Texte de R.C. Baker

[Texte écrit à l’occasion de l’exposition Europe – USA au Conseil de l’Europe en mars 2013 – seulement disponible en anglais]

Traversing abstraction

Frédéric Caillard paints “things the mind already knows,” as Jasper Johns once put it. Like that seminal American modernist’s flags, maps, and targets, Caillard goes after expansive subjects: cathedrals, Imax movie screens, entire countries—“things” that loom large before our eyes and even larger within our minds.

The huge white rectangle of a motion-picture screen resembles nothing so much as a blank canvas—both are daunting as they await images from the artist to make them whole. Caillard combines these concepts in canvases proportional to movie formats: 70mm widescreen, Cinemascope. But rather than giving us scenes of gunfighters, gangsters, dancers, or lovers, Caillard expands on the never-ending drama of painting, a continuation of that arena in which the abstract expressionists danced between figuration and abstraction. In 1947, de Kooning painted the movie star Carole Lombard as a curvaceous gray blob rising against a black background. This was a year before his breakthrough black-and-white paintings, but the image already embodied his famous statement, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.”

Caillard’s dense matrices of paint—thick surfaces on contoured grounds layered with multiple colors, which are then partially wiped off to leave delicate patinas across rough textures—slow the kinetic figures of motion pictures down to the contemplative flesh of painting. Caillard recaptures something lost in our digital age: the visceral physicality of film emulsion, whether the pulsating blotches and scratches levitating through a Warhol Screen Test or the actual insect wings and flower petals that Stan Brakhage glued to filmstrips for “Mothlight.”

Similarly, Caillard’s “Territories” series plays with multiple ideas of abstraction. For example, if one drives between the American states of New Mexico and Arizona, there is no rupture in the breathtakingly beautiful desert landscape, only a highway sign. Borders—those arbitrary outlines determined by politics and economics as much as by physical landmarks—create shapes that exert enormous influence. A baby born south of Arizona, in Mexico, will likely have a very different life than the child born north of the border. The rich orange, yellow, and brown pigments that Caillard uses in his conception of Arizona might comment on the state’s majestic deserts and resplendent mountains, but the densely clotted and contoured support also conjures the harsh political battles over immigration, gun control, and other issues that divide the American populace.

Beauty, one might say, is always adulterated by the human condition.

The subjects that Caillard chooses for his “Monuments” series continue this multivalent endeavor. In his silhouettes of the Eiffel Tower or the Hollywood sign set in the hills above the City of Angels, both icons radiate fantasies of love, success, and fulfillment. It can be imagined that the dreams and concepts that built these monuments, and that in turn attract so many pilgrims of culture, have been accreted into Caillard’s built-up, craggy hues.

Caillard’s myriad shapes, colors, and textures capture the way abstraction and reality, those supposedly opposite poles, can be entwined effortlessly in our eyes, minds, and bodies.

R.C. Baker

R.C. Baker est critique d’art pour le Village Voice à New York.