NEW YORK — Ride the subway, drop kids off at school, drive to work, cook dinner: Those who are caught in the routine trepidations of life might be heartened by a revealing exhibit on everyday life at the Grey Art Gallery in New York.
"The Art of the Everyday: France in the 90s" is an intriguing interpretation of today's French society. Featuring the work of eight young French artists, it provides snapshots of life in France's urban centers and among ordinary families. It also has a universal appeal, posing for each of us a pressing challenge: How can we, as these young artists do, turn the banal into the profound?
In a series of 40 photos, videos, collages, assemblages, and installations, the artists unveil both the familiar and surreal. But this is no longer the bucolic France of baguettes and boulevards that they are sharing with us. Rather, this is urban life, with its hectic, unrelenting, boring, marginalizing rhythm.
The idea for the exhibit was born in Paris, as a young American curator, Lynn Gumpert, was searching for emerging French talent to exhibit in the United States. She had just mounted a show of American art at the Muse d'Art Moderne in Paris - "La Belle et la Bte: Un choix de Jeunes Artistes Amricains" - and she wanted to reciprocate.
She was struck by the fact that most young artists she visited were dealing with the nitty-gritty existence of urban life. The fact they were doing so in a manner that contrasted sharply with the elegance and splendor of traditional French art provided the inspiration for the New York show, Ms. Gumpert said recently.
Valerie Jouve, for instance, chronicles marginalized working-class French living in housing projects in the "banlieues" of major cities by mixing reality and fiction. Her subjects seem surreal, their intensely personal states contrasting with the cool geometry of cityscape. Take the woman hurrying along a concrete wall, with a housing project in the background forming a seascape.
Jol Bartolomo turns to his family for his art. He leaves his camera unattended as dinner unfolds, revealing the chatting and bickering that is so much a part of family life. Under his camera, his family becomes a microcosm of the world whose dynamics everybody can identify with: The young children, Caroline and Fabien, battle for a point of view; catastrophes threaten; they're struggling to make sense of the world.
Rebecca Bournigault films friends engaging in everyday activities such as women putting on makeup. Claude Closky uses magazine and grocery-store fliers to create endless taxonomies. Jean-Luc Moulne's art provokes a response: In front of the gigantic, expressionless face of his wife and friend is a three-dimensional model of a jerry-built step that leads nowhere.
"The question of the everyday is incredibly important for the 20th century," says Gumpert, who is now director of the Grey Art Gallery. "What's interesting is that there's been a specific angle, a French view on how the everyday is articulated."
Indeed, perhaps more than anything else, it is the concept of the everyday that has most marked the arts and culture of the 20th century. And nowhere has this been more articulated than in post-World War II France, where the "quotidien" has been the subject of intense sociological fascination on the part of novelists, historians, and filmmakers.
The French obsession with the banal, the everyday, had taken hold in the late 19th century with the invention of the medium of photography. "Invented by the French, photography, of course, is the ultimate transcriber of the mundane, the unparalleled recorder of the stream of time in its transience and its banality," writes photography critic Shelley Rice in an essay that's part of "The Art of the Everyday: The Quotidian in Postwar French Culture," a book published in conjunction with the exhibit (New York University Press). The famous black-and-white photographs of artists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson first captured the Parisian daily experience we now regard as quintessentially French, Rice says.
Writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Honor de Balzac also relished the everyday. But it wasn't until after World War II that the quotidian was deemed a subject worthy of theoretical attention, when Marxist theorist Henri Lefbvre, in 1946, declared that "the concept of everydayness [can] reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary."
After the war, the quotidian fueled political and sociological discussions and permeated the arts. Nowhere is that more evident than in French cinema. Compared with a Hollywood culture's ability to tell a story, French cinema is rarely concerned with narrative for its own sake, says Peter Brunette, a professor of English and Film Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
"With French film," Brunette writes in "The Art of Everyday," "the everyday seems to function as a context or backdrop of relentless ordinariness from or against which the extraordinary - which is always composed of the ordinary, merely, perhaps, rearranged - can suddenly flash out and be registered."
* 'The Art of the Everyday: France in the 90s' is on view at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University through May before traveling to the Center for Fine Arts in Pittsburgh and Nexus Contemporary Arts Center in Atlanta.