Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics
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JEAN-MARIEAPPRIOUWordsbyHarryBurke

One night, at a banquet hosted by the maimed Fisher King, the knight Perceval witnessed a procession of youths bearing brilliant objects. One boy held a bleeding lance. Next, two further boys carrying candelabras. Last came a girl with a powerful grail.

This encounter, as told by Chrétien de Troyes in his unfinished 12th-century poem “Perceval, the Story of the Grail,” provides the inspiration for six freestanding sculptures in “VERY RICH HOURS,” Jean-Marie Appriou’s current solo exhibition at CLEARING, New York. Cast in patinated bronze, they depict Knights of the Round Table with hand-blown glass globes that contain not grails nor candelabras, but small dinosaur figurines. The slender, unsmiling knights—represented mid-stride, draped in monochrome chain mail and metallic helmets—possess the grace of models pacing down a catwalk. Stationed around the gallery’s concrete floor, they invite viewers to circulate between them, and serve as entrancing reminders that appearances are deceptive, and images never still.

Appriou hails from Brittany in northwest France, a region of heathered cliffs and compelling folklore. Growing up, the artist immersed himself in science fiction and Arthurian legend. A convention of both genres is the heroic journey. In the “monomyth,” as this archetype is sometimes known, a protagonist typically sets off on an adventure, enters a supernatural or otherworldly realm, and returns home transformed. The trope, notably analyzed by the literary theorist Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), has influenced the films of Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. On its enduring appeal, Campbell wrote: “Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives.”

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Appriou’s patinated bronze bas-reliefs trace the broad impact of this mythology. In The Waterline (Dawn) (all works 2020), a knight floats among waterlilies while an inquisitive plesiosaur gazes at him. The composition draws on John Everett Millais’ oil painting Ophelia (1851–52). Like the Pre-Raphaelites, Appriou merges historical periods, exploring traces of the medieval and prehistoric in contemporary forms and ideas. In The Primitive Soup (Dusk), the artist depicts a stony-faced knight, flanked by a pair of sauropods, who struts past a steaming volcanic crater. In these pictures, spaciously hung throughout the post-industrial warehouse gallery, Appriou bypasses Millais’ fondness for tragic sentiment in favor of a probing humor: it is, after all, comic that benign dinosaurs chaperone these handsome men. By likening the exploits of paleontology to those of Arthurian romance, the arrangements meditate on the fragility of human life on Earth.

The Blood Drop is one of four new bronze sculptures that present androgynous astronauts grappling with scaly dinosaur-like creatures. The legs of both human and animal buckle, contributing to the sense of movement that ripples through the works on view. The open-jawed dinosaur seems poised to swallow the person’s head, though this is protected by a pink hand-blown glass helmet. The protagonist is, like many in the exhibition, outwardly expressionless. Their entwinement recalls cultural historian Surekha Davies’ critical observation that early modern distinctions between humans and monsters serve, to this day, to define what humanity means. The ancient-seeming astronaut, conjoined with the creature that seeks to consume them, crumples binaries of human and monster and past and future within a chimeric, composite assemblage.

Today, modern narratives are crumbling. Progress and enlightenment have led to incarceration and climate crisis. Appriou’s anti-epiphanic images illustrate that no magic grail will resolve these structural concerns. In revisiting the mythic mode, they confront an age-old drama driving all stories: what home, once left, can be returned to?

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