04 January 2022

Richard Serra and Pierre Soulages, dark cousins

L'enfance, oil on canvas, 1997 150 X 150 cm

This is a painting I made back in 1997 when I was in my small studio at the Châteaunoir, eons ago before I left Aix for the Drôme. I am not sure what I could say about it except that I was certainly trying to address dark issues from my own early life which we now refer to as Family of Origin problems, Hmmmm. 

These days, the contemporary method for expressing angst and existential discontent appears to make a beeline straight to the pigment generically known as Black. Most painters (because most of the original ones are quite neurotic) will at some point in their lives make a tour through the dark landscape inside themselves. The less original, but no less crazy, just paint the surface black or bitumen à la Pierre Soulages, or even Richard Serra. For painters, it does seem to be the contemporary go-to solution, though sadly it offers little inspiration in the long run because these paintings will live on, seemingly paralysed in a state of mourning, crucified, as it were on empty walls in lonely wings of great museums all over the world. And adramatic and satisfying as it may seem in the very moment of 'self-expressive execution', it's still a cliché and it is unsuccessful in the long run. It is a cheap fix as my auto mechanic would say.

And one could say I am being pretentious, presumptuous to rip and riff through such heavy weights in the Art world, but hey! These things have to be articulated even if few want to hear it. Being critical in this art world today is a lot like being a dentist where one can use sharp, precise tools to cause pain. Ha Ha. But I speak as a painter who loves colour after all, and Painting is about the totality of colour in the natural world.

Pierre Soulages, 163 X 181 cm 2004

Richard Serra, 1978 from installation at SFMOMA

These things I have posted by them are deliberate adventures into their dark headspace and I really don't even know how I would begin discussing them if I were to have the unfortunate task of having to write reviews of each.

I have seen both of these artist's works up close over the years in various museums around the world, yet I can never shake the feeling that this is all shallow work, and moreover, even they, capable and well educated as they both are, should know better, are better than this work. They should know better than play us all for fools (at least Soulages should, because he comes from a great Painting tradition in France).

Because of this shallow trick of indulging in so much ubiquitous black, I am never allowed access to an enduring emotion from their work. (OK Black is bleak, I get it,,,,) City sophisticates in Paris and New York express more existential disdain by simply wearing black, morning, noon and night.   

So for the artist the question comes down to just how does one express this terrible darkness and angst which most stoic souls spend all their lives trying to hide? What is the creative solution without the systematic cliché?

Going to the pigment black, to keep it simple, is basically just a cliché, a hollow one, incapable of expressing the horror at so much cruelty and suffering in the world. (I am trying not be redundant) but personally, I cannot feel this work by either of these two artists for this very reason. Their abstractions, though so heavy, they still don't possess enough weight, and they certainly don't expand any more understanding of their own personal plights. Nothing opens up or goes out from their work, it's a closed circuit at the edge of a black hole sucking in everything around them.

Yet despite these condemnations, I will say that I have also seen Soulages in a bright light, and also with great success. I went to the tiny town of Conques, where years ago, I found his stained glass designs for the magnificent church there to be both imaginative and appropriate to the space. This small church in Conques is such an extraordinary example of Romanesque Art that failing this task would be a cruel fate for any contemporary artist. His response to this unique church was secular and sober. It's  austerity compliments both our own age but that of 12th century France too. And what if his large paintings opened up his own airy inner light by exposing it to the world?

Soulages exhibits the black existential fact that Life (for so many French intellectuals) is something heavy, something which weighs down our soul as we go about our daily lives.

There is no joie-de vivre here. And yet curiously, the French in so many ways, do live a light-hearted life full of mirth and epicurean joy. This is also a problem I have with Soulage's work. Creatively speaking, he employs a one dimensional and predictable solution to this cultural paradox which is way too complex for his efforts. And b.t.w, where is the necessary irony in this work that seems so obviously lacking to the rest of us modern and secular souls? 

Richard Serra's work, on the other hand, often exhibits a muscular American force, the cultural equivalent to the doctrine of American Manifest Destiny which has pro-pulsed American might forcibly outward and onto to the world at large whether it was even desired or not (though to be fair in the 19th century, it probably was).

Symbolically speaking, with these large black drawings he seems to declare his own personal disgust with the American dream, and yet his own oversized steel sculptures appear to be the artistic extension of that same expansive American doctrine, one which his black drawings privately disdain. So it's conflictual; it's a paradox, an American one, not a nuanced French one. His dark pessimism in these drawings is also an unveiled desire to push that blackness outward to an unsuspecting world.

But getting back to my almost insignificant painting, I had wanted to relate an anecdotal idea in a visual way, a pictorial, poetic and sensual way, perhaps inviting someone else into it as a question, not an answer. 

A few years back, a friend made a comment about my work after a recent trip to Paris where museums are infinitely more important than stadiums. She had spent a few days wandering museums and galleries looking at everything. Upon her return she said to me, 

"What I like about your paintings is that they feel like surprises, questions in fact, not responses..... they are like you in fact, always full of questions!" She went on,

"Everything I see these days feels to me so oversized, so heavy, and so full of answers. There are way too many affirmations, commenting on such and such, opinions and declarations about life!,,,, everyone wants to hit you over the head with ideas and statements!"

"It drives me crazy!.... (ça me rend folle!!)"

I have always appreciated this observation because deeply inside, I have always felt the same way. I like that quality in other art I see and feel and intuitively I was trying to express that same idea in these "non-objective" paintings I was doing at the time. 

So I guess my biggest criticism with Soulages and Serra is that their work acts too often like walls which keep us all out. In French they say about someone with a big personality, and often slightly pejorative (and its usually about men) "Il a une grande gueule" (he's a bigmouth) And their work, like so much these days, certainly possesses 'une gueule'. Maybe that it is the nature of the Art world today, where to get ahead, to get anywhere, to be seen, to be heard, one needs 'une grand geuele'...
And even if they would never admit it, (this is after all about self-expression) they may as well have a sign outside that says "Keep Out", and this is a problem for me because the whole nature of Art concerns the opposite; it is an invitation out to the world at large. 

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