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Second Light

by Nicolas Audureau
September 2013, Iragui Gallery, Moscow
Translated by Françoise Dubois

Second Light is the title of a series of paintings by Hervé Ic. At first glance, everything seems clear: it’s about light in painting, luminosity, reverberation, vibrations, etc. It’s about a practice that has been part of the long history of using light, darkness and brightness, chiaroscuro or the Renaissance period sfumato to only mention one very well known technique today. Yet, when looking at this history a little closer, we understand that it’s never just about a technique but that it is also a work of transubstantiation in painting. Light is of divine origin. It emanates from a spiritual power. It’s the Annunciation to Mary (Annunciation of Cortona) painted by Fra Angelico circa 1430 in which a golden ray literally crosses the composition. It’s Ra, the sun god in ancient Egypt. It’s Inti, the Incan sun god. It’s Louis XIV, the sun king. It’s both extremely simple and a universal ambition. It’s both here, elsewhere, now and forever, a cosmogony, a pantheon, a vision of the world, a faith. And so, Hervé Ic’s painting poses the question of “why does our internal flame burn?” without any religiosity. What is this Second Light in the midst of our rational world and precarious comforts? Will we soon come out of rationalism’s darkness inherited from the century of Lights? Are we still connected to The Light or is it reduced today to a simple objectified expression of vibes and pigments?

Without trying to answer these questions, we can at least attempt to define their validity. In other words, is this Light taking us backward, is it a retrograde and rear-guard vision, or is it the mark of some kind of permanence, of existential questions that, in spite of some evolutions and a better knowledge of the physical world, passes through time without ever finding satisfying answers? Because, it is indeed a purely logical point of view – but if we refer to Pierre Bourdieu it is just as much sociological— we can say that sciences scientifically demonstrate the limits of their own thought, of their own knowledge. They only move the borders of ignorance, and that’s something at least. But the Unknown remains. Of which, Art just might be the ultimate witness.

The title “Second Light” is significant. The presupposition is that there is a First Light and also that there isn’t a third one, or the title would have been Light Number Two! So it is safe to say there are only two Lights. Several interpretations are possible. In the literal meaning, the First Light would be the external one: zenethal, solar, heavenly, astral or cosmic. In Roman times, the oracles would interpret it; today the scientists measure its speed; throughout the centuries, it guided sailors, scholars and pilgrims. Thus, in the physical sense, the First Light seems pretty clear. It is sometimes called “white light” and is decomposed in a circle of chromatic colours. So, it is intricately linked to the Eye, it can be seen and, in passing it generates heat. It is the sun without which no life would have been possible –we now know that to be a scientific fact. It is the energy governing us, in front of which we stay infinitely passive because, without it and in spite of the magic Raoul Dufy described in The Electricity Fairy”, we would only live but a short time.
Having defined the First Light, what could be the Second Light? To venture a first interpretation, let’s look toward astronomy. Second Light could be thought of as a unit of measure, used to calculate the distances in space, in other words the distance light travels in void in one second. This way, the Moon is 1.3 light-seconds from the Earth. This interpretation will probably complete the next ones. Still talking about a physical First Light and considering its external nature, Second Light would probably refer to an internal light. A light intimately linked to darkness. In Genesis, light precedes darkness. However, they are inseparable. In classical painting, we can distinguish several light sources: the higher one (divine, heavenly), the background one (perspective, horizon), the exterior one (a window, an apparition), the lower one (the entrails of the earth, hell), or the one coming from the heart of the composition (flame, hope, faith). From the latter source, we can probably guess the second meaning of the light: a condition, a passage between two darkness that would allow us to see clearly, if only just for a little while. It’s the lamp in George de la Tour’s (1642-44) “Magdalena with the smoking flame”. The light is the painting’s escape point that determines the space. It’s the glow that escapes from total darkness and snatches us. It’s also the stained-glass windows Pierre Soulage created for the Saint-Foy of Conques Abbey (1994). Light starts from shadows. It reveals the mystery. We then speak of light as an experience.

All this could appear full of devotion and spiritualism (although that wouldn’t be a negative critique) if Hervé Ic’s paintings didn’t get away from this temptation through their clarity and their translucent, contradictory and white emptiness. To the point we could draw a parallel with the La Monte Young’s hallucinating installations, Brion Gysin’s Dreamachines or even speak of the Quaker influence in James Turrell’s actinic works. But I think that would be a mistake. Hervé Ic throws us into darkness so we can see his paintings, so we can see the light in his paintings, so we can have the feeling, after all, of a light emerging from darkness. No machine, no artefact other than our sheer will to see. And finally, without light! I am alone in this darkness and my eyes are struggling to find the exit. The picture doesn’t come to me like at the movies. On the contrary, it is a penitent’s path. As it is customary to follow that path on foot, I walk toward Hervé Ic’s paintings the same way, with naked eyes in the night.

But there is a more “rational” interpretation of the Second Light title. Indeed, it refers directly to a concept we owe the German sociologist Ulrich Beck in his book “Risk Society” (1986). Second Light is the term Ulrich Beck uses to talk of the second modernity our societies undergo: a second modernization opposite of the century of Lights’ first modernization, in the way that it does away with the encyclopaedic and exhaustive expectations of the first one, as well as its will to total up knowledge, its constant praise of science as well as seeing knowledge as vertical. Contrary to that, the Second Light is reflexive; it involves producing knowledge in a diffuse way where everyone can be a producer, consumer and examiner. It is the time of doubt, of over-modernization, characterized by an over-abundance of events. It is the time of relativity in which the individual is torn between personal self-fulfilment and the need to react to events faster and faster. It is the passage between a short-term predictable and measurable environment where nature could mean danger, to an unpredictable environment where danger comes from man himself and in which decisions made out of urgency bring long-term incalculable consequences. Still according to Ulrich Beck, it is an opportunity for cosmopolitanism or a feeling of being a citizen of the world beyond nations: the occasion for a multi-dimensional world policy. Finally it is, in opposition to the full system (capitalization of assets and knowledge) a system of flux, emptiness and void. So, to Ulrich Beck the Light could be the heritage of a movement of consciousness. A consciousness arriving at the shores of an endless aporia at the end of a long journey.

In order to confirm Hervé Ic’s paintings “state of mind” to the detriment of a simply physical interpretation, which would be a prosaically pictorial second light, each painting is named after a famous person, from Luther (2005), Calvin (2006) and Savonarole (2007), to Karlheinz Stockhausen (2012): names accompanied by a “Cosmos” constellation (2007). This way, it is the Spirit of Lights that is reflected in Hervé Ic’s paintings. You can’t tell if this Spirit of Lights is revealed or dying out.

So here are some thoughts Hervé Ic’s paintings could inspire. Infinity of images inside simple white and coloured circles. At the same time, they only reveal their own emptiness and send back to the void, nothing else. This void, so frustrating that we immediately feel the need to fill it up, that we try to fill it with images, meanings and words.
Words, vanity pushes us to accumulate them, so I will leave the last ones to Hervé Ic, still about light. Endless words that will by the way, remind us of the unit of cosmic measure: “What is a starry night if not an intact and mysterious memory of 4 billion years?”