Damien Deroubaix: L’esprit de notre temps

Le Musée de l’Abbaye Sainte-Croix, Les Sables d’Olonne, France

Until September 27

Andrei Rabodzeenko: Technotropic Romance

Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago

Until August 2

Tower of Babel, Steampunk style

Tower of Babel, Steampunk style

The lawyer defending Allan Ginsberg and The Howl against charges of obscenity claimed that the poet was inspired by the Book of Job. Sci-fi role-playing game Zenogears invokes the Bible with its “Goddamn Babel Tower Level.” Version 1.18 of Tower of Babel game for Androids features the Seal of Power that prevents God’s Wrath from interrupting Enchanted Hammers. Steampunk artists too are aficionados of Babel. And Mammon casts as dark a shadow today as ever. The triad of Babel, Mammon, and Job is synonymous with questions that humans have been asking for millennia—questions about ignorance and suffering, faith and pride, ambition and greed. And above all, about divine power.

William Blake, Book of Job, 1826

Lots of people steer clear of these deep waters. Yet the ways each generation explores them feed the zeitgeist, or spirt of the times. Visual artists who set out on such explorations lend aesthetic forms to the zeitgeist by creating works that engage, challenge, and disturb viewers. Andrei Rabozeenko and Damien Deroubaix do exactly this in their exhibitions, Technotropic Romance and L’esprit de Notre Temps (The Spirit of Our Times).

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Andrei Rabozeenko, Witness

After seeing a show of paintings by Chicago-based artist Andrei Rabozeenko last winter and visiting his studio, Loyola’s museum director Pamela Ambrose invited the artist to exhibit work in LUMA’s gallery for works on paper. His oil paintings incarnate enigmatic visions. They’re made luminous by abundant gold and the palette of stained glass. Rabozeenko’s Soviet education is on display in his paintings. He offsets the rigor and classical elegance of academic technique with visual narratives and flourishes of wit that spring from a probing mind and fertile imagination.

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Andrei Rabozeenko, The Answer Is Yes

The bodies of work grouped as Archetypes and Metaphysics in Rabozeenko’s winter show suggested two wholly distinct visual idioms. Technotropic Romance’s works—26 works in chalk, charcoal, and tempera on brown paper and cardboard—presents a third idiom. Here the artist delves into questions about the human capacity to be captivated by knowledge and belief, activity and accomplishment.

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Andrei Rabozeenko, Thoughts on the Book of Job, 4.

With their themes of human striving, confusion, anguish, and divine omnipotence, Job and Babel never go out of style. Rabozeenko takes them up in Technotropic Romance and extends his earlier exploration of mythic archetypes beyond the individual to society and species. Thoughts on the Book of Job, 4, is one in a series of six drawings. Here, a black pie slice in the upper left references a convention in Russian Orthodox icon-making that figures God as a black disk. White lines dart across the drawing and trace a complex geometry of connections among the forms. Quasi-legible text hovers around the figures echoing Job’s perplexity. The series format here is not used to represent the story’s sequence of events. Instead, the works in Thoughts on the Book of Job have a cumulative effect: they induce the vertigo that arises at the edge of an abyss.

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Andrei Rabozeenko, New Babylonians, 3

The exhibition’s title expresses the artist’s curiosity about human fervor for activity and novelty. Rabozeenko’s past life as an architect is visible in the exhibition’s New Babylonian series. Humanoid figures like those in architectural drawings scale scaffolding on vertical structures that are adorned with eerie drips, blots, and smears. Construction and destruction proceed simultaneously.

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Andrei Rabozeenko, Carrying the Day

The works are strengthened by the spontaneity and immediacy afforded by their media. Their opacity suits the artist’s musings. The rhythm of repeated gestural, figurative, and textual elements unifies the experience. Engaged viewers feel the cadence of Technotropic Romance. Those who flit through catch the zeitgeist in blips and tweets

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Banners on every other light post along the seaside promenade and main streets in Les Sables d’Olonne announce Le Musée de l’Abbaye Sainte-Croix’s summer exhibition of Damien Deroubaix. The city’s museum for contemporary art shares its space with the public library in a building that was a Benedictine abbey founded in the seventeenth century. Artists dream of creating shows for spaces like this with its expansive main gallery and attic gallery of creaking timber. Deroubaix’s exhibition responds to the museum’s architecture and a collection that features large holdings of works by Victor Brauner and Gaston Chaissac and as well as a gallery of maritime and ethnographic objects.

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Victor Brauner, La Mère des Oiseaux (The Mother of Birds), 1965

A LUMA docent observed that young viewers connect readily to Rabozeenko’s works with their ambiguity and angst. Critic Olivier Grassier describes the art of the Frenchman Damien Deroubaix as imprinted with “trash, grunge and grindcore” culture and infused with an adolescent attitude and an emotional register that’s “brutal and aggressive, full of black humor, cruelty, and provocation.” His visual vocabulary spans millennia and continents: old masters and archeological finds; seashells and skeletons; heavy metal album covers and press photos.

Raoul Hausmann, Mechanical Head (The spirit of our time), 1919.

Raoul Hausmann, Mechanical Head (The spirit of our time), 1919.

The show’s title refers to Mechanical Head (The spirit of our time) by Raoul Hausmann, who was a leader of Berlin Dada. World War I marked Dada’s generation with life lessons about war, destruction, death and despair. Whether flavored by Gallic pessimism or Deroubaix’s years of study and art-making in Germany, his work combines the distress signals of Expressionists and Dadaists with the ghoulish auguries of Symbolists and Surrealists.

Sasha Schneider, Mammon and His Slave, 1896

Sasha Schneider, Mammon and His Slave, 1896

If Rabozeenko roams the human realm with his explorations of Job and Babel, Deroubaix wanders where humans morph in and out of bestial forms. It’s a realm where the life force of totems guards against human depredation. And where things are much worse than they appear. His images herald a zeitgeist tormented by bloodlust and greed.

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Damien Deroubaix, drawing in L’esprit de notre temps

Museum director Gaëlle Rageot-Deshayes and Didier Ottinger delineate Deroubaix’s art historical context in their scholarly essays. His prodigious lineage includes artists such Goya, Picasso, Holbein, and Gaugin who created masterworks out of dread and desolation. After registering the black walls and scanning the paintings on the perimeter, the array of objects in the center of the main gallery summons those who eat dessert first.

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Damien Deroubaix: L’esprit de notre temps, main gallery. Photo by Rebecca Fanuele.

The preface to the essays describes this central work as “a monumental tree that functions as a genealogy of artistic sources and references but also as a machine to create relationships among the symbols.” Forms that the artist shapes into his symbolic idiom hang like jackfruit from the exhibition’s centerpiece. And among the curiosities leaning against its trunk and strewn around it is a piece of wood with the word Rosebud.

Damien Deroubaix: L'esprit de notre temps, installation view. Photo by Rebecca Fanuele.

Damien Deroubaix: L’esprit de notre temps, installation view. Photo by Rebecca Fanuele.

Rageot-Deshayes and Ottinger point out that Deroubaix deploys symbols in the service of a specific mission and message. In his investigatory sketches, mural-like paintings, wooden sculptures, giant blown glass black head atop sawed-off white legs, and artifacts real or faux, the artist belts out his critique of rapacious regimes (ordung)—and their life and death consequences. Whether it’s swastikas, jihad, a starving black child, money issued by the Bank of Hell, or grotesque woman’s bodies, Deroubaix makes images his message.

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Nkisi Nkonde, Kongo peoples, 19th–20th century, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

No doubt the artist has a principle for selecting the raw materials of his symbolical machinations. His repeated reference to the Congolese nkisi nkonde sculpture enacts the fascination with non-European anthropomorphic ritual objects he shares with early twentieth century artists. Though clearly steeped in European cultural and intellectual history, Deroubaix’s no snob. In fact, his bricolage of symbols and grunge aesthetic are the stuff of street cred.

Damien Deroubaix, Heart of Darkness

Damien Deroubaix, Heart of Darkness

Contradiction strengthens Deroubaix symbolic formulas. On closer inspection of the painting collages, elements of nightmarish scenes are on swathes of fabric that look like brocade and tulle. Gruesome realities like mass incarceration and mad cow disease get comic book text. Ordung is inscribed on decorative floral elements. The visual version of gallows humor—dice showing six on three sides for example—gives a moment’s respite from the drone of doom.

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Damien Deroubaix, World Downfall

A hellish heat greets visitors to Deroubaix’s installations in the old abbey’s attic gallery on a hot summer day. Wooden beams, dim light, quiet, and solitude: it’s a place for time travel and contemplation. One installation arranges sea shells, Pegasus, animal skulls, and glass balls like a child’s treasures from a bygone age. Right here is the beating heart of Deroubaix’s exhibition. Right here is where righteous rage finds rest and something altogether different becomes possible.

Damien Deroubaix: L'esprit de notre temps, installation view

Damien Deroubaix: L’esprit de notre temps, installation view

Lise McKean

Lise McKean is a writer, editor, and anthropologist based in Chicago.