If for some reason you’d been worried that contemporary French art was turning into an overly-feminine affair (Grand Palais was so much more manly before Daniel Buren got in there to decorate), go see Benjamin Sebatier’s Hard Work. Bricks, cans, racks, nails, assorted construction-related instruments I’m too girly to know the name of — these are the artists’ materials in use here. The objects they compose seem, in their real or imagined dirtiness, vaguely out of place in the eighth-arrondissement hyper-elegance of the Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, but the tension this creates — between the work and its environment — is the first delight of the exhibition.
Sebatier, who lives and works in Paris, is at an early stage in his career — barely into his thirties, his exhibition history is, if illustrious, only a decade long — but he has already proved himself a surprising, precise, and dedicatedly political artist. Often incorporative of found parts, his sculptures, collages, and installations — informed by ideas about consumerism, the working life, and social homogeneity — evince Sebatier’s concern with reception as much as form, message as much as the media. In his oeuvre, materials are always in the service of concept — even when they’re packing tape and thumbtacks.
Benjamin Sebatier, Rack II, 2010, Crémaillères et béton, 206 x 50 x 38,5 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont
Not a subtle show, Hard Work literally announces itself — in efficient English, business language of the world — on the gallery’s street-facing wall: of the twenty-odd works displayed, the first you see is the show’s title, spelled out in an ingenious smattering of nails driven crookedly into the plaster. Just beside it is Plaque (2 canettes): two flattened beer cans peek out of a copper-coloured, concrete-and-polystyrene panel, their metallic facades like coins winking from the bottom of a fountain — the reward at the end of a long day.
Keep the canettes in mind — variations on the crushed-can theme form the backbone of the show, having evidently occupied the artist’s attention for years: in Barrel (2010), a barrel of unhuggable diameter, bolted to a pole that extends from the floor, crumples into the ceiling (both pieces are of the same rusted-out metal, as though together they’d occupied that spot on the gallery’s upper floor for years, where they’d been rained on repeatedly); in Etai V (2012), a bucket of blue-grey paint is crushed from above by another metal pole, this one fastened to the ceiling; in Barrel III (2011), a rusting, paint-splattered barrel is contorted into a dynamic, almost figurative shape by the clamp squeezing it at both ends — it balances precariously on a plinth by one twisted corner. But the most successful of these works is Base V: a paint can crushed under a concrete block, peeking out from under it, bleeding bright blue acrylic that drips down its sides and pools pitifully around it.
Benjamin Sebatier, Briques II, 2012, Briques et serre-joints sur socle en medium peint, 195 x 43 x 55 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont
That these works compel the viewer to invent narratives and anthropomorphize brute materials (“that clamp is hurting that bucket!”) is, more than what they look like or what comment they might make, the source of their charm. Sacs II is a bag of concrete socked in the stomach by a vengeful wood plank; Briques II is the work of a renegade labourer who used his tools to serve his own playful ends rather than the demands of his employer. There is pleasure in analyzing these objects’ component parts, in marveling at their construction, in noticing the familiar about them and how it is rendered strange — but not as much as in the imaginings they inspire. Sebatier’s hard work becomes ours; his inventions are remade in the minds of their viewers. Fortunately, his technical and creative virtuosity makes it easy for us. Either that or this type of work just comes naturally.
(Image on top right: Benjamin Sebatier, Base V, 2012, Béton, polystyrène, pot de peinture en métal, acrylique, résine et bois peint,110 x 70 x 75 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont)