Rod Barton, 1 Paget Street, London, EC1V 7PA

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Samuel François: The Joy of Man
Rod Barton Gallery
1st March - 6th April, 2013
Review by George Vasey

The car repair garage is the domain of particularly masculine activity - the thick fog of cigarette smoke, the noxious scent of car oil mixed with mechanic’s sweat. It is a place where sexual virility is sublimated into ritual and detail; where the joys of the flesh are replaced with the smooth chrome of a Ford Capri 335. Samuel François’s new exhibition at Rod Barton, the French artist’s first in the UK, evokes similar feelings of concealed desires.

Informed by childhood memories of his father’s car repair shop, the exhibition brings together a group of works collectively titled ‘The Joys of Man’ (all work 2013), which also doubles as the title of the show. Rod Barton, itself a former garage, seems a particularly apt setting for the exhibition. On either side of the gallery there are a number of works incorporating oversized lighters which are embedded into crumpled foil and sandwiched under glass.

A closer reading of the work reveals that the foil is in fact a type of survival blanket (thrown over runners after a marathon for instance). It is used to regulate heat and support exhausted bodies; the foil’s medical function offers a disjunctive quality to what could easily be mistaken as bling accruement. One could draw parallels in the creases with post-coital bed sheets or the disfigured metal of a car crash - they become a place where chrome, the carnal and comfort meet.

The lighters are printed with images of porn models with surgically enhanced features striking various poses. Sustenance and reproduction are put into close proximity. François is obsessed with surfaces and sensations, memories caught in materials and forms that evade textual analysis. His biographical approach to abstraction is exemplified in the work on the far wall of the gallery, incorporating a striped paper bag traversed with a small fluorescent strip light. The work offers a sly nod to both Dan Flavin and Daniel Buren, explicating an interest in minimalist genealogies and other, perhaps more oblique undertakings.

There is a pervasive sense of illicit activity that hangs over the exhibition - a quick puff of aMarlboro and the latest issue of Penthouse hidden in a shopping bag. ‘The Joy of Man’ is an exhibition about mis-remembering in a way. Personal histories take the form of a cartoon; bright and vivid yet become bleached of detail. The sparse installation feels undernourished, with content that perhaps remains out of bounds. The title, ‘The Joy of Man’ might be seen with a hint of melancholy - an image half obscured through time.

The past of course is a fugitive place. Memories have a habit of evading form and conceal as much as they reveal. They also have a habit of colliding in unexpected ways with the present. It is in this collision of anecdote and abstraction that François elicits subtle narratives from the barest of materials.

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