How are artists from Martinique questioning and renewing the act of painting? They are now exploring and experimenting with new tools, new pigments, new techniques, a new intervention in space and with a combination of approaches.
Is it still possible to talk about painting in the singular when artists are inventing new techniques and new pigments? Which aspect is still painting and which is no longer painting?
The paradox of painting is that it is the most popular art form, the most highly prized by collectors, most of all, and so the biggest selling art form. So much so that it is the perfect embodiment of art. At the same time, painting has been gradually losing visibility since the 1960s. Painting is more and more marginalised, as if it had been reduced to a lower level, below installations, performance or video.
And the limits between artistic genres are increasingly indistinct, so that the disintegration of reference points means we can no longer clearly identify the domain of painting. Today, many artists practise painting alongside other disciplines. Works that are not themselves paintings are making use of painting, by analysing rules and techniques. And sometimes painting is just part of a space and no longer confined to the strict limits of the picture. Unfamiliar practices are emerging, resulting from the transgression of genres, pushing painting beyond its frontiers. Today, techniques are complementary, are superimposed and added together. From the merger of genres hybridisation is born. Painting is now polymorphous, enriched by all artistic languages.
How are artists from Martinique questioning and renewing the act of painting?
Jacqueline Fabien and Luz Severino are experimenting not only with new techniques and new materials, but are also renewing the painting genre of the landscape. In Fabien and Severino’s work, the landscape expresses identity, tragedy and the destruction of nature.
Nous ne sommes pas des bâtisseurs de cathédrales (« We are not builders of cathedrals ») by Jacqueline Fabien, is a striking work, showing five very simple coconut trees. They act almost like signs, expressing difference and defining West Indian identity, like an echo of Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land:
Eia for those who never invented anything
for those who never explored anything
for those who never conquered anything
but yield, captivated, to the essence of things
In Pourquoi ne pas peindre le tragique (« Why not paint tragedy »), the artist shares a private moment with us by staging one of her walks in Basse-Pointe. It is a desolate, bleak, threatening, almost macabre landscape, far from the exotic clichés of Caribbean beaches. The work is based on the opposition between a veiled and expressionist evocation of the landscape and a minimalist representation of an unfathomable, mysterious and almost threateningly opaque sea. The sense of tragedy arises from the breaks in the lines, numerous discordant diagonals, contrasting colours and tones, and the bandaged driftwood. The picture is also an occasion for artistic experimentation: dripping paint, pools of horizontal colours, the rejection of all chromatic and technical rules, embroidery. The painting transmits a lived experience, a physical and spiritual test undergone by the painter arising from the specific qualities of the site. Is this a contemporary interpretation of a human silhouette looking out on a vast landscape, which is experienced within the soul, like in the work of Caspar David Friedrich, the German Romantic 19th century painter? We might recall his remark that the painter must not be content to paint « what he sees before his eyes, but most of all what he sees inside himself. »
In her landscapes, Luz Severino makes use of a wide range of original techniques: oil painting, engraving with a knife or cutter, insertion of strips of sewn and re-embroidered fabrics, and coloured metal rods go to produce a hybrid and composite work, evoking the contemporary martyrdom of nature and its capacity for rebirth. This is an imaginary projection of a landscape, bearing witness to an ecological viewpoint. Through their work can artists help raise awareness about the ecological crisis? The art critic Paul Ardenne recently spoke of the emergence of an ecological art in his essay: Création plasticienne et anthropocène (Plastic art and anthropocene creation).
While Fabien enriches his paintings with pearls and driftwood, and Severino embellishes her work with fabric and metal, Glombard has created a new material, based on recycled paper and pulp, along with elements such as metal, leather and fabric. The artist adds paint and collages to this material base. Paint becomes a material like any other, like paper, leather and fabric – just one of the ingredients in the finished picture. It is also a cohesive, uniting element.
These unusual media, techniques and materials correspond to a need for singularity and for the renewal of the act of painting.
Valérie John has replaced paint with the ink left in old photocopiers. The displacement/reorientation of painting technique, the very basis of Valérie John’s work, involves giving up the traditional frame, setting aside the stretched canvas and breaking free of painting as it has been traditionally understood. She has invented a new pictorial approach. The work takes shape horizontally, as the focal point for countless overlapping elements and layers of recycled paper with a wide range of traces. The colour of the superimposed papers emerges from the body of the work and blends with other tones arising from a mixture of natural pigments on the surface, such as indigo, glue or one percent gold. Black is the dominant colour. A matt black, a fired black, a dense and deep black derived from a rarely used material, the residual ink from old photocopiers.
Ernest Breleur broke with his own practice in a series from 1994 with a Surrealist-inspired title, Chirurgie sur une jeune fille qui rêve d’avoir un chapeau à plume (Operation on a young girl who dreams of owning a feathered hat). He gave up using paintbrushes. He created colourful effects, texture and volume by placing spray-painted white stickers on x-rays, resulting in a double reading of the work. The large number of stickers and the changing colour tones produce complex and sophisticated shapes. More and more stickers are added until the x-ray background takes on a secondary role and new shapes are developed. The shapes form residual and poetic portraits of unknown people.
Artists never create in disorder. One work follows on from the last. The artist follows the path laid down by the intrinsic requirements of his or her development. Each work is a light-filled link in the chain of poetic development, as Dominique Fourcade said. In his most recent works, Paysages Discontinus (Discontinuous Landscapes), Ernest Breleur has produced an original summary of his artistic career. He has returned to painting, after his x-ray sculptures and drawings. He has achieved a new sense of freedom in composition. In a humorous spirit, he transgresses and goes beyond the frame, that suffocating limit serving to isolate the work and separating it from the rest of space. For Ernest Breleur, as for Edouard Glissant, « The only limit to this abundance is finally to go beyond it ».
The choice of materials is also a sign of emancipation from the painting tradition, reviving the impertinence of artistic « détournement » of Duchamp and the Surrealists. Breleur highlights the poetic role of the object, placing it in a world of lightness, fun and the dreamlike. But he also combines the object with fleeting and discreet flashes of paint. His recent works, while continuing his meditation on our ultimate fate and the nature of a celestial space that has no concrete or palpable existence and which moves away from us the closer we draw to it. Today, his metaphysical investigations, which can be found in all his work, from La mythologie de la lune (Mythology of the Moon) to the series of Christs and La série blanche (The White Series), are now free of all gravity, providing a new visual experience.
Thierry Cauwet defines himself as a materialist painter who likes to incorporate unexpected surprises into the production process. He lists some 50 pictorial functions (2) that are specific to his work, since each artist develops his or her own. They bear the traces of his different techniques and gestures. Les Déracinés (The Uprooted) is a hybrid work. More than a sculpture or installation, this is a series of pliable paintings and as transparent as stained-glass windows.
Contrasting with the fluid figures created by Thierry Cauwet, Jarrin‘s characters are small and eccentric. The composition and postures of the characters seem unconsciously to recall Marc Chagall or Manuel Mendive, and are sometimes combined with Inca graphics and Indian figures. The moving figures arise out of a constant flow of almost automatic graphic elements scrawled at the edge of notes taken during a Buddhist gathering. The brightly coloured constellations of silhouettes, in works that are midway between painting and sculpture, are applied in light brushstrokes face on and in profile. They illustrate one of the artist’s treasured ideas from Buddhist philosophy: the principle of interdependent origins. All social or natural phenomena result from another phenomenon, and nothing can arise in isolation. This is the fruitful source of life.
Serge Hélénon, Christian Bertin and Louisa Marajo have left behind the traditional flat dimension of the picture. Painting has moved into new territories, combinations and installations. Hélénon’s lieux de peinture (painting sites) are compositions using poor quality, recycled materials that are combined and superposed on each other. Painting is added on top of the rough surfaces and textures. Serge Hélénon has moved away from the traditional surfaces of a framed canvas in favour of uneven surfaces made from recycled wood, which he arranges and puts together himself. The surface recalls the façades of slums in the West Indies and Africa. This is what he calls his « painting sites ». Because they really are paintings, even if they are not always hung on a wall. You need to walk around them to see them. « I live in the practice of painting itself, » he says, « my adventure is not the same as a sculptor’s adventure ». He uses raw pigments such as crushed coal to give colour to his surfaces. The other colours act as contrasts, attracting the eye to what is essential: the black, the deep, matt black. His « Expressions – Bidonvilles » (Expressions – Slums) are both a break with the Western practice of painting on canvas, a homage to popular African and West Indian culture and a statement, in a cultural context where the death of painting was announced in the 1960s, that painting will not disappear.
Christian Bertin never uses brushes, but applies a personal mixture of paint, tar, sawdust, plaster, earth and glue to pieces of recycled wood with a large knife to create striking installations.
With Louisa Marajo, painting moves towards the object and the environment, decorating the wall and the floor with dissonances and heterogeneity. The unexpected repetitions and coincidences between the shapes in a specific site are built up and deconstructed as the eye first wearies and is then revived in an attractive chaos.
This is a changing space that is Baroque in form and in the way it revolves around its own memory: all the elements recall previous ones. Everything is remixed and recycled in a perpetual stream that is most often non-linear. Geometric shapes are transformed into organic shapes by means of photos displaying and creating a distance from the broader painting, which is unlimited in space and in the materials used to represent it. Echafaudage baroque (Baroque Scaffolding) recalls a continually changing and refractory building site. It shows contemporary painting breaking free from all physical and conceptual frameworks.
Contemporary artists from Martinique seem to be entering a new era, breaking with the past and inaugurating new pictorial techniques using new tools and new materials. The time is ripe for exploration and experiment.
( to be followed)