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by Betty Ann Brown

Video stills from "Gradiva:
Delirio e Sogni" (Gradiva:
Delirium and Dreams):

(J. Paul Getty Museum, West Los Angeles; Chac-Mool Gallery, West Hollywood) Anne and Patrick Poirier like to say that they are similar to twins separated at birth and that they re-met in front of Nicholas Poussin’s Et en Arcadia Ego at the Louvre Museum. They have been doing art about archaeology and art history together for the last three decades.

Poussin’s seventeenth-century painting could serve as a signature icon for the French art couple: like the Neoclassical master they revive ancient images for contemporary commentary, a practice currently considered quite Post Modern, however deep its actual art historical roots. When the Getty Research Institute invited them to create an exhibition as part of the Côte Ouest series of contemporary art from France, the Poiriers decided to expand on an earlier interest in the literary figure of Gradiva. In 1903 Wilhelm Jensen published his novel Gradiva: A Pompeiian Fantasy, about a German archaeologist who dreams of a young woman he sees in an ancient Roman relief. He calls her Gradiva, or She-who-advances, and seeks to rediscover her in the ruins of pompeii. What he finds in Pompeii instead is his neighbor Zoe Bertang (‘Bertang’ translates as something akin to She-sho-advances as well), whom he had loved as a child.

Carl Jung suggested to Sigmund Freud that he look to Jensen’s novel. Freud found in it a canny metaphor for how art imitates dreams and how archaeology imitates the “excavation” of psychoanalysis. Freud’s Delusion and Dream in Wilhelm Jensen’s Gradiva (1907) was his first study of a work of literature. The French Surrealists later claimed Gradiva as an inspirational icon. André Breton named his 1937 Parisian art gallery Galerie Gradiva. Even the Deconstructivist philosopher Jacques Derrida has most recently included an extended discussion of the symbolism of Gradiva in his Archive Fever. She-who-advances continues striding through the zeitgeist: this writer recently [and, it should be added, in complete coincidence to the Poirier’s exhibition--Ed.] completed a book of essays under the titled Gradiva’s Mirror.

The Poiriers searched the Getty’s archives to create The Shadow of Gradiva: A Last Excavation Campaign in the Collections of the Getty Center, a gathering together of photographs, manuscripts and other documents that consturcts a fictional history of expeditions in search of She-who-advances. They lend Gradiva a mythic genealogy, claiming she descends from Eros and Thanatos, Love and Death. Wandering through the Getty exhibition is like entering a fantasical museum of natural history that houses all of the records of a new Goddess.

Concurrently the Poiriers show new photographic work in a gallery exhibition. Fragility presents a series of immense cibachromes that reference and rescind Baroque-era vanitas paintings. Intensely pigmented and whimsically composed, the photographs combine fishing lures, their hooks threateningly displayed, with shattered goblets and fiery red fabrics. Simultaneously attractive and repellant, these photographs invite close inspection and lengthy consideration.

A second part of this series are equally large cibachromes of tropical flowers with words and phrases burned into their petals. The shift in scale is unsettling, as the flowers expand from hand to torso size. As the red and white of the flowers become flesh and the words on them become wounds, the tender surfaces so painfully marked evoke memories of torture and desecration.

Anne and Patrick Poirier,
"Goodbye to Dinawa",
cibachrome on plexiglass,
49 x 39", 1996.

It is truly remarkable to see artists continue to address compelling issues of intellect and passion in such daring fashion long after they have achieved an international reputation. The Poiriers demonstrate that they are not subject to resting on their laurels.