Morgan Courtois Décharge
In French, the word “décharge” has multiple meanings. Among other definitions, it can refer to an overabundance or an overflow. It could designate a transfer of energy from one body to another. It could also signify ejaculation, a release of adrenalin, or other bodily excretions like sweat, blood, and urine. But, its primary meaning is a trash dump. Indeed, this exhibition, Morgan Courtois’ first institutional solo show in Paris, partly takes its inspiration from a landfill. The show is organized – or disorganized rather – with objects piled up and lumped together in a seemingly haphazard way. In many respects, it resembles the contingent order of a junkyard. However, this is not a pronouncement of the inevitability of the third law of thermodynamics. To the contrary, this landscape vibrates with sensations, emotions, and memories.
The first room displays disorderly heaps of unglazed porcelain flasks and bottles, most of which are molds of objects from Courtois’ own collection. Over the years, the artist has obsessively accumulated hundreds of receptacles – liquor bottles, perfume bottles, water bottles, alkyl nitrate bottles, cups, goblets, vases, etc. Many of these contained liquids such as poppers, luxury fragrances, and booze, all things associated with overindulgence and extravagance. He was attracted to some of these bottles for the beauty of their design and to others for the catalytic role they played in significant personal events – perhaps the wine from a romantic dinner, the scent of a loved one, or the intoxicant from a wasted night. Projecting his desire onto these ordinary objects and attributing meaning even to the most worthless of entities, Courtois allows these things to take on a life of their own; they seem to possess a soul. Creating ghost-like ceramic doppelgängers of all these containers, Courtois pushes their uselessness to a new extreme. These fetishistic objects transcend their once purposefulness and become works of art.
The plethora of porcelain swans that float throughout the show have also surpassed their original use value as watering cans. Each swan has collapsed in varying degrees from the firing process, and each appears with different crystalline glazes – some radiate with a glossy white coat and others drip with luscious shades of blue and green. These sculptures do not conform to or represent an original model; for, they are each fundamentally unique. Courtois has stated that the swans could be read as hovering above water. This effect is emphasized when they are placed on the reflective surfaces of mirrored tables. As such, these “cygnes” (swans) can be seen as “signes” (signs) of a higher dimension. In this way, they embody ideals of beauty and elegance emanating from the transcendental realm. To be sure, swans appear throughout art history as otherworldly creatures, most notably when Zeus takes this animal form to impregnate the human Léda, a “décharge” of his divine spirit into the physical world.
The second room includes similarly decadent scenes redolent of lavish Baroque fantasies. Tables present an overload of the ceramic swans, large plaster sculptures, and bouquets of flowers. The stench of the decaying flowers along with fragrances designed by the artist and rubbed on the works permeate the exhibition space. For several years, Courtois has conceived complex scents by mixing together smells recalling the dirty and the clean, the sacred and the profane, the cheap and the chic. He has combined natural and artificial notes and odors such as that of linden flowers, exhaust fumes, cigarette butts, coffee, sweat, blood, and urine. To this end, he refills and reanimates these depleted vessels.
For his plaster sculptures, Courtois continues his investigation into the pliable nature of the human body and its visceral responses as it interacts with the world. These reactions take such physiological forms as goose bumps, scars, perspiration, adrenalin rushes, blotches, or paleness. The undulating surfaces of his fleshy sculptures depict folds of the skin, a contracting vein, the subtle bend of a hip, or the curvature of an armpit. For these works, he first photographs nude male models in contorted poses, then he enlarges details of their bodies and translates them into three-dimensional sculptures which he distorts to the point of being nearly unrecognizable. The plasticity of these bodies show that the human form is not tailored to a preordained mold; while it is modulated through its experiences of the environment, it retains its distinct properties and tendencies.
Even more so, Courtois’ sculptures reveal that all matter is not inert but alive and attuned to its own inclinations. For example, to produce his porcelain works in this show he traveled to the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam where he was allowed to heat their kiln to a temperature well beyond acceptable standards. In so doing, he fired the porcelain to the limits of its capacity, that is, just below its melting point where strange, unpredictable effects emerge.
Certainly, Courtois’ works express intensities that one can never fully represent, measure, separate, or contain. Arguably, the universe is inherently creative and produces a “décharge” of unnecessary yet aesthetically pleasing sensory phenomena. Take for example, the elegantly elongated neck of a swan, the intoxicating scent of the tuberose flower, or the deep blue engendered from cobalt leftovers of the Big Bang. Animals and plants attract each other through colors, sounds, and smells which seemingly have no utilitarian purpose but to seduce, appeal, and sometimes repel. Such manifestations of desire and excess form the foundation for Décharge. Here, Courtois’ compositions render palpable the affective forces that traverse, even go beyond the material world.