Belgium-based artist Jimmy Robert’s first major museum show in the U.S. — “Vis-à-vis,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art — translates as face-to-face, and is a play on relationships and subtlety of form.
Robert’s work covers more than the gallery wall space. It is propped up against walls (that gestures toward one of the MCA’s own permanent collection pieces “Prop,” by Richard Serra), taped to the floor, projected, woven through a table, folded and protruding from the wall; and if you’re not careful, you can almost trip over some small sculptures on the ground. “Untitled, 2005,” for example, is scattered across the gallery the floor and appears to be printer paper, but is in fact made out of metal sheets. Despite the multitude of Robert’s presentation styles, the galleries maintain the beautifully poetic nature of the work and don’t feel cluttered or overwhelming. “Vis-à-vis” is an elegant survey.
Robert’s pieces are layered and are processed through multiple stages often transitioning and floating between two and three dimensions. A photograph found in a flea market in Paris becomes a collage, a digital image, a printed photo, and a sculpture all at once. Appropriation is one of these layers and while Robert takes from several artists’ previous works, his appropriations are a quiet nod and processed through his own interventions and manipulations. Sometimes that’s a reinterpretation, other times it’s manipulating the physical surface by crumpling the paper or cutting slits in the image or masking the eyes of the figures as if to create a literal disconnect in the subject’s ability to communicate/perform for the viewer.
Paper, or a reference to it, is present in almost every piece in the show. In one video, where the screen is placed on a small block titled to an angle on the floor, Robert’s hands are seen folding a square photo of himself contorting his body on a table, into origami like shapes therefore both figuratively and literally folding his body as paper. Just like the paper, Robert’s body is something to be manipulated, and to perform.
“Vis-à-vis” is like a collection of gestures — many small moments of small moves — that come together in a profound statement that is as political as it is personal. Some of these gestures become a pattern, like a triangular shape that comes from folded paper. Sometimes the shape looks sharp and violent — as it does in “Untitled, 2006” (a long vertical female portrait) cutting literally through the figure. Yet it also acts as a visual extension to her garment, an addition that depending on where you stand can almost go unnoticed.
Robert challenges the monumentality of sculpture with his paper works. His collages, unframed, attached to the wall by a single pair of pins, curl deeply at the end. An image that would traditionally be conserved, framed and pressed flat under glass gives way to other forces like gravity, humidity, and time. Robert’s work embraces the temporality of material and it feels honest while refined. All of his sculptures seem to act as evidence of movement or body — a crease in the paper, falling papers, contorting the body versus an artist object that remains resilient to time and touch. An object whose life often remains present without intentionally referencing past action. One piece in particular, a photograph of his brother, propped against the wall by a single board continues to fall lower and deeper out of view throughout the day-causing the viewer to have to squat down to see the image and physically react to its gravitational declivity.
“Vis-à-vis” is an ambitious but graceful exhibition that plays with the idea of temporality and the haptic qualities of surface through performative gestures.
*Gabriella Brown is currently an intern at the MCA but was not during the production of “Vis-a-vis.”