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A Place that is not Fixed

A place that is not fixed.

On several contemporary abstract artists.

“La Peinture est presque abstraite” [painting is almost abstract] is an exhibition of works by eight European artists, including two women, living in London, Berlin and France: Xavier Drong, born in 1971, Olivier Gourvil, born in 1952, Geoffroy Gross, born in 1971, Jane Harris, born in 1956, Richard Kirwan, born in 1969, Nicolas Royer, born in 1973, Daniel Sturgis, born in 1966 and Claude Temin-Vergez, born in 1964. These eight painters joined forces at the Transpalette in Bourges for a show that had been devised, planned and organised for over a year by two of the exhibitors, Gourvil (who had already written the reference work Tableau : territoires actuels, published a decade or so earlier [1]) and Gross (for whom it had been a long-standing dream to bring painting into the well of light in this industrial building). From there the exhibition will extend to the box in the same city, with works on paper and then, with small formats, to the exhibition space at the Camberwell College of Arts in London.
The show is surprising, firstly owing to the broad diversity of the works (by artists from different generations—separated sometimes by an age gap of more than twenty years—as well as different cultures and sensitivities). Within this coexistence, in spite of everything and astoundingly, the works engage in a dialogue with one another.
The exhibition poses questions.
Can we stage an exhibition of abstract painting nowadays? Can we present painting alone—is this category valid today, and is it relevant to set it apart? [2] Above all, does abstract painting still exist?—not like an eternal comet’s tail of old stories, some of which have already been swept aside by history, but as a separate, relevant category, still full of promise for the future. Once again then, the question recurs: is abstract painting dead? If painting has been threatened, the threat was in fact (and remains) to abstract painting, moribund, frightened of / frightening in the closedness that characterised it from the outset (Alexander Rodchenko said he had brought it to its logical end with his three monochromes in 1921) until the present day—as we know figurative painting, whose heroes include the great Neo Rauch, is bearing up magnificently.
The exhibition’s title responds to our questions.
La Peinture est presque abstraite [Painting is almost abstract].
We also hear in it, of course, “le crime était presque parfait” [the crime was almost perfect].
Thus we already have clues as to what will be played out here: both a certain charge (the crime) and also the humour in this allusion to the eminently popular art of cinema (Le Crime était presque parfait was the French title used for the two films The Unsuspected by Michael Curtiz (1947) and of course Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece, Dial M for Murder).
We are thus presented with the equivalents:
Painting / crime
Present / past
Abstract / perfect

Painting as crime. This as we recall was the title of a brilliant exhibition [3] by Régis Michel at the Louvre (which on the surface had little in common with the present show). The Transpalette show included, linked to its title, a work on canvas by Royer (Fumer tue, 2008), with the logo “fumer tue” [smoking kills] in its centre, with a cloud of smoke rising from it. It echoed his work on paper, printed in an edition of 500 copies, Peindre tue (2008) created with Yves Duranthon who wrote the text where the word “fumer” is systematically replaced by “peindre”. This is not the naive affirmation of the noble art of painting (in a context where other mediums are preferred) but instead, somewhat tongue in cheek, it is a statement that painting is a forbidden fruit, banned and dangerous for both those who produce it and those who look at it. It signals the danger of painting (Sigmar Polke and the poisons of his colours) and the aura surrounding painting (alchemy).
The eight artists presented here all call themselves painters—even though they are not devoted solely to one single medium (Drong creates digital works, whilst Royer creates sculptures and in situ interventions). It is no longer about considering oneself a hero: they all share a sort of modesty, far removed from the gestures of the late greats such as Jackson Pollock (who stated and embodied the words “painting kills”). Yet they are neither nostalgic nor cynical—time has passed and the age of post-modernism is no longer really with us. They develop something with the painting, a tool which is presented as being taken for granted. They all opt for the rectangle (not on an immense scale however, in line with their modesty), this surface of canvas mounted on a chassis, without painting its edges. (It is a surface therefore, not an object; there is nothing ambiguous here.) All of them share something resembling pleasure in the use of colours (from the Gross’s subtle pastels to the very “Jane Austen” colours of Harris), even in the texture—the glazes and transparent effects on the smooth canvas in Drong’s acrylic paintings, the thickness of the oil worked with a palette knife by Gourvil who uses it alongside acrylic paint, and the thick matter in the works by Harris, who combines oil with metallic paint, making its reproduction impossible (with each repeated, sensual touch, in three to five layers).
They compose paintings therefore, in the manner of Royer’s “painting kills”, with distance (humour) and unromantically, with the pleasure of forbidden fruit. In the present.

Let us return to the title: Painting is almost abstract.
Almost abstract. This is another way of stating the present-day inanity of a clear-cut separation between representation and abstraction. “I want to be in a place that is not fixed,” [4] Harris declares to me. In other words, in an in-between place. So let us consider first of all this space between abstraction and representation. Gourvil defined the aim of abstract painting in the 1990s as being: “to cross the planes of reality and fiction.” [5] The initial title chosen for the exhibition makes clear reference to this juxtaposition of opposites: “Oxymore and more” (reflecting Gourvil’s taste for stylistic devices, which he sometimes uses as titles for his paintings). Figurative abstraction: oxymoronic painting. Here representation is contained within works that are devised according to a tradition encompassing the entire history of painting, a central element of which, from the last century, is abstraction and primarily American abstraction (abstract expressionism and minimalist painting). Other artists are also currently working in this direction, as the exhibited artists point out, referring to a list in this catalogue that presents a very broad family (some of these peers have also been invited to exhibit their works in the box). “In terms of this abstraction/representation relationship, I am thinking of Frank Nitsche and Albert Oehlen—this dialogue seems to me to be at its most dynamic in Germany,” [6] states Drong. Other names are mentioned, from Damien Cabanes to Carlos Kusnir. But Nitsche, whose entire work is nurtured by graphic imagery and contemporary iconography, a direct, crude version of which is found in his photo albums that form veritable inventories of human monstrosity, is the one whom we would most readily associate with the specific theme of this exhibition. An example of this is RKL-09-2002, in which we can make out a skull.

Our eight artists are thus far removed from any declared purity of abstraction (a far cry from what is referred to precisely as non-objective art)—the purity of a painting with no subject, which obeys its own rules (often mathematical) and which refers to nothing else than itself, the modernist purity defended by Greenberg or the purity whose last true heroes could be Robert Ryman and Pierre Soulages. They are far removed from the search for the absolute, this perfection associated with the word “abstraction”—“almost abstract”/“almost perfect”. But faced with this impurity, there is no sentimentality or sense of guilt (it has nothing to do with Brice Marden’s abstraction, in complicity with the subject and representation). Neither is it any longer a matter for them of continuing to believe. Modernist faith, the faith in abstraction, like revolutionary faith, has had its day. (Abstraction, a tabula rasa or a crime against representation, victorious over representation and superior to any representation associated with religious, secular or bourgeois power). They no longer believe, but continue elsewhere, sometimes using the same circuitous devices. Many of them use the grid as a tool for constructing a painting, such as Gourvil’s (in Uki-Uki for example in 2005) and Gross’s (“total utopia” [7]) or Sturgis’s, drawn in pencil. (The grid, the “emblem [and myth] of modernist ambition” [8] is, for Rosalind Krauss, “in the terrain of materialism” or “in the domain of belief” [9], “what art looks like when it turns its back on nature” [10]—on the reality which the artists have precisely chosen to embrace). They integrate representation in each canvas they create. There is no longer any need to pass successively from abstraction to representation, be it overtly (Gerhard Richter, Philip Guston) or secretively (Michel Parmentier, whose silence, as we know, following a radically abstract pictorial venture, was not pure, since in 1975, he included in it the very funny erotic film, Les Bijoux de famille). We can see the importance for the painters in this exhibition of these three impure artists from no fixed place, whom the latest generation nowadays widely considers to be great masters. I am thinking here for example of the heaps found in Kirwan’s works (as well as in New Forum in 2007), a distant echo of those depicted by Guston (the heaps of shoes in Ravine in 1979, for example), an artist often cited by Drong and Gourvil, or Harris’s choice of Betty, a painting by Richter from 1988, in answer to a question about the work with which she would like to live [11].

These artists contribute to a dialogue with representation, but it is not the expression of subjectivity; it is far removed from any American or European abstract expressionism (from Mark Rothko to Alfred Manessier). Without calling upon assistants, they all use distancing and mechanical creation procedures in a search for perfection: the use of repetition (Harris, Kirwan, Sturgis), reduplication of the image (Temin-Vergez, who reworks her drawings on a computer), masks (Gross), projection based on drawings using an episcope (Gourvil) or a simple slide projector based on a transparency (Drong, Royer). Gross describes his work to me as “frozen painting” [12]. Starting with a line traced on paper in charcoal, he creates its expressive equivalent in a polyptych which he then fixes by means of masks. However the primary subject of all the artists’ works is the body: biomorphism in the paintings of Drong and Harris (who appeared to evoke it crudely in the title, Cul noir, [black arse] in 1999  [13]); anthropomorphism in those of Gourvil, Gross, Sturgis and Kirwan (who also uses molecular forms); skin diseases evoked in the allergic paintings created by Royer in 2004 (when he ended his “suite au kebab” of 31 paintings that trace an “organic, intestinal coil” [14]); and sexuality in the hairlines/muscles of such works as Butterfly 2 (2009) by Temin-Vergez, (some of whose works we are tempted here to compare to inkblots of Rorschach tests which have been used by numerous artists including Warhol, owing to the figurativeness suggested by their abstractness). But their starting point is not the body (they are not abstract works in the sense of extraction). They arrive at and accept its appearance, then play on it and thereby take up their places in a history which extends from surrealism to pop art and Henri Matisse (especially Gross, whose grid of white canvases traversed by a black line evokes the Chapelle de Vence and its ceramic panels—a “cartoon” version of Matisse [15], so he tells me). Their distancing procedures prevent neither sensuality nor violence. Once again, the place is not fixed. On the subject of sensuality, Harris states, “I believe it is found in the most surprising places.” [16] In Drong’s work, one or several paintings based on a drawing projected onto a canvas combine organic and mineral forms—bodies, guns and cars (in an overt dialogue with cinema, primarily that of David Cronenberg and notably the films Crash from 1996 and eXistenZ from 1999)—where the painting plays host to the crime (in this respect, his installation in Berlin offered an excellent anchorage point).

Distance (which does not stifle the drama) is generated not only by procedures but also by sources, be they low or high (rather than low as opposed to high, as in post-modernism). Once again, they operate in the in-between. It is a matter of re-establishing the connection with reality, similar to pop artists and other painters including Fiona Rae. At the same time they undo what would make painting criminal, as a “true sublimation machine” (to borrow Régis Michel’s expression [17]) and join the contemporary world. The eight artists enter into a dialogue (this is not a post-modern citation) with B cinema. Thus Drong, a science-fiction enthusiast, tells me about this astonishing 1983 film created for television, The Day After, which presents a town in Kansas after a nuclear attack. We also find video games—the great classics from our childhood, such as Tetris or the good old Pac-Man, eruct into Kirwan and Sturgis’s works—adolescent worlds (the Gothic aesthetic seen in the works with a black background by Temin-Vergez, such as Spiky 3 from 2007) and the world of childhood. Many works in fact refer to cartoons (from La Linea, an Italian animated television series broadcast in France in the late 1970s, whose character seems to appear in certain works by Gross, to the Japanese cartoons which are essential to Kirwan and Sturgis, who has also delved into the very adult world of South Park). The titles sometimes refer to them [18], notably in Gourvil’s works (Ouf, from 2000). The artists combine all of these low elements which can be identified by any spectator with a refined, surprising culture, as Harris says when questioned as to her use of metallic paint (for example in An Evening Out from 2008, where the figure is placed against a gold background): “I liked the idea of using colours which one might associate historically with the grandeur of religious paintings and the luminosity of icons, but which are also contemporary in their sources and could be associated with modern day industry (particularly car paints), fashion and decor.” [19] The encounter between low and high in Drong’s work is clearly described by éric de Chassey, who notes that in his earlier paintings, such as X14_2004, the classic theme of the annunciation “is embodied […] in grotesque forms reminiscent of Crumb cartoons […]” [20]. We can see this in the revealed influences—for example Piero della Francesca and The Doors for Harris (in the painting Strange Days from 2008) or Albrecht Altdorfer and Formula 1 for Drong—as well as in the actual experience of the spectator—the critic Tony Godfrey when contemplating Sturgis’s Ground Period (2006) is reminded both of a scene from a western and Canaletto’s work. [21]

They are never completely serious (which we repeat, does not weaken the drama, on the contrary), and this is their primary distancing tool. Humour is found in almost all the works: in Sturgis’s dots that reappear in successive canvases on off-balanced, off-centred forms (as in Quiet, please, from 2007); with Kirwan’s transformation of the Duchampian pharmaceutical phial (the one containing his Air de Paris from 1919) into a Kawaii animal (for example in Night Duo, from 2006); the way Royer plays with brand names (Mars-Attac, 2008) and in Gourvil and Drong’s shapes, for whom Carroll Dunham is an essential predecessor.
But the humour does not bring about the fall.

The ongoing aura of painting (this same aura as the Hitchcock criminal) remains intact.
Abstract painting continues and is invented through distance, within a place that is not fixed, between abstraction and representation, low and high, amusement and seriousness. For, as this exhibition demonstrates, its power is derived precisely from it being uninhibited, porous and in phase with its time. Thus perhaps abstract painting alone has the potential to embrace everything.

Lucile Encrevé

[1] Olivier Gourvil (ed.), Tableau: territoires actuels, Valence, Ecole Régionale des Beaux-Arts de Valence, 1997.

[2] I am referring here to statements made by éric de Chassey in the prefatory interview of the catalogue De singuliers débordements, Amiens, Maison de la Culture, 2002.

[3]“La peinture comme crime ou la part maudite de la modernité”, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 19th Oct. 2001 – 14th Jan. 2002.

[4] Jane Harris, interview at Transpalette, Bourges, 2009.

[5] Olivier Gourvil, Tableau: territoires actuels, Valence, ERBA, 1997, p. 54.

[6] Xavier Drong, conversation between Paris and Berlin, 2009.

[7] Geoffroy Gross, interview in his studio, Bourges, 2009.

[8] Rosalind Krauss, “Grilles”, L’Originalité de l’avant-garde et autres mythes modernistes, Paris, Editions Macula, p. 93.

[9] Ibid, p. 97.

[10] Ibid, p. 94.

[11] Jane Harris, in “Jane Harris by Paul Carey-Kent”, Art World, April-May 2008, p. 78: “Maybe the one painting I would love to live with would be Betty, the portrait by Gerhard Richter of his daughter. The few times I have seen it exhibited in the flesh it has literally taken my breath away.”

[12] Geoffroy Gross, interview in his studio, Bourges, 2009.

[13] The direct origin of the name is a famous breed of pig from the Limoges region of France.

[14] Nicolas Royer, interview with Sébastien Hoëltzener, Suite au kebab, Orléans, Editions HYX, p. 55.

[15] Geoffroy Gross, interview in his studio, Bourges, 2009.

[16] Jane Harris, interview at the Transpalette, Bourges, 2009.

[17] Régis Michel, “Crime?”, La peinture comme crime ou la part maudite de la modernité, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 2001, p. 6.

[18] If they all almost always avoid the modernist “untitled”, some only use titles on certain occasions, such as Royer and Sturgis, or only refer to their works using figures and letters, opting fully for the in-between, such as Drong (letters and figures, hence PRP_01).

[19] Jane Harris, in “Jane Harris by Paul Carey-Kent”, op. cit.

[20] éric de Chassey, Xavier Drong, Villefranche de Rouergue, L’Atelier blanc, 2005, np.

[21] Tony Godfrey, Equal Minds, London, Westbrook Gallery, 2007, np