The unruly figures in James Ensor’s massive painting Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 have sneaked off the canvas and into bottles across Los Angeles. They’re the cast of characters in a new performance work by French artist Mathis Collins.
Mathis was in L.A. last month to exhibit The General Assembly (below), an assemblage of bottle stoppers adorned with character heads that looks like something Ensor might have made if he’d worked in glass, cork, and wood. A visitor to JAUS ART, an artist-run space, noticed parallels with Christ’s Entry and told Mathis he should go see it.
Mathis had come to L.A. to exhibit The General Assembly, and he also wanted to do a social art project involving bottle stoppers—which have fascinated him ever since he inherited a vintage piece. But he didn’t know where to start in this big, confusing place. When he saw Ensor’s bright, crowded cityscape, full of soldiers and protestors and big shots and lost souls, he knew he’d found a perfect metaphor for L.A.
“I wanted a meeting with the painting,” he told me later, “an experience of it. I just didn’t know what.”
So the next day, Mathis came back to the Getty with 12 beechwood stoppers he’d turned in France, and started sketching. He traced a vast arc through the painting, drawing the characters one by one onto his stoppers but reserving a single blank spot on each for something special to come later. He spent two full days with the painting, getting to know the duck, the owl, the skeletons, the soldiers, and the vomiting man the way artists have for centuries: by looking and drawing.
Once the pieces were inked, they were ready to begin their social journey. Mathis has a background in slam poetry and performance art, and his work isn’t alive until it connects. He’d reserved that blank spot on each stopper to sketch the person he chose to give each piece to. These were friends old and new who took an interest in his project and would place their stopper in a bottle in a shared space, such as a bar, where Ensor’s characters can grab a drink and be social too.
It’s performance with many parts—the artist, the painting, the recipients, the stoppers, and the people who will interact with them. Mathis calls it Vive L.A. Social, a riff on the red banner in Ensor’s painting reading “Vive la Sociale” (“Long Live the Socialist State”). “My performance,” he told me, “is to bring the painting out into the city and Angelenos into the painting, for them to meet my vision.”
One stopper, though, didn’t go out into the wild. When I met Mathis to hear more about this project, he offered me and the Museum a stopper decorated with Ensor’s rowdy soldiers. Together, we decided that it would rather remain unfinished for now, waiting for its final move. The soldiers will meet the artist again next time he’s in L.A., toasting to all his new friends.
Artwork courtesy of and © Mathis Collins; Detail images of Vive L.A. Social courtesy of Mathis Collins.