Painterly, Moving, Dancing and Precise
About Bernard Gilbert’s Paintings
Every painting by Bernard Gilbert is one more try at creating a pictorial space: an illusion of depth obtained by juxtaposing parts or remnants of several layers of paint, which through their form, colour or texture, appear to be situated on different planes, a bit like flats in stage scenery. Many painters try to create paintings in this way, trying to say something about art, the process of painting, and what it means to be a painter. One of the wonderful things about looking at paintings is that so many people paint, and yet they all come up with new solutions, new formulae, new works. We're faced with infinite variety, surprising, sensual and liberating. And each time we face a new painting, we're challenged to see how it differs from all others.
What are the specific characteristics of Bernard Gilbert's works? The most obvious are the parts that look as if they have been silk-screened. He obtains this effect by using a metal tool to apply acrylic paint to the rough surface of a polyester canvas. More recently, he's been stretching the canvas onto a wooden support on which he applied acrylic with a big brush. This provides unexpected surface effects. The artist will often use masking tape to cover parts of the painting before adding another layer of paint. These strips may follow the wavy edges of the brush strokes used in applying the initial layer of acrylic, but they can also have geometric or accidental shapes. Here and there you see a kind of frosting effect, caused by the fact that the acrylic paint sticks poorly to the PVC coating the surface of the acrylic canvas. Some effects are created by painting through a sieve or a stencil. In one spot you may see the fading effect of an airbrush, elsewhere you'll see a similar effect similated with a brush. You may also see the sediment of real drops of water, created by spraying water over fine layers of paint, or fake droplets, imitated with a brush.
Each painting provides a new experience, a new pictorial space created through contrasting techniques. The contrast may relate to different textures, an unusual use of perspective (as in the false perspective of the black and yellow beams), or a surprising juxtaposition of colours. In one example, the artist's use of colour creates the impression that he assembled two paintings into one. Elsewhere, such is the use of colour and texture that an image appears to detach itself from the background and seems to float in front of the painting. Often the artist strives for intensity not only by contrasting colours, but also by using highly pigmented inks or mixtures of highly saturated acrylics which when dry, leave behind deposits which the artist calls "sharp little points that sting." Other kinds of sediment appear frequently in his work, with very subtle effects.
These are paintings about surface and non existing depth. They are meeting points between grafted antagonistic elements. They are painterly, moving, dancing and precise.
Montagne de Miel, 10 October 2010
The history of the representation of the world is pervaded with many obsessions. Perspective must certainly have been the first of them. The Egyptians already, saw in the pyramids the rays of the sun sent upon the earth. The painters of the Renaissance made ??it a point of honour to execute their perspectives with the utmost meticulousness. Painting architecture became a challenge as well as a mandatory exercise. As scientific knowledge increased, the interest in perspective steadily dissipated to the point where abstract art, having freed itself from the confines of representation, seemed entirely capable of eluding these issues.
Today, Bernard Gilbert works in a direction that could be described as endless painting. His abstract compositions are freed from all the dogmatic positions that have preceded them.
The undermining of perspective is the first quality that characterises the painting of Bernard Gilbert. It is abstract, without repetition or symmetry. The parallels and other geometries are deliberately inaccurate. The individual plans seem diluted. Here, forms are neither figure nor subject. The artist, moreover, identifies the few motifs that punctuate the composition with words such as “stick” or “ball”. It is, upon contemplating Bernard Gilbert’s bicoloured “sticks”, impossible not to be reminded of Andre Cadere’s “endless painting”: endless coloured sticks in the manner of Brancusi's Endless Column. The painted motifs do not seem subject to the laws of gravity either. The stochastic partition defined by the artist does not include emptiness. If we consider the fundamentals of abstraction, then composition is always a matter of empty and full. As pointed out by Marcelin Pleynet with regard to Piet Mondrian, white is expressed as emptiness. 1 Today, the same could be said about the void in the white in Roman Opalka’s work. In this context, Robert Ryman’s exercises allude to formal variations on the fabric of the infinite and the eternal. With Kandinsky and Malevich, the white infinity expresses aspects of divinity. Almost everywhere in art history, white is transcendence. In Bernard Gilbert’s work, it is quite the opposite: his compositions are infused with a profound sense of chaos. His work is made up of entanglements, nested forms that blur plans and perspectives. What interests him is colour. The work is fully saturated with it. He tirelessly explores the infinite combinations that are available to him in an overtly experimental manner. He is fully dedicated to the theory of colour. Much like the Masters before him, he draws as little as possible but composes ??with colour. Sometimes form – expressed through the painter’s tools – is intuitively given shape with the sole purpose of strengthening the colour.
The Labour of painting
It is in this very complex compositional exercise, in this stochastic exercise, that lies the specific artistry of Bernard Gilbert. What stands out at first glance are the marks of his tools. In the manner of the artisan, he uses in his workshop a variety of tools that can be easily identified on the surface of the canvas. Once applied, the material is scraped to reveal the weft of the canvas. In this way, the edges of the canvas become covered with the residue of the work of the painter. It is then that the motifs in the work appear, in dialogue with the initial weft of the canvas.
The work, presenting itself not as a composition in the architectural sense – which would induce a consistent retinal construction – instead appears as a sequence of operations. Its reading is complicated by the fact that it is almost impossible to identify one gesture as the first or another as the second. Within the predefined format, the result of these actions does not seem to be predictable. It is tempting to compare Bernard Gilbert’s approach to that of improvised music: using the canvas as a theme, the instruments are determined as the course of action of the artist progresses. It could be considered as a spontaneous composition, based on a direction that is defined the moment the artist applies the first touch of colour. The same principle is repeated in all the paintings yet remains, time and again, a new adventure, almost unpredictable. The completion of each canvas therefore, presents itself to the artist in a renewed manner every time. The fruit of this work remains a mystery to the novice, and the work unfolds itself, revealing neither perspective nor boundary other than the edge of the canvas.
Bernard Gilbert, however, does not adhere to any contrived system. His work does not follow any system, the only rule is colour. Also, the works presented to us today are the result of a long progression. The work has evolved through a number of stages. When the artist emerges in the mid-1990s, his art originates in actions carried out close to the surface of the canvas. The material is strongly scraped so as to interact with the weft of the canvas, under the paint. He not only works the surface but the very heart of the colour, creating layers in the raw material, revealing, in the final appearance of the work, a certain violence. The resulting images create the illusion of blurred video images. The weft of the fabric appears in various spots like pixels. Areas of thicker paint appear as parasites, resembling vibrating halos. Apart from the painterly aspects as such, the canvases are also interesting as images. This clearly defined language already takes colour as the central aspect of his approach. It is colour that will lead him to expand his formal research. In the early 2000s, the artist gradually introduces the principle of multiple layers. On the first canvas, masses of colour clearly stand out from the underlying surface, creating autonomous zones. They overlap and interlock like musical motifs, or more precisely like soundscapes in electronic music. Bernard Gilbert took his explorations in this experimental field as far as he could, increasingly integrating ever higher levels of complexity. Gradually, the paintings came to incorporate figures. It is at the end of the years 2000 that the bicoloured “sticks”, the shapeless spots, the striped fields and other root-like protrusions appear. By 2010, however, his compositions have reached an extreme level of complexity. New tools have emerged. In the most recent paintings, circular grids create the illusion of giant fingerprints. If his first paintings created the illusion of video imagery, his latest at times create the illusion of collage. Now that this extreme has been reached, it is unclear what will be the future developments in the work of Bernard Gilbert. This future lies in his gestural intelligence.
In the end, Bernard Gilbert did not choose abstraction, it seems to have imposed itself upon him, imposed itself through colour, to be precise. And as far as his painting is concerned, it is about something else than pure representation. As rightly stated by Blanchot “the image is the absence of the object.” 2 This means that representation is that which is missing. Painting will always reveal what is missing in the object. If everything were present, we could do without painting. What we call “the world” is already a human representation of that which exists. What is the use of playing one-upmanship? By eliminating representation, abstract art has freed itself of that which was foreign to painting and sculpture. Painting has refocused itself on its very meaning. When Théophile Gautier formulated his theory of “art for art”, it was to release art’s pure poetry. He wanted art to serve no other purpose than beauty. We may assume he would have liked the developments of abstraction in painting. The philosopher Henri Maldiney is convinced that art has always been abstract, as far as we can go back in time. For him “the painter is a man who does not merely stand before things but one who communicates, through them, with a reality.3” He wrote: “Abstraction is not about elimination without changing the world, or, put otherwise, distortion; it aims to transform, to translate forms into forms that speak (...) We need to create forms that speak of this transcendent reality to the depths of which the world and us are headed. Abstraction is one of the names of creation.” Precisely herein lies the political aspect of abstraction and an oeuvre such as Bernard Gilbert’s. It is its ability to circumvent the frenzied utilitarianism that determines the value of art. It eludes the world and is at the same time its most beautiful expression. It is not the control of time, but an exercise of time, it is not the representation of reality but a reality in itself. Art therefore appears as a form of resistance. Karel Teige, art critic and spokesman of the Czechoslovak Surrealist group, wrote emphatically and subversively: “the artwork is free (...) it is not dependent on any goal, no external mission or utility. And such a work, free, self-sufficient, the expression of the truths and the deepest interests of the human soul, is definitely not a small meaningless toy.4”
Here, the painting in question tends to distance itself from pure abstraction. The artist plays with reality. The very instant he initiates his investigation, his abstractions are already creating the illusion of video imagery or strata. We have seen that objects such as “sticks” and “balls” have gradually appeared in his constructions, to the point where it could be said that the work has ceased to be dominated by abstraction, somewhat in the manner of Albert Oehlen. The main difference being that here, Bernard Gilbert’s investigations have led him to compositions that relate to the landscape.
How indeed can they not be seen as landscapes? They have the depth of the horizon and a level of complexity known only in nature. The landscape, it is true, has never left painting. It is these forces that have caused artists never to completely abandon figuration, like Piet Mondrian, who continued the practice of watercolour even during his most abstract period, or like Kurt Schwitters, whose “Forbidden Paintings” today have come to be widely known. This is emancipated painting in action.
Each one of Bernard Gilbert’s recent paintings can be understood as the sum of both the history of painting and everything the artist has freed himself from. His is an emancipated art of painting. The work originates in a stochastic composition – spontaneous and intuitive – in which the infinite exists in the intertwining of each thing in another, without end. Infinite as it is, it ignores modes and time. It is in some sense Proustian; it evades time and is made up of ??poetic moments. As the development of the work since the 1990s evidences, it rather refers to an investigation conducted in the workshop, as if it were a laboratory. In this way, Bernard Gilbert’s radicality is not so far removed from Ryman’s, be it that his approach is formulated through chaos.
1 Marcelin Pleynet, Système de la peinture, Seuil, Paris, 1977.
2 Maurice Blanchot, L’Espace littéraire, Gallimard, Paris, 1955.
3 Henri Maldiney, Regard parole espace, L’âge d’homme, Paris, 1973.
4 Karel Teige, Le Marché de l’art, F.J. Müller, Prague, 1936. French edition Allia, Paris, 2010.