Entretien Nicolas — Gaël

Nicolas Ledoux / Gael Davrinche

What I immediately found interesting in your work is the presence of other painting in the painting, this intriguing play of references which is, I think, both homage and filiation. A need to place yourself in a history. Painting is the art of reference – often, a private exercise, an extension of schoolwork where teaching proceeds by analogy. This approach reaches its limits, in conceptual terms, with the appropriationists and the simulationists. Your case is more complex, and perhaps more ambiguous. A way of entering into Painting, without exactly painting, in a period when it is very difficult to paint.

When I developed the Revisités series, which was made over a period of six years, I started out by looking for fathers in the history of painting. I didn’t want to make serious, ostentatious, pedantic painting. I preferred to have fun revealing what the great masters of those days only half-revealed, by a principle of blunt, whimsical exaggeration. The effect of this series was to link me directly to art history, without actually placing me within it. I can’t deny that, in formal terms, I am part of what was developed conceptually by the appropriationists and simulationists. But, as far as I’m concerned, it wasn’t their manifesto that motivated me, more the desire to do my learning, like an autodidact squaring up not only to the various techniques explored by this master or that, but also to the reasons that led them to produce such and such a work. Thus, through the different portraits that I appropriated a turban, a ruff and a dress became the interest of the image, far more than the portrait, which takes a backseat. That may be the reason why you get the feeling that I don’t really go into Painting, yet am floating in it up to my neck. Since I dispensed with the subject, all that was left was the handling and the drawing: in other words, the very essence of Painting!

Doing without the subject is a way of getting rid of one of the essential parameters of painting in order to concentrate on a more conceptual approach and, conversely, on technique. It’s quite a stretch. In painting, the subject reassures and can be profitable when it works to order. It is, in this age of visual zapping, a fine opportunity for painters who produce slow, fixed images. I find it interesting to deliberately abandon the subject which, in the current profusion of images and their exhaustion by advertising and the Internet, is a gesture that goes in the opposite direction. Rather than trying to fight fire with fire, you question History and painting’s vision of the society of the day – which resonates strangely with our own.

Yes, it’s an alternative, but above all it’s a severe critique in relation to the profusion of “waste” images that pollute our everyday world. We live in and feed a society of hyper-consumption which verges on the absurd and the ridiculous. The Portraits et accessoires series questions our social behaviour, sometimes humorously, poetically and even sarcastically. The question of clothing is a constant throughout History. It reveals the social and identity markers of a community. The use of these often superfluous objects with which we drape ourselves projects us through a certain societal network. I like to play with these codes using accessories turned away from their function, to question these concerns and leave the meaning open to the viewer’s interpretation. Already, when Van Eyck and Rembrandt portrayed themselves wearing, say, a turban, the pretext was no longer the human figure but the accessory and, even more, colour: a real question of painting. The subject became secondary, less important than a reflection on the image and its quality, in and for itself. This effect is heightened by the fact of enlarging them, often beyond actual size.

Why do you use such large formats?

I started using the vertical format of 160 x 200 cm in 2001. I had only just left the Beaux-arts in Paris and I was interested in the way children represent the world. It was because I had read in a book by Georges-Henri Luquet (a pioneer in the study of children’s drawings) that at the age when children represent figures with their arms spread out and long fingers, their actual apprehension of the world goes no further than their corporeal limits. In other words, their world is summed up by what they are capable of reaching. I like this idea of a pictorial space on the scale of my arm span. I have kept the format ever since. Also, I paint on the floor, on the flat canvas, not yet on a stretcher. That creates total immersion in the image, I move over it, if not in it, with a real proximity. I like to lose myself in it. Colour ends up dominating my visual field, the subject disappears, I swim in total abstraction, focusing only on transitions from one colour to another. I remember that famous photo of Jackson Pollock in his studio, throwing paint onto the canvas, his arm movement communicating itself to the hand. It’s a matter of distance.

How do you manage that relative lack of distance due to the fact that you paint over the canvas? Does it help you get away from excessively realistic forms of expression?

I only get a grip on the ensemble can when I stand up to get a bit of distance and see things as a whole. I am constantly moving between physical contact with “Painting” and distance to discover the painting that is being made. Indeed, for me, “Painting” is a person. Every day I have an appointment with it. We sound each other out, observe each other, dialogue in silence, and then we meet. It’s a bit like playing chess. The moment the brushstroke touches the canvas, the strategy starts, the image evolves, changes and changes back again. If I had started differently, the final result would have been very different. But it is usually very frontal, not to say brutal, a little bit provocative, and that is indeed heightened by the scale of the portraits, which borders on 200%. These large formats, which force me to zoom into the image when I’m painting, encourage me to project myself into the landscape, and perhaps to avoid the anecdotal register of the portrait. Even before describing the subject, although it’s quite plain to see, I try to make the painting visible as the expression of colour, touch, material, gesture, and my sensorial state at that moment. There is a real rivalry between Painting and subject, with each constantly trying to steal the limelight.

Your relation to the subject has changed. You are more present in your canvases, as are the people around you. Art history gives way to personal history.

All my work has to do with the search for the father, the search for a guide, transient states linked to the idea of education. I try to talk about exemplarity at the same time as emancipation. You can never become interesting simply by imitating someone else, even if they are perfect. If a person inspires it’s precisely because they are inimitable. Not exemplarity, as in a good example to follow, but exemplary in the sense that they have become themselves, that they have succeeded in actualising their unique power. At a time of crisis, of loss of references, we are always being told that we must find the right examples to imitate, but I think, on the contrary, that we need to invent the world for tomorrow. That’s what I try to do.

The presence of your wife or of friends seems to work in a different way. Can you tell me more about that?

I suppose that painting those close to you is a bit like painting yourself. You can make a parallel with someone describing themselves on a social network, but without the brazenness. The identity that is conveyed is revealed only if you are attentive. It takes time. At a time when our capitalist society is flagging, when our political and economic world has gone mad, when modesty is declining as images of the self are multiplying and spreading, my need to paint can only grow. Today more than ever I feel the need to question the individual about their position in our society, their role, their attitude, their relation to the world and to others, their aspirations and contradictions. It is by this combination of the worthy portrait and accessories that, through the medium of painting, a medium that takes time to implement, resisting the acceleration of our life rhythms whereby man is torn between his desires, which are stimulated, and his incapacity to satisfy them, I try to question the individual about his role and position in our exhausted societies. In your recent portraits you add an object.

Can you explain why? These objects are often painted with a different handling and style. This is rather disconcerting and interesting when it creates an opposition, a paradox—well painted/badly painted, realistic/abstract, etc—, as if the right space was the space between, remaining in reserve.

Yes, when I started that series of portraits of contemporaries, leaving behind the ones I took from the great masters in the history of art, I began by wondering about the point of making and remaking painted portraits, today, in 2013. Deeply rooted in Western culture, the expression of the portrait genre often occurs at the intersection of the sacred and the profane, society and the individual. In fact, from the first, I have always avoided the figure. I realise that what I paint are not portraits but non-portraits, where the figure is put into the background by the accessory. Sometimes poetical, sometimes critical, sarcastic or humorous, my portraits or self-portraits take on a strange form the meaning of which remains obscure, incomprehensible, and at the most interrogative, a mix of humour and gravity. They express that duality between being and appearing. The accessory is synonymous with the superfluous, the derisory, the insignificant. It flatters the ego and can sometimes help provide access to a given social class. The accessories represented in my paintings may then have a symbolic function that can shed light on the person’s activity but, when used out of place, they can also open the portrait to the joyous field of curiosity interpretations. The dichotomy between different styles within a given work has started to disappear, for reasons that I can’t yet explain. No doubt I need to get closer to reality within a given format, the better to destroy things in other propositions like the Kalachnikovs. At the moment, I am stretched between different styles, but on different canvases. As for that intermediate state you mention, it is not painted but lived. It exists only in the reality of my action, because I am constantly looking to balance two practices in this opposition. I paint every day, I go with my mood. It is “Painting” that starts things off. It has been said many times that painting is dead but, like a good zombie, it always comes back. The once banished reassert themselves, a good example being American pop culture painters like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Joe Coleman and Peter Saul, to take three different genres. With us, as is often the case, it’s more complicated and therefore more interesting: a conceptual line with Claude Rutault, Martin Barré, Miquel Mont etc. A few Swiss abstracts, a host of hyperrealist figuratives, from Stéphane Pencréac'h to Élodie Lesourd etc. Appearance, disappearance, battles for territory and representation—the art market multiplies tendencies, comebacks. You are part of that nebula.

How do you see your place in these stories which are stutteringly constructing a History of painting?

Painting is never dead, contrary to what certain trend-makers may have let on. An emerging medium does not necessarily replace another, on the contrary. I have never doubted my medium and the support of my expression, or even wondered about its legitimacy. I have, though, questioned the way painting is shown in institutions. Fashion and trends have very little effect on my artistic concerns. I enjoy seeing new works in any medium, providing there is quality. As for my own position, patience and time achieve more than force and rage, isn’t that so? Trends are by definition ephemeral, the media need something to feed on and are not immune to this frantic consumption of images we spoke about. All kinds of things have been said about my work. This is often the vector of opposing feelings, which again confirms this need I have to concentrate on what I must do with “Painting” [see the earlier references]. It is not my role to go into or keep out of a history of painting. I paint every day, and I have been for a good forty years. Perhaps, now, we might talk about History.

You recently had a show in Shanghai. Can you tell us about this experience, and in particular about your work being exposed to a different vision, a different culture?

A lot of people though maybe I’d gone mad. The incongruously worn accessories prompted a lot of questions. But Shanghai is a very cosmopolitan city and I nevertheless had the impression that people’s vision was sufficiently acute to be receptive to that kind of proposition. My exhibition was very well received. I can’t wait for what comes next. I think a lot about “what comes next” or painters who work over the long haul, in contrast to the swiftness of their gesture. Painters always age and mature in contact with their painting. This ultimately romantic vision is heightened in the photographs that have lodged in our memories, and the catalogues by aging artists, with their piercing, cruel gaze. I am thinking of Picabia and Matisse, and also Leroy.

Today, how are we to free ourselves of this somewhat nostalgic vision which blurs the actual works? Some artists have found ways of protecting themselves, and protecting their work from themselves. I am thinking of Olivier Mosset and Martin Barré, for example. Painting is often narcissistic: How do you feel about this? What do you think will come next? Do you know your next paintings?

My feeling is that where there’s nostalgia there is also feeling. Should we be afraid of that? For me, an artist whose work touches us is bound to provoke nostalgia in the future. Books and photographs fix and freeze time. The supports age and colour, highlighting time and underscoring the notion of the past. The object that is left, because it belongs to a precise period, becomes a vehicle for nostalgia. To try to get away from that nostalgic vision strikes me as the epitome of narcissism, since it means concerning oneself not with the essential—artistic expression—but with communication about your own image and work. What I am looking for is elsewhere. If we refer to Pierre Legendre’s definition of narcissism, it is about the self-foundation of the subject, the abolition of the discourse on limits, the destitution of the separating figures of authority. As he writes, “Thus the aim of the social function of authority is to force the subject to renounce totalitarianism, its representation as be-all and end-all: that is to say, ultimately, to limit it.” With me, the expression of narcissism becomes painting. Life so turned out that I found myself without authority, which is why I both sought it out and was unable to accept it. That’s one of the reasons why I became a painter. Children’s drawing as a marker of lack: the Revisités as a quest for a guide; the Portraits et accessoires as destruction of the model. Regarding my future paintings, they are bound to be a break with the ones I am making today because I always destroy what I have constructed. Too much patience leads me towards a brutal gesturality which in turn exhausts me and forces me to be calm again.