Mixing Napoleon Bonaparte and Contemporary Art, Artist Thierry Despont's "Cabinet of Curiosities" Beguiles

"The White Room" of The Cabinet of Curiosities
(Courtesy of Thierry W Despont)

Rather than an "installation" or "exhibition," "Le Cabinet de Curiosités" is best described as an immersive experience. Studded with relics from another era, all from Paris's Steinitz Gallery, the mise-scène includes 18th-century French walls, the 1810 Empire Table on which Napoleon Bonaparte mapped his battles, and a circa-1770 Hercules table created for Philippe Henri, marquis de Ségur, as well as a fitting soundtrack by 18th-century French composer Marin Marais. But far from a musty antiquarian's showcase, "Le Cabinent" is in fact the vision of the Marlborough Gallery and one of its artists, Thierry Despont, who is also a French architect, designer, and antique collector. Marrying old and new, the show weaves Despont's art — along with that of his gallerymates Manolo Valdés and the late Claudio Bravo — amid the relics, transporting viewers to a difficult-to-define time and place.

At the entrance of its offbeat location at the New York Mercantile Exchange, an enormous creature hangs from the ceiling — it could perhaps be a menacing spider or some underwater oddity, depending on who’s looking at it — both to greet visitors and set the tone of the rest of the experience. It’s a prime example of Despont’s signature sculptural bricolage work, with various unidentified animals and insects sculpted from a variety of household objects: workshop tools, farming equipment, hollow gourds, and the like. In one room, the glass vitrine in the corner appears to be the specimen case of an entymologist, only to reveal upon closer inspection that the critters inside are sculptures rather than beetles and butterflies. It's a distinctly otherworldly touch, as are his oil-and-acrylic paintings of planets not findable in any real solar system that hang on the walls.


Inside the space, trompe l’oeil abounds with work by Valdés and Bravo (who, sadly, passed shortly before the "Le Cabinet" opened). Like Despont's, their pieces appear to be one thing from afar but turn out to be something else when seen up close. Bravo contributed his hyperrealist paintings, shockingly sharp depictions of simple objects: brown paper envelopes, crumpled foil, a plate of red onions. Valdes exhibits his 2010 “Libreria” series, shelves lined with pieces of various exotic woods roughly cut to resemble books. Valdes’s other featured sculptures invoke Spain’s royal heritage, with rounded wooden figures of women in elaborate period hoop skirts and regal caballeros referencing paintings by Matisse and Picasso.

A seamless blend of blue-chip antiques and contemporary art, the entire experience has a transportative quality to it, reminiscent of those recent summer blockbusters “Savage Beauty” and “Sleep No More.”