Ali Soltani, May 2015
On Francine LeClercq’s “I Am Your Labyrinth”, Soho20 Chelsea, New York
Francine LeClercq is once again presenting us with a multidimensional apparatus consisting of a set of spatial as well as mythological figures and references pointing on the one hand to the centrality of the objective construction of the art object, and on the other hand, the decentralized expansive boundary in which a shifting viewing subject is continuously re-centered as the component of the work proper. The primary engine that drives the work is clearly thought to be art; the enquiry addresses the internal workings of this machinery and more importantly the source of energy that fuels its operation.
Following a trajectory of site specific installations starting with her seminal solo show Opening in 1999, until now, and her gradual shift from the purely abstract expressionistic works wherein the formal properties of the work is wholly invested in the specificity of its material construct and support – to the figuration of texts and images in 2003 titled Paintings – to Mise en [S]cène, shown in 2007 in New York and again in 2010 at the Turku Cathedral in Finland, a monumental reconstruction of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” – to her effervescent installation of half suspended cells titled 3:2 shown in 2009 – to Narcissus founded on the work of Caravaggio’s painting of Narcissus, consisting of paintings and photographs and culminating in a pool where a projecting figure of Narcissus arrests the viewer’s gaze in his, what haunts us from the depths of her practice as an artist is her assertion in all earnestness in the aphoristic “I am first a painter”. The phrase is impinged on the word “first” as it commits the speaker to the specific support of painting while opening the language to entertain a voice that has not yet been uttered. The point in trying to grasp the matter, being, how does this proposition figure if at all in the current work vis-à-vis the general question of art. Indeed while at first glance it appears that her work increasingly seems to fall under the rubric of installation art, a closer examination of the work leads us back to re-read the phrase in a paired stanza of: I am first - A painter; that is the phrase “A painter” supported by the patent Cartesian cogito of [I am], notwithstanding within the outlines of a specific medium, be that the material incorporated in the formal armature of the work or the mental psyche of the observer/viewer. Furthermore, let us remember that along with other media, Francine LeClercq still paints, she has not dismissed or exchanged one genre of work at the expense of another, we are not aware of any attempt on her part to advance a one size fits all global ideogram that could indiscriminately be applied to all forms of art; but she has demonstrated that specific medium and context are critical factors of the work, in other words, the medium is understood to be forged locally specific to the work at hand.
Finally, it is my contention that the work of Francine LeClercq insofar as it addresses/ exposes the machinery of art whether that be the mechanisms of transmission and reception, or the figuration of past subjects from the historical image repertoire, the process entails the re-enactment of the tenets of artistic discourse, and in so doing she must in the literal sense of the word necessarily take down or rather un-install the work containing an upheld value.
This procedure of taking down an iconic work to examine its content is nowhere more forceful than in her 2007 Mise en [S]cène where six large panels corresponding to the dimensions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper have been brought to eye level suspended from the walls of the exhibition space. The cut-out contour of the protagonist and the apostles and the translucent whitewash bearing on the panels devoid of pictorialization, point to the true state of its referent painting that despite its status as one of the most iconic landmarks of art history and lavish revenues collected from tourists who queue for hours on to see it, is virtually non existent, the maestro’s painting as early as its twenty short years of its anniversary was already in dire peril. The table as the true site of the painting is actualized, given to the spectators who by occupying the void are at once brought to its field, made part of it. Yet we would be making an error in thinking that the illusionistic vacancy of the work is being substituted by the allegorical presence of the viewer, far from it; the decisive factor rests in the fact that the artist feels it necessary to use an icon, a thing of history as an instrument that effectively demonstrates its matter of fact phenomenological presence, pointing to the discrepancies between its blunt material thingness and a projected imaginary one, against which there is raised an awareness of contingent tactile aspects. Moreover this work marks a turning point in the work Francine LeClercq in the way the paintings are hung on a bracket away from the wall, therefore significant in that, liberated from their former pictorial arrest they assert a planarity that seem to merge with the space around it. We should mention that this notion was arrived at quite accidentally in the need to clear a protruding column in the gallery space, however decisively incorporated into the work in its second showing at the Turku Cathedral in Finland. The notion of the liberation of the work from the wall is given free reign in the all engulfing 3:2 installation in which a profusion of rectangular cells held away from the wall by imperceptible cylindrical spacers, following the aspect ratio of digital graphic displays are encoded with an archive of images belonging to the gallery’s past and brushed over with a layer of thermochromic paint forming an opaque dark film over the respective image. The paint has the quality of becoming transparent with the increase in temperature passed to the cells through touch as spectators are encouraged to place their hands on the cells revealing the image beneath, thereby the role of the artist as the image maker is transferred to the viewer whose participation is crucial in the appearance of the work.
The current work under the depictive heading of I Am Your Labyrinth, taken from Friedrich Nietzche’s poem- “Ariadne’s Lament” is a richly layered work in which the artist continues to recalibrate her convictions about the crucial roles of specificity, context and perception. In this instance the relatively limited space of the gallery and the added constrain posed by having to show alongside another artist is ingeniously compensated through the facility of a 1: 6 scale model of the entire gallery including the ancillary spaces, placed diagonally across from the entrance next to a glazed wall of the adjacent office. The dim ghostly appearance of the exhibition space reflected in the glazing makes it apparent that the placement is carefully considered to elementarize and incorporate the glazing as a visual element of spatial continuity through which a cluster of differently sized white tablets placed at random bearing what at first appears as curiously amorphic black stains stretch horizontally into an indefinite perspectival vanishing point. While the illusory aspect of the reflective surface is at odds with the authentic certitude of its present double, the intention is not to draw away attention from its invested object, rather in the bilateral symmetry afforded, the reflective surface acts like a video projection screen, that in the quivering effect through the incident of light on its surface, relocates and frames the context as if trying to bring it into focus. Moreover, the horizontal trajectory of this fusion countered by the vertical axis adjoining the model space through its open top with the gallery space, forms an axiomatic crux that seems to act as some sort of binding device that knots the two spaces. It is at this crucial juncture that it is realized the model isn’t some toy replica model of the space or a tool of study rather an extension or a passage through which different scales and spaces shift and are folded into one another, in constant flux, as though on a perpetually moving ribbon of mobius strip. The inferred relation to the literary work “Alice in Wonderland” is obvious, both works chart the intertwining relation between perception and context through the growth or shrinkage of their components, however here the shift in scale is both pertinent and instantaneous without the agency of a narrative or an allegory; and yet what does it mean to dismiss a narrative when we realize that the blotted stains we spoke of earlier are non other but the mythic Ariadne herself ? More precisely her recumbent likeness as depicted in numerous statues since antiquity transferred by ink on paper offering different views and profiles. Except in one instance, where on an upside down tablet folded into the plane of the model, is revealed a full size portion of a sleeping Ariadne’s profile of the statue at The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, we aren’t given a clue as to what other versions of the statue she might have used. What is striking about these images is the traditional technique of chiaroscuro that has been employed in arriving to a highly saturated figure against a stark white background that borders abstraction. In other words while the figure is folded into the obscurity of its own shadow as it were, the specific subject of the Sleeping Ariadne vis-à-vis the double presence of a figure and its absence on a single plane ties the work to a crucial moment in the history of painting that had begun the slow eviction of illusionistic devices from the two dimensional flatness of its support. The use of life size statues for drawing was part of the formal training of artists in art academies throughout Europe where there was a repository of copies from different sources. Much smaller plaster casts of statues used by notable artists like Cezanne, in that they could be held by hand and seen from different angles was instrumental in challenging a fixed point of view through linear perspective. Matisse and de Chirico both carved their own small versions of the Sleeping Ariadne that appear in their work, particularly with the latter with whom it became a kind of obsession with the subject throughout his career. Placing the statue under the light from different angles and examining its long shadows led to his innovation of using the shadow in stitching together disparate pictorial elements in such a way that both time and space are suspended, the ambiguity of de Chirico’s Ariadne series lies in a displacement that impinged upon its recumbent tenant, could either belong to time- we could be seeing the statue in different times in the same spot; or the subject- at a designated eternally fixed time on a different spot. It is significant to point out that this indecisiveness is reflected in the various versions of the statue in de Chirico’s painting, sometimes showing the statue in a state of half sleep half awake, her head resting on her raised hand as the statue in Vatican; and sometimes fully sleep with the head thrown back more like the model at the Uffizi Gallery although he drew from other sources such as the 1913 painting titled “Ariadne” in which the figure is shown in a foreshortened perspective seen from above clearly using Andrea Mantegna’s “The Lamentation over the Dead Christ” as template for Ariadne’s pose. But if de Chirico through the agency of- either or- pulls the viewer into the interiority of its picture plane, it is the double negation of-neither nor- in the work of Francine LeClercq that situates the viewer in the work not as a tentative outsider contemplating a curious dyslexic scene, but as a native interiorized element subject to the introspection of a meta-perceiving bird’s eye surveillance, the inverted sleeping Ariadne’s profile looking down in the model disrupts the synchronicity of time and space through an Escherian paradox as if caught between two facing mirrors, facing down, Ariadne and the viewer coincide into one, dreaming.
The aim in framing the entire art operation is made more evident by the fact that the administrative task of sending out invitation has been integrated into the work, a limited edition of cards have been numbered bearing stamps of Ariadne specially produced for the occasion blurring the boundaries of how and where we should encounter art.
Back in the gallery space, the full scale outline of the statue inscribed onto the body of the model by a continuous sinuous line tempts us in thinking we’ve been given the clue, that this is the Ariadne’s rope in her own outline that leads us out of our complicated journey, however on an adjacent wall opposite the glazing, thirteen drawings arranged in a perfectly regular orthogonal succession bearing the same technique of densely applied chiaroscuro draws our attention, this time depicting the Kiss of Rodin in full circle. It is as though the rope, far from unraveling the mystery of our journey is caught in the eternal spin of a kiss, something that no matter how hard we try to define is best left to be felt.