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Back, line, framing, or Hervé Ic’s paintings from the back

by Maxence Alcade
February 2019

A figure (sometimes, but not often two) is turning his back to the viewer. No set, minimal title; only a canvas usually measuring about forty-by-thirty centimetres. This text could stop at this point.

However, what do these people seen from the back have to hide? What are they looking at that the viewer can’t see? Are they looking at the abyss like a Kantian sublime that would have become the negation of Caspar Friedrich’s: no object, not even a little trace of absolute, nor the remnant of a sign, a cliff, a beach? In Hervé Ic’s series, what remains of Friedrich or classical painting in general is this line that obliterates the canvas. This line is the horizon; at least that is usually what it is called. This line is the illusion of horizon; it’s the horizon in painting, the one that makes us believe in space. The line holds the painting; it gives the bodies a basis, it almost decides their posture. So, we study the ground. We notice a reflection there only of the shoes then the body disappears in the composition. The figures themselves are stable, solid, well connected to the world. At least of this we are certain and it is perhaps the only certainty. Because we still don’t know what they are looking at.

Sometimes, the background seems to reflect the colour harmonies of the models’ clothing. The first painting of the series: MT_00, with its blue tones, seems to confirm this hypothesis. Others show vertical lines of colour gradients close to the digital effects found in Photoshop. We see this rainbow again in JR_17, which shows a white-haired man in a khaki suit with blue and red lines criss-crossing on the jacket to create a grid pattern. This motif is flattened in the background so that only the vertical lines remain while showing all the suit’s colours. But the man doesn’t blend with his surroundings; he stands out in the spot where the painter refused to use the stylistic device of chiaroscuro. Shadows are not part of his world and neither for that matter is space.

What if it were only a matter of stage, a sort of theatre where actors come to take their bow before disappearing backstage, returning to “real life”. This is the story that OC, JP and LP_04 seem to tell: a man faces a set composed of what appears to be spotlights. But the viewer is backstage or on stage with him, blinded by these lights that make seeing the public impossible: this “other”, which has become mass, drowned in bright regular halos and sent back to its anonymity. These halos form an almost pop motif, contrasting with more oppressive backgrounds. In OM_5, a child strikes a debonair pose like only kids know how. He is wearing jeans, sneakers and a black sweatshirt with a number on the back. In front of him, a purple background is cut through and through with regular halos. The ground however is almost spangled with glitter. The boy is about ten years old and poses with defiance. Hands on the hips, palms of his hands out towards the viewer, his right leg crossed over his left, it is almost as if he could be giving the finger. He is playing games with everything, the pose to strike, the painter’s patience and the viewer’s curiosity. He is on stage and he knows it; contrary to the adults with amnesia, who already know how to play.

So, the model’s back becomes a projection surface just like the backdrop of the painting, a paradoxical background without background, meaning no materiality to hold on to. This back, this nape of a neck, this hair, that’s where we project our fantasies; it is the beginning of our viewer’s investigation. Does this man have a friendly face, is he crying or laughing; is this woman the cross-eyed one who moved Descartes1? Is this mystery of the face only there to keep intact the mysterious love of the other’s face?
These faces aren’t interested in the viewer; they are turned towards something else we cannot see. And we can’t help but think they are looking at something: perhaps a photo, a picture, a painting, or maybe a mirror looking back at them… unless they are simply deep in thought.

1. In Letter to Chanut (6 June 1647) René Descartes expresses the love he once felt for a young lady. Once he finally understood what in this woman’s face had attracted him (she was cross-eyed), his love faded.