"Le vertige de la moraine. Strate II: Louise Nevelson and Isabelle Cornaro" Galerie 1m3, Lausanne

Quinn Latimer

May 20, 2011
Galerie 1m3, Lausanne

It is difficult to describe the intense pleasure afforded by this small, precise exhibition of works by Louise Nevelson and Isabelle Cornaro. Although four decades separate these two artist’s series on view, their striking affinity lies in a shared interest in limits—each explores the frame and the monochrome—and the infinite possibilities on which such precincts are predicated. That said, the pleasure of the show might come from the innate comfort of the frame and the wonder we allow ourselves to experience at what exists within it. Which is to say, the freedom of feeling conjured by this exhibition has everything to do with restrictions (of form, color, material, and space) and the infinite variation of assembly that such rules paradoxically provide.

Nevelson’s ultimate interest in “total environments,” with their persuasive monochrome finish, is cleverly echoed in the exhibition’s installation. The walls on which the late American artist’s three small, black assemblages hang are painted an equally smitten noir. Thus, with the walls like dark waves looming behind, her smaller yet dense constructions of wooden cast-offs become more like the monumental works she is best known for. Elsewhere, walls have been left white, some featuring a surface of pale, ceramic tile, leaving one to wonder if the gallery’s provenance might have been a kitchen or a butcher. This tile grid glitters, mirroring the abacus-like armatures of End of Day XXII and End of Day XV (both 1972). These two works—composed of columns and compartments studded with smooth wooden balls, bullet-like spearheads, and various wooden shapes in complex constellations—have shades of the ferocious, omnivorous 1960s wall reliefs of Lee Bontecou. If the harmonic balance of Nevelson’s compositions and the domesticity of her gleaned materials is oft-commented on, these works strike a darker, more sinister note, comparable to Bontecou’s Vietnam-era constructions and their open-mouthed aura of alarm.

Nevertheless, an ominous calm and quiet can characterize Nevelson’s pieces, including Open Zag III (1974), with its wood-plank ground supporting a composition of chair legs and disk-like wheels, all finished with an even coat of black spray paint. Faintly, along the side of the work, one of the scavenged elements reads, “Since 1895 Martinsville, VA.” The work calls to mind Robert Rauschenberg’s constructions, and thus delimits Nevelson’s long influence: both artists were featured in “Sixteen Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1959. Nevelson was already 60, Rauschenberg just 34.

Fifty years later, Nevelson’s influence reasserts itself on another young artist, Isabelle Cornaro, whose three tablet-like works here act as secular retorts. The Paris-based artist’s “Photogramme” works (all 2011) comprise aluminum casts of mechanical objects and industrial tools. Displayed on one large concrete plinth, the lyrical twists and cursive turns of the cast tools evoke cuneiform script. In the same way that one “reads” Nevelson’s systemic constructions, one attempts to read Cornaro’s constellation of symbols. As one does, the works individuate themselves subtly: Photogramme I has a silver surface, the result of the original aluminum cast; Photogramme II is glossed shiny gray; and Photogramme III is painted opaque silver. At once décor and literature, object and painting, the works are gorgeously, wittily evocative, and a deft distillation of Cornaro’s usual sprawling installations and tableaux.

If the chessboard-like palette of the exhibition hinted at a certain dry Surrealism at work, as well as a glance back at the legacy of modernism, it also emphasized the two protagonists, facing off, at the show’s center. The pairing was clearly inspired: both artists exploring the abstraction of the found object, the constellation-making of said objects, and monochromatic surface, made to cover everything like a veil of ash or silvery snow. And what of the title? “Le vertige de la moraine,” or “The vertigo of the moraine”? A moraine describes an accumulation of glacial debris such as soil and rock, which form in piles or sheets—thus Cornaro’s sediment-like sheets of industrial fragments are expert nods to their glacial equivalent. But more than that, the literary sensibility of the title pointed to the act of reading objects—our contemporary hieroglyphs—and the never ending project and predicament of representation that, like a torch, Nevelson here passes on, oh so smoothly, to Cornaro herself.

Abstraction, Color

Quinn Latimer is a writer and editor and occasional curator. She is the author of Like a Woman: Essays, Readings, Poems (Sternberg Press, 2017), and the Head of the MA at Institut Kunst Gender Natur, in Basel. She is curator of “SIREN (some poetics),” opening at the Amant Foundation, in New York, in September 2022.

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