With this quote is how artist Peter Halley begins his essay “Frank Stella… And the simulacrum” in 1986 (Selected Essays, Edgewise 2013) but it could very well describe his show at Xippas gallery on view until July 28th, where he creates a dual art and architectural installation -- bathed in yellow, black and fluorescent light emanating from his paintings -- tracing the origins of his iconography and introducing the visitor, like if he had enter a VR video game, into this very personal world of his.
After three decades of a profound painterly investigation, surrounding themes of control, isolation and connectivity -- linked to poststructuralist theory, the geometrization of space, and telecommunications -- and associated to an ever growing digital landscape (that he foresaw at its inception), Halley has managed to create a very powerful language with a defined and personal set of abstract and at the same time diagrammatic geometric elements, anchored in computer language and the technification of society, and he is now arriving to a place where he can compose with it the most complex symphonies, echoing the world that surround us but also his inner landscape, as he is demonstrating in the French capital.
Au-dessous/Au-dessus – the name of the show – exemplifies the multiple strata of Halley’s thinking. Below and above, what’s hidden, what’s exposed, you want to be under or on top? Halley is always playful in finding relationships within the physical and metaphysical, always giving clues but never totally revealing the multiple meanings behind his work.
First of all the title refers to the spatial characteristics of the gallery itself that is divided in two separate spaces with two separate entrances; one is underground and the other is above ground. In the ground floor the two entrances meet and a set of stairs up and down will take you to the separate gallery spaces. This odd configuration serves the artist as a starting point to his very contextual architectural intervention. The staircases and corridors leading to the galleries in both spaces are appropriated and transformed into an integral part of the exhibition narrative.
Halley has been doing art installations since the mid 90s, where he would take over the whole walls of galleries and museums and treat them like architectural ensembles, imbuing the viewer in a 360˚ bodily experience. His love and vast knowledge of architecture is better revealed at these moments. Sometimes he has collaborated with designers and architects like Alessandro Mendini or Matali Crasset to design the wall installations, other times like in here he does it all himself.
To go “Au-dessus” (above) we have to climb up a tomb-like narrow set of long stairs bathed in yellow light, under a starry ceiling just like the one in the tomb of Nefertari (the Egyptian queen and the first of the Great Royal Wives of Ramesses the Great). The geometric hieroglyphs in the walls of the gallery, like in the corridors of a Pyramid are Halley’s own signs, taken from his early notebooks at a time when he was defining this language of his. He is not only referencing architectural history but also semiotics, as Egyptians would write with drawing-like signs, as the artist does. He is stressing here the importance in his work of those two elements -- language and architecture -- and also a certain past, his own, but also of a civilization that seems to be of great influence for him.
Once you get to the top you arrive to a room with several very minimal new paintings -- 3 or 4 prisons in each one, a variation he has been playing with lately – made specifically for the show and hanged on top of a wallpaper printed with similar drawings, thus creating a “trompe l’oeuil” effect (another classical architectural reference). The horizontality of this ensemble reminds of a musical chart, staccato with prisons as notes and color as tempo – a palette allegro ma non troppo. It’s the apparent simplicity of the work that allows color to cascade, sublime and so sophisticated. One only has to think of Joseph Albers’s “Hommage to the Square” – a very definitive an early influence on the artist -- when looking at his work. Albers did 2000 paintings of the exact same variation, just changing the colors. Halley’s own investigation goes in those lines as well as his mastery of the medium. He is probably one of the best colorist out there today.
“Au-dessous” (below), another set of stairs, this time going down and bathed in black light over a cosmic blue landscape of infinite tinny prisons; a pattern that reminisces the cosmos and some distant universe – his own universe projecting us in time as well, but towards the future now. This pattern coupled with black light was already used in an area of his Schirn Kunsthalle installation in the summer of 2016, as he likes to revisit themes and expand on them. One has the feeling that since that appropriation of the Frankfurt circular museum’s rotunda, the artist is widening and deepening his architectural interventions, stepping out of the wall into space.
This cosmic blue passageway prepares us for the arrival to the other gallery space, printed with a more literal walk-in-text. This time a black wallpaper with different writings by writer and curator of the show, Jill Gasparina addressing all those themes recurring in the artist’s production and writings, like urban planning, the growth of digital technology, the synthetic spaces of video-games and architectural rendering, the links between European and American traditions of abstraction and between modernism and postmodernism. On top of it another musical variation, this time a series of 3 big paintings composed with geometric sectors or cells, as he calls them, touching each other in primary colors, green black and/or white, echoing maybe Mondrian and Modernism. A permutation of the same colors and slight variation in their geometries recalls what Sol Lewitt would say about difference in repetition, another minimalist/maximalist artist very site specific, architecturally inclined (he actually was trained as an architecture) and a music lover.
Architecture, music and language are so intertwined. They all have their abstract systems of composition with their own particular notations, being an architectural diagram, a music chart or a poem. What Peter Halley has been developing and perfecting his whole career is exactly that, a system of composition and communication -- what you can see and what you cannot see. As much abstract these works might appear, they are also part of the artist’s inner landscape, there are so many layers to it. And since Frankfurt a change seems to be taking place where he seems to be pushing his compositions into another dimension: that is the 3rd dimension. We are excited to see what will come next…
And lastly and funny, the title “above and under” oozes with sexual connotations too, probably because Peter Halley’s show at Xippas is surely one of the hottest things in Paris right now.