It would be easy to confuse “Arlequine,” the name of a graphic new exhibition at the Galerie des Galeries in Paris, with its artist, Karina Bisch, who has often been a central figure in her own work, appearing in the same harlequin colors and patterns as her painted surfaces. Who better, after all, to model them than the artist?
Bisch is no caricature, however. Don’t expect to spot her on the streets of the 4th arrondissement in diamond-printed silk kaftans. Recently, she set me straight. “Shapes and colors lead us to emotional and intellectual pleasure, but I’m not living in a gesamtkunstwerk,” she told me. “I don’t hang my paintings at home, I didn’t knit my blanket, I didn’t design my plates, and I prefer wearing Comme des Garçons. I’m in my work all the time, so I don’t feel the need to express it at home.”
She saves her performances for the gallery, where she’s always exploring connections between art and life. Not just life: living. A studied avant-gardist who names as her heroes Ellsworth Kelly, Piet Mondrian, and Sonia Delaunay, Bisch applies her brushstrokes to forms as diverse as sculpture and costume. For her last major exhibition, “Painting for Living,” she inked colourful, geometric forms to silk scarves and hung them from the wall, coining the phrase “peinture-à-porter,” or portable painting. It was an attempt, she says, to “soften” the hard edges between art, craft, and life.
“I wanted to experiment with an object that had double status,” she says. “There’s this sentence from Delaunay, ‘Si la peinture est entrée dans la vie, c’est que les femmes la portaient sur elles.’ [If painting entered everyday life, it’s because women wore it on themselves.] It’s so true—life is art and art is life.”
“Arlequine” immerses the viewer in the life Bisch has meticulously created. She’s wrapped the walls with 200 feet of monochrome, patterned fabric. The wearable art here is on six mannequins named for her 20th-century idols: Gustave, Varvara, Sonia, Giacomo, Pablo, and Ellsworth.
“I hope you will be immersed in the painting, in the patterns, in the colors, in the dynamics from the past to the future,” she says.
Bisch began silk-painting as a child growing up in Ivory Coast, so the transition to textiles in Paris was natural, she says. Her call to fine art came after finding a picture of the dress Ellsworth Kelly designed for his friend Anne Weber in 1952, and from there she developed her canon of shapes. Still, even though she’ll produce a series of scarves based on the prints in “Arlequine,” she’s no fashion designer. “What I studied is art,” she says. “I couldn’t pretend to be a designer or a professional dancer. But I’m always looking around me. I’m very curious and admiring of every kind of form.”
Call her Nouveau Dada, but not Dada alone; Bisch insists she belongs firmly to the modern, or postmodern, world, merely dipping into standards of the past. “I play with existing forms in a new way, like the Cramps played rock’n’roll standards—songs you already knew but had never heard like that. That’s why I produce my work with my hands. The experiment of these standardized forms becomes personal. I learn to know and understand them in giving them a body.”