dimanche 1 septembre 2013

What Do Images Do To Painting, What Does Painting Do To Images? Two Examples: Robert Suermondt & Thierry Costesèque

This text first published in Journal of Visual Art Practice (vol.12 N°1, London, 2013) is my contribution to the symposium Fragment, Openness And Contradiction In Painting And Photography (Central St Martins College of Art and Design, 2011) and to the colloquium Tableau/ Dispositif/ Apparatus (Tate Modern, The Starr Auditorium, 2012).

According to Jean-François Chevrier’s analysis, the introduction of the tableau-form in photography at the end of the Seventies had the primary aim of “restoring the distance to the object-image(I). Chevrier’s analysis implies a “restriction” of painting : its conventional tableau-form, flat, rectangular and limited, its autonomy considered by many artists and critics since the Seventies as obsolete and exhausted, unable to create the circumstances for a real confrontation with actual æsthetic stakes, and also unable to transcribe the experience of the contemporary world. Filled by its long history, the tableau-form (or the tableau-object) has been « reloaded », during the second half of the Twentieth Century, by theoretical approaches and by artistic practices that payed tribute to the classical parangon. I’m thinking here of Greenberg’s modernist teleology and its formalist avatars in the United States ; about material and conceptual deconstructions by French avant-garde groups such as BMPT and Supports-Surfaces ; about the « return » of figurative painting (whether called Figuration Libre, Bad Painting, or Trans-avant-garde) picking images from both the history of art and contemporary mass culture. I’m also thinking about the continuation of abstract painting by Neo-Geo artists and others whose works quote historical forms and signs of abstract painting, in a “postmodernist” way. I’m finally thinking about abstract painting that develops beyond the limits of the frame, taking place on walls, floors, ceilings, in connection with architecture and urban spaces.
With this background in mind, I would like to talk about the work of two contemporary painters, Robert Suermondt (born in 1961 in Geneva ; lives in Brussels) (II) and Thierry Costesèque (born in 1970 in Saïgon ; lives in Paris) (III). However different their works are, both of them are attached to the tableau-form, but neither in an exclusive relationship nor in a nostalgic way. Their works maintain a constant and determining relation to the photographic image, its technical reproducibility and its distribution en masse, its ubiquity increased by its digital dematerialization and circulation.
I will start by introducing their works and trying to explain the processes they are based on, the way they are elaborated — which implies to understand what images do to their painting and, in return, what their both paintings do to images.

Robert Suermondt, or the painting as a trap for the gaze

One of Robert Suermondt’s activities consists in cutting out and collecting hundreds of photographs extracted from magazines, newspapers, advertisements, and postcards. These photographs are the raw material of the artist, which he archives and sticks on paper composing a kind of visual « atlas » which he uses to conceive his paintings (Atlas, 1995). Suermondt also incorporates fragments of black and white photographs into small « collages» (fig.1: Collage 42, 2010), where they are associated so as to produce a single but complex image, rather than the succession of autonomous and recognizable images that can be seen in the atlas. It is difficult to recognize, in these collages, what the photographs originally showed, because the operations of « montage » engender a new structure, based on the lines of the cuts and the continuities of forms from one image to another.

fig.1: Robert Suermondt, Collage 42, 2010. Collage on paper, 15 x 16 cm.
Collection: The Artist, Brussels.

It is in this way that Suermondt’s tableaux are elaborated. They are « montages » (I’m thinking about cinema here; « editing ») of several fragments cut from photographs — some of them resulting from the atlas, others having been taken by the artist himself. The small collages (or « montages ») are scanned or photocopied in black and white, before being thrown, or simply being observed to be retranscribed, enlarged, on the paintings. In many of them, made since 2005 (fig.2: Lentes, 2005), a sinuous cutting multiplies and concentrates the articulations and the breaks of planes, until a clear understanding of the image is rendered difficult, even impossible. But this transfer from collage to painting is not slavish : profound modifications are introduced. Parts of the source image are deleted, replaced by other elements. The painter pursues his montage process: the tableau is constructed through the organized, controlled tearing of the photographic images.
In paintings such as Lentes or Ventue (fig.3: Ventue, 2010), Suermondt orders the syncopations at several levels in the image: decapitated portraits, coloured planes, areas of pencilling, neutral whites, combinations of heterogeneous materials along the edges (IV). Suermondt multiplies the cut edges within the painting, in order to avoid defining just a single focal length. He introduces many folds of textiles, skin, and more abstract folds of painterly gestures, twisting the surface of the painting in a way that the function of visual scope loses its dominant force.

fig.2: Robert Suermondt, Lentes, 2005. Oil and lacquer on canvas, 200 x 280 cm.
Collection: Museum zu Allerheiligen, Schaffouse, Switzerland.

fig.3: Robert Suermondt, Ventue, 2010. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 200 x 180 cm.
Collection: The Artist, Brussels.

Breaks, accelerations, syncopations, aberrations make the images largely illegible, even if the pictorial treatment enables the viewer to perceive the photographic origin of the painted elements. Suermondt uses the efficiency, the impact, the immediate nature of the photographic image in press or advertising. But he empties them almost entirely of the object: the image illustrates nothing more, no longer delivers a clear message. The gaze slides on the surface of the painting, bounces from one detail to another, passes from one plane to another, and wonders about the moment when it crosses from one image to another. The gaze is truly being disturbed : the whole image seems to be held in the foreground. It is so complicated that the spectator remains torn between the feeling of a perfect vision of every detail and a blindness provoked by this abundance of detail and different points of view inside the same tableau.
The result of these operations (cutting and montage) is a « piège à regard » (trap for the gaze) (V) in which, without many clear indications but with numerous suggestions, the viewer has to focus, to adjust his vision, and is forced to make up his own mind about the painting.
Suermondt’s recent paintings (fig.4: Ubitatatoo, 2010) gradually abandon the photographs of details of bodies and urban crowds. They privilege instead de-structured architectural configurations. But even in this more abstract appearance, the visual chaos, the sensations of extracted details and of photographic « blow-up » are still there.

fig.4: Robert Suermondt, Ubitatatoo, 2010. Oil and lacquer on canvas, 185 x 230 cm.
Collection: The artist, Brussels.

The fragmentation of the image in Suermondt’s paintings is pushed even farther in the shots which the painter realizes « in situation », put on the ground, against the wall or a chair, or even in his kitchen. But I’m thinking in particular of the models of fictitious gallery, museum or lounge spaces, made by the artist to exhibit reduced reproductions of his paintings which he then photographs (fig.5: Salle 03, 2008). These models, rather than isolating and advancing paintings, stress the disorder around them, and prolong the chaos of their composition beyond the limits of their frame. They are small stages intended to be photographed, and the resulting images, just as the photographs the artist takes of creased paper and adhesive tape, rubbish from the production of paintings, can serve as raw material for the tableaux to come.

fig.5: Robert Suermondt, Salle 03, 2008 (photograph).Mixed media, variable dimensions.
Collection: The Artist, Brussels.

Thierry Costesèque, or the painting as a deceleration of the gaze

An important part of the work of Thierry Costesèque consists in visiting and observing fallow lands, suburban commercial business parks, council houses, buildings districts, peripheral urban spaces, and taking pictures of them. It also consists in collecting photographic images of diverse origins, found in newpapers, advertisements, collected in the street, or downloaded from the Internet. These are not only chosen because of their subject, but also for their particular visual qualities — by which I mean the qualities inherent to their poverty, because they are not only advertisements for famous brands, but most often third-rate advertisements.
Indeed, interested in peri-urban, suburban spaces, Costesèque chooses signs and advertising images which result from such spaces, and which he scrutinizes, details, exhausts to the very heart of their materiality : their textures and their photomechanical weft, their lack of precision, their now saturated, now « washed » colors (VI). But his collection is not confined to images. It also concerns heterogeneous and relegated objects : candy wrappers, labels, packaging, printed fabrics, rubber gloves, balloons, tinsel garlands, etc. It also concerns short videos made by the artist, as well as his numerous drawings.
Since 2006, Costesèque's tableaux integrate elements resulting from observing the photographs collected (details of hair or face, elements of typography, neon signs, advertising logos, etc.) in an abstract, almost modernistic pictorial space — rectangular, flat, non-illusionist. These tableaux no longer render anything identifiable, but seem to extract the materiality of images (and also, through this, their artificiality and superficiality), and the substance of vacant suburban spaces. The photographic images undergo a significant number of manipulations : they are isolated, scanned, photocopied, refocused, enlarged ; their colors are often saturated ; they are associated, on the walls of the studio, with reproductions of masterpieces, and with other elements of diverse origins which I have just evoked. All this contributes to generating passages between the images : the red lipstick of a starlet crosses the bright pink of a neon sign ; the blue dress of a portrait of Ingres so becomes a fragment of plastic bag or a parrot’s plumage, and conversely. To a certain extent, photography allows the unification of the heterogeneity of the sources of the paintings.

fig.6: Thierry Costesèque, Dérive 2, 2007. Oil on canvas, 200 x 250 cm.
Private collection, Paris.

The sliding from one image to another produces a polysemy which complicates the images ; especially since they are not slavishly reproduced in paintings, on the contrary. By observing a tableau such as Dérive 2 (fig.6: Dérive 2, 2007), it is impossible to isolate and to identify the source images. Indeed, Costesèque preserves only allusive fragments, ruins of images the concretions of which structure the pictorial space crossed with wide blank reserves. In his paintings, he provokes a deceleration of the gaze, a slowing down of an imagery conceived to be immediate, instantaneous, by multiplying the strata of inscription, overlapping, obliterations and fading, the archaeology of which remains uncertain.

fig.7: Thierry Costesèque, Nord#4, 2010. Collage, mixed media on paper, 9 x 20 cm.
Private collection, Paris.

In his numerous drawings-collages (fig.7: Nord #4, 2010), Costesèque prefers, rather than to accept the Pop register of the communication and the efficiency of advertising, to create a graphic and pictorial space in which desynchronized temporalities coexist. Stuck elements, less and less recognizable as such, are associated with painted or watercolored fields arranging passages between graphic signs, and with cuts of the support whose unity is reconstituted by the « montage » process, which leaves on the surface the fault lines and the blank zones which build the coherence of the space compressed into a restricted depth.
In Costesèque's recent tableaux (fig.8: Demain le Nord #7, 2011), the « montage » keeps more visible, because the images are more recognizable than previously. The fragments of images incorporated into collages are henceforth introduced into paintings, preserving the immediacy, and the same scale as in the collages and the drawings. These paintings respond with distance and humour to the constant flow of photographic images, the chaotic organization of surburban spaces, and the entropy of both such photographs and spaces. They mix colored and transparent layers stemming from the deconstruction of photographic images, and cartoonlike or childlike drawings at once recognizable (fig.9: Demain le Nord #2, 2010). Although these tableaux present a more hard-hitting, percussive aspect, they do not work on the register of efficiency like press or advertising. They show a predominately heterogeneity of images, gestures, scales, inside a composite, polysemic and unbalanced image.
fig.8: Thierry Costesèque, Demain le Nord #7, 2011. Oil on canvas, 170 x 183 cm.
Courtesy: Galerie Eric Dupont, Paris.

fig.9: Thierry Costesèque, Demain le Nord #2, 2010. Oil on canvas, 200 x 250 cm.
Collection: The Centre National d'Arts Plastiques, Paris.

What does painting do to images ?

Whether regarding Suermondt or Costesèque, the evolution of painting more towards «abstraction » (for the former) or more « representation » (for the latter) must not be considered as a general, linear and irreversible progress of their respective work. It is, in fact, superficial and secondary.
Suermondt and Costesèque think at first as painters, and in doing so — to think in terms of their medium — they turn to another language, foreign to painting but none-the-less close to it in many respects. Neither with Suermondt nor with Costesèque is the photography a model to be copied or mimicked. Both are aware of the profound modifications that the photography caused in the act of seeing, until recently with the advent of digital technology. This is the reason why photography is one of the privileged fields for their pictorial investigations.

Beyond their interest in photography, and a certain proximity in their respective processes of creation, the work of Costesèque and that of Suermondt echo two key-ideas developed by Walter Benjamin in his famous 1936 essay « The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility » (VII). On the one hand, the loss of the original introduced by the photography, the accelerated circulation of images — and even their ubiquity made possible today by digital technologies. And on the other hand, Benjamin's dialectic between politics and aesthetics : The invention and the development of photography and cinema are contemporary with the age of the masses. Photography and cinema were identified by Benjamin as much as a potential means of emancipation of these masses (by the politicization of aesthetics) as a means of their subjection (by the esthetisation of politics, that is, for Benjamin, fascism).
Of course, the paintings of Suermondt and those of Costesèque do not directly illustrate these ideas. But the de-structured representation of the crowds by Suermondt questions media overexposure, what it really gives to see, its power of fascination, the lack of information which it delivers, its intrusive violence. And the strongly altered representation of the suburbs, relegated objects and spaces with low legitimacy in Costesèque’s paintings refers us to the margins of urban planning and to the entropy of economy and capitalism, of which the ever obsolescent imagery of advertising is the most accessible vector.

But the most recent works of both painters also deal with the question of the place of the beholder (whether he is the viewer or the artist himself) in relation to the photographic images (in Suermondt’s) and the peripheral spaces of production and traffic (in Costesèque’s).

fig.10: Robert Suermondt, Esse, 2011. Oil and lacquer on canvas, 200 x 180 cm.
Collection: The Artist, Brussels.

Suermondt qualifies his recent paintings “in suspension” ; they remind him Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point last sequence, where the fragments of an explosion swirl and float in the air (VIII). These paintings feign the appearance of the collage and go even farther to the process of saturation of the field of vision. This saturation produced by the number of fragments, the profusion of details, and the projection of the whole image in the foreground entails a kind of blindness: it cancels the scopic distance and introduces a tactile approach, which is paradoxical because in these works, everything is painted, everything is enactment. In front of them we have the sensation that to see clearly there, it would be necessary to be able to put our hands to it, to seize and move fragments, to organize the chaos of the visible. The relation to the beholder, whose body is so engaged in the experience of perception of the painting, echoes the activity of the painter: his gestures and his operations of picking, cutting, manipulating and dragging the photographic fragments, the adhesive tapes and the cardboard stencils which he uses. This situation is stressed by the setting of a painting like Esse (fig.10: Esse, 2011), which is hung in the angle of two walls. The field of vision is then saturated, and the beholder’s body is surrounded, wrapped by the image, while his gaze is alternately rushed into and pushed back from the surface.
Although the recent paintings look more “abstract” than the previous, they still translate the sensation of immersion of the body in the crowd — but now, in the play of “trick screens”. These paintings give a visual transcription of a physical, tactile relationship. A situation in which the body has to clear itself a road, and where the relation with the other “bodies” (people in the street or the objects in the studio) passes at first by something of the order of a “friction” — not with the picture, but with the image itself.
In the last works of Costesèque, this friction has different aspects. The first of these aspects consists in the making of small paintings and collages on (and in) matchboxes (fig.11: Objet-Monde (One Finger Painting), July 2011). These small objects are “travel paintings” (most of them have been made in 2011 in New York City, and can be put in one’s pocket); they are also paintings to be touched and manipulated (the artist calls some of them One Finger Painting). These small works remind me the particular way Thierry Costesèque, for several years, used to describing me, by telephone, the painting on which he is working, in terms of images and objects indeed (for example, he could say, “I began to make a picture with a parrot, a photography of brand-sign, a piece of cheap lace, a rubber glove, a tinsel garland, and balloons”, etc.) ; but above all, he describes the paintings in terms of gestures, operations, reactions of the materials (pouring very fluid and transparent paint, tilting the painting, turning it upside-down, etc.), and in terms of time (acceleration, slowing-down). Rather than a particular image, such a description leads to figure out a picture from textures and tactile qualities, from actions, reactions, movement and rythms — far from any subject or “motif”.

fig.11: Thierry Costesèque, Objet-Monde (One Finger Painting), 2011. Oil and collage, mixed media on matchbox.
Courtesy: Galerie Eric Dupont, Paris.

The second aspect of the “friction” consists, for the artist, in going outside the studio for short interventions in suburban spaces. A short video sequence in static shot, entitled Re-Paint (fig.12: Re-Paint, 2011), testifies of this shifting of the painter’s activity, and of the painting itself, in an environment which is not intended to accommodate them. Neither the artist’s body nor the painting is comfortable in this hostile place, which determines a minimum type of intervention — because clandestine and, as such, inevitably fast. This movement, opposite to the one by which he brings to the studio the images and objects taken in suburban spaces, generates a friction between the activity of the painter, his own body, the painting and a “reality” which resists them.
fig.12: Thierry Costesèque, Re-Paint 2, 2011. Video, 2'38".
Courtesy: Galerie Eric Dupont, Paris.

Each in his way, Robert Suermondt and Thierry Costesèque pay much attention to photographic material which they scrutinize and to the heart of which, following the example of Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (in French La Chambre Claire) (IX), their glance rushes to disorientation, even blindness. Their paintings, stemming from complex processes of elaboration bringing together collection of images, shots, montage (editing) and collage, present unstable spaces, « fragmented, open, contradictory » and of heterogeneity. As a matter of fact, their surface works as the place of conversion of what W.J.T. Mitchell calls «image » towards what he names « picture » (X) — the tableau generating in its turn another regime of image. The paintings of Suermondt and Costesèque put the image to the test of the touch and the body, throwing the painting outside itself, but without giving up the “tableau-form”, which is constantly moved: photographs of settled works, models, “montages”, handleable objects, video sequences, etc. All these movements and shifts offer a renewed experience of the pictorial medium, fed by photography. The frictions that they engender, between painting, body, environment and image, are also — and maybe especially — the index of critical social and political aims of these works.

(I) Chevrier, Jean-François, « The Adventures of the Picture Form in the History of Photography », in The Last Picture Show – Artists Using Photography 1960-1982, Douglas Fogle, Walker Art Centre, 2003.
(IV) Sterckx, Pierre, « Robert Suermondt or Cinema-Painting », in Robert Suermondt, Redistribution des pièces, La Lettre Volée, Bruxelles, 2009.
(V) To quote Jacques Lacan : Lacan, Jacques, Le Séminaire, Livre XI, Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, Seuil, Paris, 1973, p. 102.
(VI) For further aspects of his work, see my article « Thierry Costesèque. Urban Cake », in Art 21, March-April 2007 issue ; also readable on my blog : http://heterotopiques.blogspot.com/2007/03/thierry-costeseque-urban-cake.html .
(VII) Benjamin, Walter, « The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility » (first published in French in 1936), in Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008.
(VIII) « Robert Suermondt en conversation avec Tania Nasielski », Briobox Galerie, Paris 2011 (http://www.brioboxgalerie.com/ ).
(IX) Barthes, Roland, La chambre claire. Note sur la photographie, Gallimard, Seuil, Paris 1980 (Camera Lucida, Hill and Wang, New York, 1981).
(X) Mitchell, W.J.T., Iconology. Image, Text, Ideology, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986.

Aucun commentaire:

Enregistrer un commentaire