Tuesday, 27 November 2012


Guillaume Bresson @ Nathalie Obadia, Paris - May 31 - July 21, 2012

I wrote briefly about Bresson last year and for some reason assumed his work was heading toward more stylised, maybe more Sci-Fi figures, a la Inka Essenhigh. I must have been out of my mind. I was not looking closely enough at those dark, hovering figures in gloomy underground or multi-story car parks. I was seeing some other movie in my head. I still think the paintings are very cinematic, but the intense chiaroscuro, near monochrome or grisaille tonalities and careful, intricate compositions were also pointing to a very respectable painting pedigree, one that has since taken on greater prominence in his work.

I’m prompted to correct my impressions as much by Barry Schwabsky’s review in November’s Artforum (p 285-6) as changes in the work itself. He too seems a little wide of the mark. Schwabsky seizes upon the classicist or pre-modern allusions and supposes a familiar Po-Mo trope (irony, excess, decadence, etc) mainly derived from Italian painting of the 80s. That ignores a strong Photo-realist influence that ties figures to contemporary standards for physique or proportion as well as tonal integration with settings. Not for Bresson the studied reversion to Bolognese ideals or Mannerist exaggeration; his brawling gangs owe as much to the cinema as say, Poussin’s exacting compositions. Is this then just another instance of Anacronismo? - The wilful introduction of contemporary subjects into an historical style or genre? If subjects were all that was at stake, one would agree. But where matters of lighting, proportion and the rigours of perspective substantially reform a pre-modern framing, we go beyond anachronism. Then again, the use of grisaille or monochrome is hardly typical of Hypermannerism or Pittura Colta, much less the pre-modern, but is prominent in 80s work ranging from Mark Tansey to David Salle and Gerhard Richter, if we want to dwell on the 80s for precedents. But it is the lack of recent precedent in painting for Bresson’s violent encounters between youths that probably suggests the cinema or television to me. I’m stuck for prominent examples of gang rumbles in recent or even modern painting, at best, perhaps Francis Bacon? Even when we broaden the category to warfare, I find myself reaching back to someone like Delacroix perhaps, whose facture did spring to mind in some of the earlier, freer examples by Bresson.

Yet Bresson is hardly illustrating celebrated moments in national history or literary legend. He’s picturing anonymous attacks amongst the immigrant and peripheral population, a furtive underworld that finds its perfect setting in deserted inner-city car parks. For better or worse, Bresson has become the poet of the multi-storey car park. Are such attacks photographed for You Tube or social media by gang members these days? It hardly matters, elevating the spectacle to painting amplifies this disturbing social practice, grants it a comic dignity. The new tribalism acknowledges the futility of appealing to some higher authority, instead turns vigilante with a vengeance. Or is it part of a tacit legitimisation or normalisation for a seething underclass? Perhaps Bresson sees such furious hostility as part and parcel of the status quo, the embarrassing underbelly of the France of today? - Of a ‘free trade zone’ run into the ground for remote and inscrutable interests? By any account, it is a picture of corruption.

The recent works exchange open warfare for some sort of negotiation or displace the violence into wholesale acts of redevelopment or ‘renewal’. The theme is broadened somewhat but the underclass still loiter undercover, conspire now for a truer or equal picture but can only add to inconsistencies. Schwabsky notes the lack of obvious support for the central figure to this composition (most of the works are untitled in the 2012 Obadia show) and finds this a device to heighten an emblematic or metaphorical reading to the group. I find the careful attention to pose and gesture, the unusual setting for recreational figures and selection of props, and indeed, intense tonality, all do this. The apparent omission of a seat for the central character, as with the slightly scaled-down car, together with the curious jumps in continuity between the two panels in the diptych featuring demolition spell some more structural message. Accommodation or integration can only go so far. Yes, Bresson can co-opt Ariadne from Titian for the foreground figure to the right hand panel, can deftly add designer underwear and trainers to traditional figures, that reel, alarmed at the demolition of their traditional storage tower. But at a certain point anachronisms, fashion updates won’t do. The foundations themselves must be rebuilt, even as the voyage is underway. It is a longstanding dilemma. A revolution tends to come full circle, the lunatics can take over the asylum, only to incarcerate further inmates. The problem in painting turns formal. Here Bresson’s virtuosity can only pause and signal an incoherence or incompleteness, at least for the moment.

In this, he is perhaps not so far from Neo Rauch, another painter occasionally drawn to grisaille or monochrome, intent upon inconsistencies to roles and situations. But where Rauch is increasingly drawn to 18th century Romantic figures for reliable tradition, a cornerstone or benchmark, Bresson one senses, takes a more expansive view, a subtler, more polished touch. The violence has so far been in hand-to-hand combat, and when defused, at least in brusque business deals or the pretence of sport. It remains to be seen whether the young artist (Bresson is 30) is prepared to allow it greater formal licence, concede greater damage.
This article also appears on Worldwidereview.com