l’Estampe et l’Art Populaire, Caroline Bouyer’s compact atelier (half of which seems to be filled by her engraving machine) has become a Belleville institution since opening on the rue Menilmontant in 2007, frequently hosting other artists as well as classes for apprentice engravers. A pedigreed artist who has collaborated with, among others, Balthus and the late singer-composer Nino Ferrer — on a livre d’artist, a literary-art form in which she’s already established herself as a master — as well as illustrated children’s books, Bouyer also excels at portraying the carcasses of since levelled, forgotten, or remodeled buildings and railway tracks in the peripheral zones of Paris. The form and large format she’s chosen — which might resemble an architect’s blueprint — as well as the tone of her blacks, lends a veneer to her subjects that conveys the distance of time. It’s all well and good, for example, that the suburban city of Pantin is rehabilitating the ancient building of the Magasins (or boutiques) General, which is slated to house France’s largest ad agency, an organic grocery store, and a cafe-restaurant cultural center, but it’s also important to preserve history, and this is where Bouyer applies her craft, her eye, her attentive memory and a grander sense of the scope this evolution in the urban landscape represents in a city which is constantly discarding its past, often to follow fleeting contemporary architectural modes. (Although it could be worse; some planners in the 1970s envisioned a Paris in the 2000s which solved the housing crisis with aerial apartment buildings hovering over the Seine) It’s as if she’s capturing ghosts before they vanish into the ether.

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Top: Caroline Bouyer, “Magasins Généraux Désaffectés 2.” Engraving. Below: Caroline Bouyer, “Vue des Maréchaux, Paris XIII (2).” Engraving. Both images and works copyright and courtesy Caroline Bouyer. Click here for more samples of the artist’s work.

If Valerie Malet’s atelier on a side street off the top of the rue Belleville is more discrete than Bouyer’s — from the unadorned frosted glass storefront, one might guess it’s just another disaffected building — to pursue her particular metier Malet’s reached even further back. In an age in which everything is automated, with e-books  supplanting paper and 3D printers able to replace damaged body parts, I was relieved to find an artist devoting her particular talents to the ancient craft of book-binding.

In France, the art of making books has been intricately tied to the art of literature at least since Balzac delved into it in “Lost Illusions,” in which the advances in the paper-making industry were intricately intertwined with the fates of his heroes and the machinations and intrigues of his villains. The art of the reliure or book-binding seems to me the quintessentially Parisian, or French, literary art, providing artful packages for all sorts of literary endeavors. (And not just in France. Back in the day, New York publishers sometimes provided their authors with special glass and ceramic covered first editions of their work.) And Malet, in the brilliance of her palette, recalls another multi-position player of the French scene, Sonia Delaunay, the pioneer of Spontaneous Color who also sometimes devoted her craft to a practical form, fashion. “The art of the reliure is a traditional, old school technique,” Malet says, “but for me it’s a solid, fantastic base for creating, imagining, and inventing forms both contemporary and colored.” And she applies her investment in the craft not just to new works, but also to restoring the covers of antique editions, one more sign of proof of the enduring value of the metier she’s chosen — and the enduring value of artists who are also artisans. — Paul Ben-Itzak

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 Examples of book bindings by Valérie Malet  courtesy and copyright Valérie Malet. To read more about Valerie Malet and her work in painting and hte art of reliure, click here.

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