When Olivier Foulon went to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to see Gustave Courbet’s L’atelier du peintre (The Painter’s Studio, 1854-55), he did not find the work as expected. Instead of hanging on the wall, Courbet’s mighty painting – almost six metres wide – lay on the floor, face down. Over the course of a year, L’atelier du peintre was restored at the museum in an area sealed off with glass partitions. The painstaking restoration was displayed for visitors, not least because much of its budget was raised by crowdfunding. Although the painting was present, then, it was obscured from view.
Photographs documenting the restoration of Courbet’s masterpiece represent the first set of works in Foulon’s exhibition in kurzer Zeit (In a Short Time) at Galerie Clages in Cologne. In the photo series titled Untitled (L’Atelier) (The Studio, 2015-16), these pictures are grouped in uniform fashion, mounted on Bristol paper and pinned to the wall in a well-spaced row. The nine-part series highlights multiple interpretations of absence within L’Atelier, both via concealment and anachronism. During its restoration, the painting’s identity floats between the original, the timeworn and the ‘new original’ intention. In this picture with its many figures, Courbet wanted to portray his social milieu gathered around him in the name of his work. In Foulon’s photographs, this milieu is replaced by the painting’s current surroundings: information panels, schoolchildren and people with backpacks.
The theme of the photograph as a referential gesture runs throughout the exhibition. Another set of works, Untitled [2 Äpfel] (2 Apples) and Untitled [3 Äpfel] (3 Apples, 2016), depicts various arrangements of apples on a wooden table – photographic pastiches of Courbet’s duskily lit still lifes. In the gallery’s office hang two more prints of the same picture. Untitled [2 Bücher] (2 Books, 2016) depicts publications by Isa Genzken and Elaine Sturtevant one atop the other. This work highlights the referential mirroring present in Foulon’s practice as a whole: photographing a catalogue whose cover reproduces a work by Sturtevant whose own motif is an appropriation of Andy Warhol’s Flowers prints, which are based on magazine photographs. While Foulon uses material in which the category of the original is already unstable, his elegant linking tends to render itself invisible within tautological loops and references.
The exhibition’s last room contains collages, Untitled [3 Bücher – Vortrag in Bilbao #1-3] (Untitled [3 Books – Lecture in Bilbao #1-3], 2016), both show three key publications by Marcel Broodthaers that Foulon borrowed from a library. The artist photographed his experience browsing these extremely rare, hard-to-access books which, among other things, reflect the borrowing (Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard [A Throw of the Dice Never Abolishes Chance], 1969), salvaging (Un voyage en Mer du Nord [A Voyage on the North Sea], 1973) and concealing (Pense-Bête [Memory Aid], 1963-64) of Foulon’s own exhibition. In a final work, the artist quotes himself in a three-dimensional footnote. Model (2016), a work that has featured in past shows, consists of an area marked off with tape forming a scaled-down outline of the gallery’s first room. In it, leaning against the wall, is one of the photographs from the apple series. This space in the corner is so small and inviting that it almost prompts the viewer to shrink in order to spend time in it.
Although the exhibition’s title refers to the rather momentary artistic genesis of the works, it also feels coyly overstated. Foulon’s approach to pictures is anything but fleeting: over a period of years, he has ostentatiously dealt with a narrow circle of references (to include Courbet and Broodthaers), generating depth and encrypted structures. Appropriation and inclination go hand in hand here, and the feedback between pictures causes an agreeable rattling in the mind.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 25