Exhibitions: Jean-Michel Othoniel: My Way

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    Jean-Michel Othoniel: My Way

    Exhibition Didactics ?
      This exhibition presents a survey of the twenty-five-year career of French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel (born 1964), from his first intimate, enigmatic works made of sulfur and wax to his recent large sculptures made of glass. Working with these malleable materials, Othoniel has fashioned a poetic and personal visual language to explore themes involving the body, sexuality, beauty, desire, and metamorphosis.

      The My Way of the exhibition’s title—borrowed from the classic Frank Sinatra song—refers to Othoniel’s idiosyncratic path among various movements in contemporary art. These include the unconventional materials and processes of Arte Povera, Minimalism’s engagement with space and the viewer’s body, the wordplay of Surrealist poetry and Marcel Duchamp, the streamlined abstraction of Constantin Brancusi, and the conceptual, emotional work of artists such as Christian Boltanski, Sophie Calle, and Félix Gonzáles-Torres.

      Throughout his career Othoniel has been interested in the conversion of matter from one state to another and in the new forms and interpretations made possible by that transformation. He examines these processes by working with mutable substances such as sulfur, which he first came across in the late 1980s while experimenting with photosensitive materials. Drawn to the element’s brilliant yellow color and metamorphic properties, he was intrigued by sulfur’s association with divine wrath and hellfire. He was also inspired by the phonetic similarity between the French word soufre (sulfur) and the words souffrir (to suffer) or souffreteux (sickly). This chain of word associations, activated by the word that identifies the substance itself, connects the medium’s physical, metamorphic, and expressive qualities.

      On a visit to the volcanic islands off the coast of Sicily in the early 1990s, Othoniel encountered obsidian, a natural black glass that forms from cooled lava. Fascinated by the conversion of hot liquid into cold solid, of the granular and opaque into the smooth and transparent, he embraced glass as the predominant material in his art. Collaborating closely with glassmakers around the world, he directs them to mark, or wound, the molten glass. These “scars” resurface as the glass is shaped and cooled, a physical reminder of the violence and beauty of a transformative moment.

      Othoniel’s glass sculptures shimmer with the colors of candy, flowers, gems, flesh, and blood. Visually beguiling, their succulent shapes are suspended out of reach. Their beauty is a mirage; it seduces, only to reveal a world haunted by loss and desire.

      "A necklace is like the shadow of a missing person."
      —Jean-Michel Othoniel

      Othoniel is drawn to the simple form of the beaded necklace by the many physical, emotional, and symbolic ways it is intimately associated with the body. Necklaces can confer power, provide protection, and enhance beauty; strands of beads can be manipulated for religious or sexual purposes; slave traders exchanged beads for human cargo; and the bead shape can be used to visualize DNA and other molecular structures. When the form is enlarged, these rich corporeal connections are amplified so that the necklace might be interpreted as a surrogate for the body itself.

      "I was not fascinated by glass as a material; I was fascinated by the transformation of this material, its metamorphosis.”
      —Jean-Michel Othoniel

      Othoniel’s obsession with the infinite possibilities of glass began in 1989 when he traveled to the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily. Although he went there to watch sulfur emerging from the mouth of a volcano, he also encountered another raw material: the vitrified lava called obsidian. Fascinated, he sought to artificially re-create this volcanic glass in partnership with the International Glass Research Center (CIRVA) and Saint-Gobain Glass Research in France. By mimicking the metamorphic process with extremely high temperatures and precise calibration, they ultimately produced three small obsidian sculptures, including the one displayed in this exhibition. Those works mark the beginning of Othoniel’s engagement with the world of glass.

      By the mid-1990s Othoniel had been accepted into the world of master Murano glass artisans in Venice. He still collaborates closely with them, as well as with other glass blowers around the world, providing drawings and clay models, and directing their movements as they manipulate the molten glass. It is not the glass itself that intrigues him but rather the conceptual possibilities offered by its deceptive and seductive beauty and the inherent poetry of the metamorphosis that brings it into being. He is particularly fascinated by the idea of healing wounds through transformation, a concept he sees exemplified by the working of glass.

      “I wanted to work on the wound,” he explains, “to wound the glass: blown glass bears traces of the glassmaker’s body, it is mixed, pulverized, and handled by him. If the ball of glass is wounded while in fusion, this wound will forever resurface. I thus chose to work with such accidents, asking the glassmakers to wound the glass before working on it, leading to irregular, marked forms, bearing scars. And I saw true beauty in these scars. So I drew up a ground rule for my work on glass: to lay bare the violence at work in the material.”

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