David  Hominal 4
David Hominal. L’Apres-midi d’un faune, installation view. Courtesy Centre d’Art Contemporain Geneva. Photo Simeon Duchound

Curator Philippe Pirotte has lauded David Hominal for his determination to forge a new ‘expanded painting’ genre, which until now has found its form on canvas and through installations that combine figuration with abstraction, mix references to romanticism with recreational drugs, or military insignia with abstract expressionism, and know no disciplinary bounds. His first major institutional exhibition, however, is not riotous but spare to the point of bleakness, offering the unfamiliar viewer little comfort.

Geneva’s Centre for Contemporary Art is a converted industrial site that retains the idiosyncrasies of other institutions long ago plastered and polished over. The floors are uneven wooden blocks that resist white cube treatment, and light floods the spaces through large windows. Hominal’s exhibition consists of three works made this year: ‘Landscape (half hard)’, a wall-like structure covered in brushed aluminium that stands taller than a man at approximately six metres, and is one metre wide; ‘Untitled (purple)’, two upright pieces of aluminium slathered in violet paint; and the exhibition’s eponymous video work ‘L’ Après-midi d’un faune’, in which a camera closely follows the artist’s hand as it tentatively explores its surroundings.

On a sunny day, the aluminium wall reflects its surroundings and stimulates the imagination. On other days, the work wanly echoes its surroundings. Aluminium also provides a surface for other works, which are smeared with encaustic paint of a hue mid-way between screen-printing emulsion and Yves Klein blue. There is undoubtedly a resonance with Klein’s ‘Anthropometries’, at the points where footprints are found on both surfaces, though the paint dragged across Hominal’s surfaces suggests bodies may have been pulled rather unkindly to distribute the colour as if they were printer’s squeegees. The artist’s eight-minute video work, half-obscured by bright daylight and projected askew, plays in a corner. ‘L’ Après-midi d’un faune’ is akin to a 1970s video work: the handling of the camera is unsteady, and the up-close-and-personal sound of the author’s breath mixes with the noises his fingers make. It suggests that sight is a deficient investigative tool, and leaves an indistinct impression of the terrain explored in Hominal’s studio and domestic locations.

Given the scant visual elements, the show’s title is the most potent clue
to the artist’s intent, though it too is indeterminate. The exhibition notes relate to Nijinsky’s ballet of 1912, though the text gives so little guidance that one begins to doubt even this. (In comparison to this slight offering from Hominal, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz’s concurrent exhibition, on the floor above, provides a profusion of exhibition notes with a prescriptive detail which leaves no room for interpretative manoeuvre.) Nijinsky’s ballet was inspired by Claude Debussy’s ‘Prelude à l’apres midi d’un faune’, premiered in 1894, itself inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem of 1876. Choreographers would later interpret the music afresh.

The narrative begins as a mythic faun wakes from a dream and pursues the nymphs that have aroused him; these prove to exist only in his dreams. Mallarmé’s work is a tumult of suggestive symbols rather than a clear description or narrative; to look for rationality in it is to be disappointed. Like Hominal’s installation it plays with light and darkness, destructive sun and cool shade. The faun’s desire for sex is unrequited, just as the artist’s hand seeks in vain. In contrast, the choreographer / performer Nijinsky, caused a furore by ending his dance with movements that resembled masturbation. Where Mallarmé and Debussy created indistinct and evocative impressions, Nijinsky’s gestures were both brutish and highly stylised, jagged, echoing the figures he found on ancient Greek vases. Poem, prelude and ballet were all experimental and to that extent, shocking in their time.

This borrowed title brings with it a heady mix of fantastical elements; all three earlier manifestations of the faun combined a wealth of sensual stuff to make an impression. Hominal’s cold forms, on the other hand, seem incapable, or unwilling, to adopt their inspiration and dance. His lines and gestures are stark; there is no orchestration or dynamic within the space that might awaken the senses, and the viewer is left wishing for the bravura figuration and materials fizzing with associations and confident language he has applied to other work. There is no doubt that Hominal is au fait with his predecessors, but the works here neglect to look beyond the walls of the institution despite it being a place that invites just such an encounter. This exhibition dwells too heavily on restraint, neglecting the drama of the immediate.

Aoife Rosenmeyer is a writer based in Zurich