Ordered Chaos: Review of Moulène at Modern Art Oxford

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Jean-Luc Moulène, the seminal French artist, presents an eclectic mixture of sculpture, photography and film installation in Modern Art Oxford’s upper gallery. Born in Reims in 1955, Moulène has become renowned for his photographic work in the mid-nineties, which combines cold, artistic indifference with shocking imagery. This is nowhere more exemplified than in his 2004 series Les Filles D’Amsterdam, where Moulène’s models combine a traditionally pornographic pose with disturbingly passive expressions. This approach has been transferred into his latest collection via the large film instillation that concludes one’s visit.

It is perhaps strange to begin by discussing the end; however, it is here that our first point of contact with his earlier work emerges. Projected onto the back wall, three nudes stand, turning to display their naked bodies to the viewer; viewer becomes voyeur as one waits to examine the entire body. The same indifferent facial expression is written across each face, creating a deliberate ambiguity as to whether these women are empowered by their nudity or objectified by it. As with most of Moulène’s photographic portraits, one longs to discover the story behind the expression.

Whilst working on larger installation pieces at the turn of the millennium, Moulène began to reject the term sculpture, choosing instead to refer to his pieces as ‘objets’ (objects). As we work our way back through the gallery, this term becomes more applicable. It is perhaps on account of the space or perhaps Moulène’s cluttered vision, but the opening room is a milieu of competing ‘objets’. A clear bottle of water is stoppered by a large cut-glass crystal, whilst elsewhere coloured glass writhes in a tangled fusion of light. The entire space is used, with the walls bearing a mixture of photography and painting: Etoile Noire (blue & black felt pens on paper) proving to be a particularly stark image in which it is unclear whether we are witnessing an implosion or explosion of caliginous colour.

However, the focus of this room is certainly the processional lines of bronze and glass shapes, each supported by a thin metal pole; there is ceremonial feel to this work, through which we can both wander and in which we can participate. Whilst the nebulous shapes play out through contrast – the rough textures of the bronze juxtaposed with the smoothness of the glass – there is a unity that makes this piece far greater than the sum of its parts. The austerity of the lines recalls classical bronzes and suggests something of antiquity; however, this is never fully realised on account of the coloured glass. One thing that begins to emerge from these works is a desire to order chaos. The rectilinearity of the lines brings shape to the formlessness of the ‘objets’. This is equally true of the photograph Black Ink in which form and control is provided to prevent the indelible chaos of the ink.

Whilst there is a strange lack of coherency to this exhibition, one is able to enjoy the specific moments that constitute it. A greater focus on one key area of Moulène’s work may have proved more successful in terms of artistic performance, but as an entry into one of France’s key modern artists, Modern Art Oxford’s display of works from the mid-nineties to the present-day served as a thought-provoking introduction.

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