Last week, New York-based, French artist Davide Balula picked the lock of Hammer curatorial associate Elizabeth Cline's house while a small crowd stood by. Paris-based artist Michel Blazy, or his proxies, cut the lawn of L.A. collector Danny First and affixed the loose, cut-off grass to the wall of a small room at First's house. In addition, seven Paris galleries, most of which had never exhibited there, had booths at Art Los Angeles Contemporary, the fair at Barker Hangar.
All of this fell under the umbrella of Ceci N'est Pas, a five-month initiative organized by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the U.S., funded by the Institut Francais (the French government's cultural arm) and meant to bring Paris and Los Angeles artists together. French curator Isabelle Le Normand, who has spent the last five years finding and sometimes creating Paris-L.A. convergences, had a hand in at least a third of the week's events.
Le Normand came to Los Angeles for the first time in 2007, looking for an art internship. She had reserved a rental car. But spread-out, segmented LAX confused her, and since she never found the car, she took the bus instead. Because she did, she met Jon Bernad, who noticed her putting a twenty dollar bill into the unsophisticated Metro ticket dispenser and advised she use smaller bills in the future.
A recent college graduate, he had just moved to L.A. to live in a traveling movie producer's back house and care for two French bulldogs (an arrangement that was supposed to last two months but ended up lasting six years). “I had all this free time, ” he remembers. He had been using it to explore the city. “I wanted to share the experience.” He helped Le Normand navigate on that first visit and then again on visits to come.
Though Le Normand did not find an internship, she took a job as a curator at Mains d'Œuvres, a non-profit in a North Paris flea market, soon after she returned home. She started coming to Los Angeles yearly, “for inspiration,” visiting artist's studios with Bernad – like the studio of exuberant, language-obsessed painter Alexandra Grant – and sometimes inviting L.A. artists to exhibit in Paris. “I never planned to do a show here at the beginning,” she says. Then, a year ago, around the time hers and Bernad's friendship became a romance, she started thinking about turning all these connections she had made between L.A. and Paris into something more tangible.
Courtesy L.A., the nomadic gallery Le Normand and Bernad will run, opened as part Ceci N'est Pas in three locations last week — Here is Elsewhere gallery at the PDC (which continues through Feb. 25), ForYourArt on Wilshire and in the mid-city home of collector Danny First. The show, called “Ma Prochaine Vie” (or “My Next Life”), has no specific theme. At ForYourArt, wall sculptures Paris-based Theo Mercier made of found pet supplies hung near surreal, pristine botanical renderings by mostly-L.A.-based Miljohn Ruperto. The dog Michel Blazy made out of shaving cream sat in the window. It all feels like an art lover's stream of consciousness. “You can't figure it out because it's so linked to real life,” says Bernad of Le Normand's intuitive approach.
It's a coincidence that plans for Courtesy L.A. began at the same time the French Cultural Services decided to pursue the Ceci N'est Pas initiative, but almost everything under Ceci N'est Past seems fortuitous and coincidental. There are over 100 artists and curators involved, and organizations across the city have joined the effort as they've caught wind — the MAK Center will host a series of dialogue on Paris-L.A. art and architecture; French artists Argote and Bastard will host Born to Curate at 18th St. Art Center, pitting four teams of L.A. curators against each other game-show style and giving them only minutes to conceptualize an exhibition. The initiative officially began in December with the opening of the “Lost in L.A.,” the show the French Los Angeles Exchange organized at Barnsdall Park (themed for the television show Lost, which has “spatiotemporal shifts” that interest French and L.A. artists equally according to curator Marc-Olivier Wahler), but only started to feel full-bodied this past weekend, with all the events tied to Art Los Angeles Contemporary, held at galleries and staged in private homes.
Ceci N'est Pas means “This is not.” The iconic Renee Magritte painting in LACMA's collection — Ceci N'est Pas une Pipe, or This is Not a Pipe, of a pipe floating against a beige background — inspired it. Only, with no noun at the end, Ceci N'est Pas hangs in the air with no obvious meaning.
“It's not what it seems, but it can be whatever you want,” explains Adelaide Barbier, who's been the L.A. Consulate General of France's Cultural Attaché for six months now. “[Ceci N'est Pas] is not about nationality,” she says, “it's just about all these seeds…a celebration of what's already happening in terms of connection.”
Corentin Hamil's New Galerie, based in Paris but with a newly opened second space in New York, was among the French galleries at the fair last weekend. All the work featured in Hamil's booth, by L.A.-based Lizzie Fitch and the Paris-based collective We Are the Painters, was made in the Los Feliz studio of Fitch and her frequent collaborator Ryan Trecartin. Because they were working side by side, We Are the Painters made a portrait of Fitch wearing an unweildy wig like those featured in their paintings.
“It's just a light collaboration,” Hamil said, when he participated in a panel discussion on Ceci N'est Pas Saturday. “Just the occasion to be together creates a link that can [later] get analyzed and theorized.”
Other such “light collaborations” between Paris and L.A. artists happened because Le Normand had collaborated with Mark Allen of Machine Project, the Echo Park alt art space, to organize Paris at Your Home. Paris artists featured in her exhibition stayed in the homes of L.A. artists — L.A. artists will go to Paris in May, the month after Ceci N'est Pas officially ends — and made original work inspired by their hosts. Artist Nicolas Boulard, who often works with food and wine, “architecturally interpreted” dishes made by his host, Sara Roberts, so that they looked like modernist structures and invited guests over for snacks.
Saturday, the last night of Paris at Your Home, Boulard debuted a series of cheeses he had produced in collaboration with Cowgirl Creamery near San Francisco during his multi-week stay in California. The initial idea for the project, called Specific Cheese after minimalist sculptor Donald Judd's manifesto Specific Object, came a few years ago when he saw Fromage du Valency in a cheese shop, a pyramid shaped mound of cheese that looked surprisingly similar to a sculpture by minimalist Sol LeWitt. “I was shy about this curiosity,” he says, “but I think there is a connection.”
He thought about how “fromage,” the French word for cheese, related etymologically to the word “form,” and about how strange it was that, despite changing technology, cheeses have more or less remained the same shape for centuries. There has never, for instance, been square brie. “I was trying to create a geometric revolution in the cheese world,” Boulard said Saturday, at the end of a brief lecture. Then he invited Machine's Mark Allen, Le Normand, his host family and a few other artists up to hold and then distribute plates of minimalist brie and cups of Chardonnay, so that the Parisians and Angelenos could share wine and cheese.
There are over 70 events associated with Ceci N'est Pas, which culminates with Paris Photo Los Angeles, a fair scheduled for April 25-28 at Paramount Studios.