Zürcher Studio is pleased to announce a solo exhibition of French painter Marc Desgrandchamps most recent works. It will be his second solo show here in New York at Zürcher. Marc Desgrandchamps has been shipping an oeuvre whose complex compositions comprise scenes witnessed, personal memories and quotations from painting and the cinema. His pictures are like time-fragments, snatches of life saved from oblivion in which interplay of transparency and colors, with the presence of unexpected objects and situations. The picture thus becomes the point of an eclectic convergence of the observed and the known, of memory and the imagination.
Desgrandchamps’ compositional inspiration comes from pictures found in magazines, things that had caught his eye in his own photographs, and stills from movies ; Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach, Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, Chris Marker’s La Jetee, Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence and Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime je t’aime. This influence can be seen in the artist’s use of the polyptych, and his description of the space between the canvases as “clean cuts,” an expression that makes us think of the term “cut” in movie-making. He terms these finds “visual stimuli” and uses them as readymades to be appropriated. The outcome of this way of working is distancing and subsequent objectivisation : these pictures are not literal transcriptions, but “a jumbled, jerky, fragmented perception of reality.”
Despite its seeming coolness, Marc Desgrandchamps’ painting abounds in elements deeply rooted in his unconscious. Sometimes totally unrelated objects are found together in the same picture. Each picture is made up of successive layers, a technique he enhances by his use of transparency. Free of all linear narrative, each painting is like a light-sensitive plate, with autobiographical moments rising to the surface under the influences of an involuntary---perhaps Proustian---memory, what Desgrandchamps calls “the partial survival of a phenomenon after its caused has vanished.” Bernard Zürcher
Exhibition catalogue : Marc Desgrandchamps, Essay by Barry Schwabsky, published by Zurcher Studio, NY, 2012. See text below
Painting, Tertium Quid
There is an art form at the mid-point between sculpture and cinema and its name is painting. Or is it an art form ? Perhaps it is only a way-station between the other two. Consider : On the one hand, an art of fixity, solidity, permanence—but also an immemorial art, an art that belongs to the past ; on the other, an art of movement, immateriality, transience, and therefore a quintessentially modern (and quintessentially technical) art. A purist would surely be able to argue that no third position is needed or even possible : Tertium non datur. That’s logic. But does art follow this logic, or does it require—as I would suggest—a certain tactical irrationality, a way of unexpectedly disrupting the given dichotomy using the force of surprise ? What’s important, in any case, is that the self-evidence (and the self-evident importance) of the idea of painting is undone—so that painting has a chance of becoming something else, of regaining potential.
In any case it’s telling how often commentators on Desgrandchamps cite sculpture or, more specifically, classical statuary, in order to convey some aspects of his painting. “Even in swimwear,” writes Catherine Millet of his figures, “the bodies have the nobility of statues.” “Some of his women have a monumental bulkiness to recall Maillol,” adds David Cohen. Yes, and, “Like statuary…the people in Marc Desgrandchamps’ paintings always have something strange or old-fashioned about them,” notes Frank Schmidt. I could go on. The point is—and it is hard to disagree—that the conception of the human figure in these paintings does not emerge primarily from the tradition of painting, or even from photography, though it is an ineluctable paradigm for any sort of perception in the modern world and a medium of which Desgrandchamps readily avails himself in the making of his paintings, but from sculpture, and above all that of the classical tradition (of which Maillol, of course, was one of the last great exponents). Sculpture : This is undoubtedly above all the art that, as Hegel said, “considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past.” That vocation, as the philosopher understood it, was never one consecrated to pure aesthetics—it was a religious task of representing the immortal.
As for cinema, it is already being foreshadowed, certainly, when Millet invokes “the kineticism of the Futurists”—that charmingly naïve attempt to approximate in paint the effect of cinema—or when Jean-Pierre Bordaz recalls “the breakdown of movement as suggested by Muybridge”—whose studies of human and animal motion were, of course, precursors to film. More explicitly, Schmidt writes that Desgrandchamps’ “impressive mnemonic spaces are by all means comparable to the epic power of the cinema,” while in the catalogue to the artist’s 2011 exhibition at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Cohen has devoted an important essay to the explication of the significance of film for Desgrandchamps’ work, from which here I will only borrow a quotation from the painter himself, according to which his paintings are like “these movies when the scenery is in motion in the background while the characters stand still on the production set.”
I cite my predecessors in the contemplation of Desgrandchamps’ work mainly to reassure myself that my own perceptions are not entirely chimerical—a common hazard for art critics, after all. These monumental women who populate his canvases, who inhabit them with such strange gravity and self-possession : I am not wrong, after all, to see them as statues of themselves, sightless and silent as marble, despite the fact that the artist paints them with such evanescence. And no, this tendency to translate the body into paint by way of sculpture is not a matter of pastiche, as in those jokey Picassos circa 1920, where the point seems to be something about acknowledging the value of what others were calling a return to order or a metaphysical classicism after the chaos of the war, while at the same time admitting its absurdity. Desgrandchamps may be a sort of classicist but if so, his classicism is lodged not in any ideology of tradition or of return but simply in certain telling details in his paintings—for instance in the way a foot comes to rest on the ground, which in his paintings shows an understanding of anatomy, of how the body handles its weight, a factor hardly recognized by present-day representation which considers everything it takes on as a weightless image. This implicit sense of the weight of real things, as opposed to the insubstantial existence of simulacra, images, meanings, seems to me to be at the heart of what is classical in Desgrandchamps’ work—in its affinity for the sculptural—and it is what accounts for the fact that his paintings are ever so lightly tinged with a sense of the tragic.
But there is no classicism in cinema. As an art of movement, it contradicts the faith in solidity ad permanence that characterizes the tradition of sculpture. There are genuine tactile values in photography but in cinema these are swept away as the single image disappears in an unstoppable torrent of them. Every moment is past as soon as it has appears and the transience of appearances reigns supreme—unless of course it is the last one, suddenly fixed as the film announces its end. This anti-classicism, too, is part of the DNA of Desgrandchamps’ paintings. This is most evident, of course, in those multi-canvas works, such as the extraordinary diptych in the present exhibition, which tempt us to see the segments as functioning something like the frames in a film strip—as representing distinct moments in succession. In the particular work at hand here (Desgrandchamps frustrates the critic by making all his paintings untitled) we see, on the left, a beach scene : a sort of tent or canopy has been set up, of which just a corner can be seen, but there is no one around to enjoy the sand and cloudless sky ; oddly, a couple of darkish gray blotches float across the surface of the image. These seem to be something like those “floaters” or entoptic phenomena one may sometimes notice, shadows cast on the retina by minute imperfections in the vitreous humor of the eye itself—but still more, perhaps, they might remind us of smudges on the lens of a camera ; in either case, they can be taken as reminders that neither organic nor technically mediated vision is necessarily completely transparent : we see whatever it is that allows us to see to the extent that it interferes with its own workings. On the right-hand canvas, in any case, we are shown the same scene, but the point of view—I almost said, the camera—has shifted slightly, has moved a few steps over the right, so that we see a little less of the canopy. Revealed now on the right of the scene are an object –probably a trash can—on the sand in the distance, nearer the water, and (on the extreme right edge of the painting) what seems to be a bit of some sort of wooden construction, a hut or the like. But of course this shift in viewpoint is not the most immediately noticeable change : now the scene has by joined by two figures. To the right, in the foreground a boy in black trunks and carrying a white towel seems to be heading toward the shelter from the sun ; meanwhile, a little further back, and at the center of the canvas, a woman—maternal in her heavy tread, covered up in a sun dress and dark glasses—walks in the opposite direction. But she is not necessarily walking to meet the boy ; in fact, rather than looking at him, though she seems to be walking in his direction, she has turned her shaded gaze away, looking off toward the sea in the background. One might almost think, in fact, that woman and boy do not really occupy the same frame, the same space after all, but that they have been collaged together, not necessarily from different sources, but from different moments in the same sequence, so that in fact this painting would present three rather than as it first seems two moments simultaneously. Curiously, the entoptic phenomena seem to have diminished here : there is just one blotch, and smaller than in the left panel. And the woman and boy seem to have little more reality for each other than these entoptic splotches do for either.
So we are tempted, as I have said, to imagine a quasi-cinematic sequencing here, to concoct a little anecdote, however barren, to explain this juxtaposition—to imagine, say, that the women was under the canopy, just out of our sight in the left-hand canvas, but has now left it as the boy—her son ?—approaches, perhaps coming from the hut or whatever it is that shadows the periphery of the painting. But if this sequence, simply by being a sequence, makes us think of a film, well, that is not the only thing that does. The way the painter uses effects of transparency reinforces this association. Look at how the woman’s right leg seems to be captured in mid-step : this is not the blur of motion such as we see it in, say, the paintings of Francis Bacon, but an effect of evanescence that seems to imply that movement is already part of the essence of the flesh and not something added to it—a movement that is a kind of tremor or flickering within things and not a change of state that need be captured in a sequence.
As for the significance of this sequence, it must lie in its very banality. If these are moments from a film, it is probably a home movie, one of those useless things made to say nothing more than, “Look ! We were at the beach !” And yet as a painting, it is anything but banal. I would not hesitate, in fact, to speak of its grandeur. Part of what accounts for that is the way it holds together in tension these two seemingly irreconcilable artistic paradigms that I have referred to as sculpture and cinema—though I could just as well (as I hope I’ve made clear) call them classicism and modernity, permanence and transience, or even, perhaps, divinity and banality. Modernity, as Baudelaire famously wrote, “is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent ; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and immovable.” What Desgrandchamps’ unsettling art tells us—in opposition to so many who have declared that this is no longer possible—is that there still might be a way, in the early twenty-first century to create the painting of modern life : and this on condition that you do not assume that there is an aesthetic paradigm under the name of painting, but rather that painting is the place where you can somehow hold in solution these two other paradigms—let’s call them now, following Baudelaire, the contingent and the eternal.
To say this, I fear, is only to have come to the point at which a proper consideration of this other art—this third thing, this “painting” that is not a thing in itself but a hybrid—is ready to begin. But that’s already something. And then, for now, the paintings themselves are already the most adequate reading of what this eternally contingent, contingently eternal art might be. Time to turn to them.