interview with Amélie Pironneau, 2001
Amélie Pironneau – Your painting suggests that you are keen to find a form capable of arresting the eye. In some cases, this involves scrambling the forms, and making our vision unsure. In others, it involves image-building games, with some semblance of order, but which elude interpretation. What links are there between these different processes? How do these forms of expression differ from purely formalist research?
Hervé Ic – I’m not interested in pure formalism any more.
It’s been hand-in-glove with the development of robotics since the 1930s, and it enabled New York to become the historic place we now know it to be. All that is thoroughly incorporated in our everyday lives. In mathematics, when two theorems produce the same result, the simplest one is the best. This is why formalism tends towards minimalism and the simplicity of certainties. Things are quite different when it comes to human thought, which enlarges problems in order to explain them. In terms of imagery, my reasoning is more of this ilk. When something interests me, I make it more complex to give it more room.
The whole difference is time-based. Human time and robotic time are incompatible. Safety systems always end up in human time, in other words, an arrested time that permits the understanding of a phenomenon and not just the way it is dealt with.
A. P. The situation of an artist who chooses to paint at the end of the 20th century is not an easy one: how is he to go on creating something new when everything seems to have been tried? In order to avoid being subjected to the weight of history, the artist has to distance him- or herself from the past, which is too present.
How do you see this relationship between painting and history?
H. IC Firstly, I don’t share this egocentric pessimism, and I’m not a late 20th century artist. My personal situation, and this goes for many of my friends too, isn’t easy, but this is due to reasons that aren’t to do with art.
It’s the present moment that bothers me, not the future. It’s too rigid, too mechanical, and it’s often scaled down to overriding economic needs. The world of the media doesn’t offer much of a loophole. In art, immediacy is a whim. On the other hand, history seems to be an extremely rich source of variety.
The path taken by contemporary painting is a tenuous one, lying between what’s been down and what’s not to be done. Like science, however, art can’t turn its back on being an area of knowledge and it passes through the restricting desire for discovery. I think the issue of the « new-that-counts » is essential, but the field of painting is no huge, and its history so long, that it may seem to have been accomplished. This argument involving middle-class well-intentionedness, intent on lightening it, is a phoney one, because it would turn it into mere entertainment. Even though it may exist in a territory apparently visited and too quickly enclosed, I think that the new has to lie ahead.
A. P. By abandoning reproduction of the same thing, and introducing the basic idea of difference, modern painting has shown that it is capable of transforming the painted image.
Where you are concerned, are you reassuming this critical function of modern painting? Are the processes you use (blurredness, construction…) designed to subvert the visible evidence?
H. IC The idea of difference is crucial to life itself, which finds its way precisely where no one had seen it, precisely where nobody speculates, in the remnants.
But you still need to know what you’re being different from. When I started my portraits from the rear, I said: « You have to be able to turn your back on your origins ». My origins in painting are modern and it’s my feeling that modernity has been half-heartedly snoring for some time, without painters in particular managing to get rid of it. Being modern is knowing what’s no longer possible. I’m not interested in transforming or deforming the image of reality; what’s more, all these operations exist on the graphic palette. But if the challenge consists in seeing reality in a different way, because it exists, don’t let’s be taken in, you first have to grasp it. This is why I try my utmost to be patient, precise and polished when I paint. Even though the effect might have amused me at one time, I don’t use the Richter blurredness any more, looming symptomatically up as it does, here, there and everywhere, like a failed grasp of the real, clouded but convenient, a form of powerlessness.
The visible evidence is first and foremost what we are offered. The mannerism of pretentious, academic painters–the pompiers– stressed technical performance. Today’s mannerism looks for commercial shrewdness. But it’s not the market that makes history!
Doesn’t eroticism show itself in the difference, and doesn’t the painter reveal himself in digression?
A. P. In order to assume responsibility for the tragic history of the 20th century, painting had to invent forms capable of depicting the undepictable, and showing the destruction of the human figure. It created a language of forms. How do you bear witness to the present, and to the chaos and lack of meaning that are its hallmarks?
H. IC The absurd thing, first and foremost, is the growing number of images of day-to-day reality produced at the same time as the feeling of not understanding it.
Over and above inevitabilities, landscapes and portraits, I’ve been looking for subjects which dodge present-day imagery. What you mustn’t do, in a nutshell: cemeteries, church figurines, little birds, hunting scenes, sea battles, oldfashioned things. But loaded with affect and symbolism.
I think a simple image is nearly always retrievable. You can get it to say what you want. You can put it in jeopardy. To get away from this reduction of the visible, you have to load the image. For me, the load or charge is a way of giving the picture greater depth, increasing its pictorial quality, making it imperceptible at a swift glance, encouraging examination of it, and looking behind it.
Conversely, complexity is still an irretrievable form of the image. Subverting the visible evidence is to hang on to the integrity of the image, the reverse of provocation, which juggles with an effect or code. In fact I don’t believe in the « language of forms ». The synthetic image is the only image that comes from a language. I studied this for as long as it took to realize that carrying on doing this today is tantamount to doing crosswords.
A. P. The effect created by this superimposition ushers in a new relationship between beholder and work. Actually, the image dissolves, and the identification of what is represented is jeopardized: the viewer glimpses more than he sees. He has to adjust his vision and enter into the painting. Through this interplay, don’t you want to give back to the picture a depth, and show that it’s not just the flat, two-dimensional expanse, as conceived by modernist theory?
H. IC « Adjusting the vision », yes. When I read Castaneda, I really liked his expression « world assembly ». The New Age has split up into its own smithereens, but what remains is a greater number of extremely rich perspectives. We’ve got into the habit of being around people who think differently, but not without some difficulty.
Changing a point of view doesn’t happen without a movement, the dynamic premiss of free will. But static, still imagery doesn’t mean motionless images. Galleries, museums and shopping malls have deliberately adopted the same lighting. With S.T.A.R., by means of energetic lighting, what was involved was reintroducing lighting into the picture, like an architectural element. So it’s the picture that illuminates.
In that series, you don’t see the background straightaway. It takes time. It works all the better when each layer has been painted. This is why I don’t try and upset the image. On the contrary, I’m looking for a clear, identifiable, precise image, but one that is immediately visible, like a unique truth. A multiple image.
By depicting my friends from behind, I draw our eyes towards theirs, which nevertheless remain invisible. But the canvas gains in depth.
« Thinking of something else » is a form of survival. A form of pictorial polytheism, in a word.
A. P. This spatial multiplication involves a temporal duplication. The space is saturated with all-over forms which « spill » over, as in Baroque painting.
Marcel Duchamp called the picture the « delay »–le retard. He raised the issue of finishing the picture, or, rather, not finishing it. When do you decide that the picture is finished?
H. IC The same questions crop up in life as on the canvas. You have to bide your time, and often get to grips with this problem several times over to get to the bottom of it. But I’m very fond of the idea that you can walk past my canvases without seeing anything. Basically, dissimulation is a warlike strategy. War and hunting. Not being where people expect you to be. Fleeting being.
When I started frontally increasing the images, it was this all-over diversity that I was after. The large expanses and the Apocalypse series come from here. So does the rose window motif. Everything is linked and separates, forming an expanding world, at once coherent and uncertain, at its breaking point. I like Philip Taaffe a lot.
The physical world adapts to and thoroughly incorporates the previous mishap. I’m thinking of the experience of the painter who relentlessly reworks a canvas to get what he wants from it. But it doesn’t work. Every time he ends up with a different picture. Later on you realize that you have to change canvases to move forward, and produce more!
This is rather like the state of mind in which I tackled my latest series, except that I didn’t change canvases. When I was satisfied with them, I covered up my pictures with other more transparent ones. The outcome is a construction of space by superimposition, which follows on from my juxtapositions. The image ends up being considerably loaded, and time is slowed down.
It’s because of this « delay » that you manage to make an event spatial. The difference of eyes, the Doppler effect, the stairway syndrome…
I think the picture is finished when you manage to situate it.
Time is just a view of the mind you organize to build. The vision of a work complies with the same contortion: steering the eye to bring out intelligence. This operation goes beyond the image.
When my cat looks at an animal programme on TV, it looks away as soon as the commentator appears, because he doesn’t know that the little bird will reappear in due course. For the cat, what you can no longer see is no longer there.
In art, luckily, people don’t pay too much attention to commentators…
A. P. I’m getting back to your idea of the « construction of space ». This term refers more to architecture. As far as your painting is concerned, it’s impossible, furthermore, to hang on to the idea of « composition ». Your pictures respond more to a logic of ornamental arrangement, if only by the choice of the motif. Another allusion to Baroque art? Why the hunting motif?
H. IC The upsurge of art in the 17th century is intriguing. What a path between Wouverman, Picabia, Polke and Salle! What a race! To my knowledge, they all painted decorative motifs, transparencies and probably war scenes.
For a long time, now, confrontation has been one of my recurrent topics. Dogfight and bullfight in 1994, murder scenes, Komba in 1996, Actiondirecte in 1999, these are the early examples.
Then I learnt that ornament was the expression of power. With the Baroque, order seems to have a lot of trouble subordinating itself to ornamentation, which retains an energy that may well capsize it. Here we are at the heart of a power play in which each party pursues the other right into its most entrenched positions. The pack often ends up winning the day, but art is a particularly tricky terrain which, to my eye, sea battles and hunting scenes no longer seem capable of embodying. It’s still Jacob versus the angel.
The race is a sublimation of the hunt. Its motion is extended by maritime free trade and modern forms of war. « This is the nature of this world which has turned from a studio-landscape into a planned landscape, an imperial space… »
What could be more ornate than a flagship or the stock of a harquebus! This is the expression of the same wondrous thing.