Noël Dolla: A Spirit of Independence Within the Idiom of Abstraction

ART REVIEW  

Supports/Surfaces, Canada Gallery, NY
June 7 – July 20, 2014

Noël Dolla:  Entrée libre mais non obligatoire, Villa Arson, Nice, France
June 30-October 21, 2013

by Rosemary O’Neill

Lou Che (2013)

Lou Che (2013)

Noël Dolla’s career as an artist has been well-established since at age twenty-five the artist was already associated with the Nice-Paris group Supports-Surfaces, a collective of artists who viewed abstract painting as an unfulfilled artistic direction with the implications of its material and social possibilities arrested in formalist discourse and active as a group from 1970-1972.  This summer, Canada Gallery in New York (June 7 – July 20, 2014), featured an exhibition this collective’s work, the first exhibition held in the U.S. some forty years after the group’s dissolution.  The symposium held in conjunction with this exhibition revealed the significance of this work, especially given the interest in abstract painting among young artists and how distinctive and fresh the works of Supports-Surfaces remain today.  Dolla’s work, in particular, demonstrated a range of approaches from repetitive points stamped on a dishtowel remarking on a domestic task in relation to minimalist serial stamping in Torchon a pois (1971) while Tarlatane (1976), stained gauze in sea blue and rose coloring, elegantly flowing down and off the wall conveys restrained sophistication.  His achievements have been recognized with his designation as Officier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2008) by the French government, yet he remains under-recognized in the U.S.  A retrospective of his work in Nice this past year demonstrated the depth of his artistic conversations internationally but also his critical questioning of his own work materially, socially, and visually.

At the Villa Arson’s National Center for Contemporary Art in Nice, Noel Dolla acted as subject and curator of a generous, intelligent, and expansive exhibition, which takes full advantage of the labyrinthine galleries of this renowned French institution with its vast terraces facing the famed Côte d’Azur and its lush interior gardens.  Dolla conceived this exhibition as a hybrid affair bringing together his works over the course of nearly a half-century with his own collection, and artists with whom he has worked or recognized affinities in Nice and New York, in particular.  Dolla establishes a context for this exhibition with the installations of bedroom and living room spaces in collaboration with artist Sandra D. Lecocq titled, L’Appartement du Joyeux Bordel (2013), installed with works including Matisse, Ben Vautier, Andy Warhol, Jean-Luc Verna, and Elizabeth Mercier, among many others demonstrating the intimacy and direct physical contact with his collection, a testimony to the rich material environment in which he lives.  The show veers between chronological to trans-temporal galleries as it takes turns deeply looking at the artists’ oeuvre over time while never failing to situate his art in constant dialogue with the artistic and social communities within which his work is produced.  From his early Torchon, Étendoir, Trempage, and Tarlatane series of the 1960s and 1970s, with their choreographic interplay of stamped surfaces on domestic tee-towels and fabrics to ethereal gauzes stained and cascading down and off the walls, Dolla provides a context for this early work in the gallery installed with his works along with other artists associated with Supports-Surfaces, notably Claude Viallat, Bernard Pagès, Patrick Saytour, and Daniel Dezeuze.

What is remarkable about this retrospective is the breadth of Dolla’s work within the idiom of abstraction.  His Croix series of the mid-1970s are analytic and sensuous, balanced and precarious, simple but vivid.  By contrast the series on the theme of Chernobyl captures the anxiety and anguish of this environmental catastrophe in expressionist terms with a dark interiority and physicality. While his paintings rendered with candle flames of the early 1990s are meditations on the ephemeral trace graceful markings smooth colored surfaces.  What is evident throughout is the artist’s insistence on abstraction as a language capable of addressing the material, social, and political sphere, a point overtly demonstrated in the reading room included in the exhibition with publications ranging from Joseph Stieglitz, Howard Zinn, Michel Foucault, Slavoj Zizak, Noam Chomsky, Alain Badiou, Pierre Bourdieu, Che Guevara, and scores of other philosophers and social theorists.

Dolla’s collaboration with Pascal Pinaud is highlighted in the verdant interior garden. Titled Kiosk (2003), it is a monumental and elegant sculpture of iron gates gathered from local villas, each piece a visual celebration of linear embellishment uniformly painted white.  It surrounds Dolla’s sculpture, Le Grand Leurre de Noël (1986-1998), an over-scale fishing hook with its spikey projections made more conspicuous by the orange coloration.  This installation is elegant and refined while strikingly aggressive and exclusionary.  Its inaccessibility and sophisticated framing blends desire and entrapment in a play on the artist’s name and the false pleasures of commercialization of art and the ceremonious.  While this work is commanding in scale, his fabrication of lures in more functional scale or in performance works on this theme in the 1990s are elaborations on artifice and visual excess a propos their designed aim and metaphoric resonance.

As curator, Dolla also brought together artist-friends and former students of the Villa Arson over his thirty-seven year tenure as a professor at the Villa Arson. These works demonstrate Dolla’s appreciation of distinctive conceptual turns and the myriad of ways the included artists visualize their material practices across varied mediums.  These include:  Philippe Ramette, Stephane Magnin, Jérôme Robbe, Philippe Mayaux, and Roland Flexner, among others who hail from region and those who work “in the spirit of abstraction” including Americans Polly Apfelbaum. Saul Ostrow, Mary Heilman, Jonathan Lasker, Shirley Kaneda.  These choices for a full-scale retrospective demonstrate his kinship with other artists, local and trans-Atlantic dialogues, and the ways artistic relationships are formed and sustained, not through isolation but within communities.

This exhibition is a declaration of Dolla’s life, political allegiances, pedagogical affects, and reflections on discourses on art making as a critical practice. No better work captures his position than Lou Che (2013), a large-scale constructivist inspired sculpture perched on a high point of the exterior architecture, its title illuminated in neon during the overnight hours.  An outline of a spectral fishing dinghy with its bow pointed toward the Mediterranean Sea, it is a beacon of aspiration and liberty, a point further emphasized by the artist’s photographs of African fishermen installed below on the exterior terraces.  Dolla portrays each individual in the same pose with a sense of visual objectivity, yet at the same time, they are riveting examples of personal dignity and integrity with each photograph backed by gold paper reflecting the intense sunlight from the verso side.  Lou Che clearly evokes the political hopes of Che Guevara, but also references Niçois language and culture still present in this region despite its cosmopolitanism, the fishing tradition in which Dolla is a passionate participant, and place, the Le Ray quartier where the Villa Arson is located and where he has been a presence since its opening in the early 1970s.  Dolla’s connection to the Mediterranean and to the solitude and metaphors of fishing are intimately linked with his artistic productions.  His daily excursion at sea is a practice of sovereignty within a blue and fluid space of air and water. Likewise, his work demonstrates a spirit of independence, an empathy with very material elements of life, a claim to human experience worthwhile in and of itself, and the ways artistic interventions can conserve a sense of being worthy of creative and philosophic reflection.

Rosemary O’Neill is an Associate Professor of Art History. She specializes in Twentieth Century Art History in Europe and the Americas. She is the author of Art and Visual Culture of the French Riviera, 1956-1971 (Ashgate Publishing, January 2012) and Le ‘naturalisme int_gral’ de Pierre Restany: la perception disciplin_e et la dematerialization de l’objet, Le Demi-Si’cle de Pierre Restany (Paris: INHA, 2009). 

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