TOUT VA BIEN
490 Atlantic April 22-May 21, 2023
By John Mendelsohn, May 3, 2023
Each instance of art is formed by a set of often unspoken beliefs. These patterns of thought may take the form of an ideology, a theory, or any other way of describing reality.
The exhibition’s title "TOUT VA BIEN" – “all's well” – hints at an underlying attitude that informs the pairing of two painters, Gwenaël Kerlidou and Scott Williams. Taken from Jean Luc Godard’s movie of the same name, the phrase is an ironic commentary on the economic and social breakdown of modern life. The exhibition considers an abstract and a representational artist, and sees what their work shares in terms of both fragmented form and deeper structures of thought and feeling.
In the case of Kerlidou’s art, our imperative as viewers is to intuit its fractured forms with the kind of coherence that they seem to want us to apprehend. Looking at this work, we experience both a dance of colored shapes and a sense about what might make abstract art viable today.
Kerlidou’s five works in the exhibition range from larger multipart works, with up to twenty separate elements, to smaller works with four or five parts. There are two overriding tropes at work here: the crack-up and the forming figure, with usually both present in a single painting. Forms break apart, twist and cavort, jostling for space, asserting their independence and their will to lock together. Collectively they form a unified if fractious image. It does not seem too far a stretch to call this a kind of democracy of forms, with energetic individuality contending with and contributing to a greater good.
This underlying attitude is amplified by an insouciant wit and sense of good cheer, despite the persistent brokenness of the forms. This suggests an article of existential faith: that things can be sustained, at least for the moment – in these difficult times, that is no small thing.
One way of understanding the scaffolding of belief supporting this work is to see its continuity with the history of art. We can construct an imaginary lineage: the breaking up of Cubist form, biomorphic Modernism, the disjointed shapes of Elizabeth Murray. Less direct perhaps is the influence of the Supports/Surfaces movement in France in the 1960s, whose artists deconstructed the elements of painting to both questions and extend abstraction into new territories.
But beyond a sense of the past, notably, there is in this work a feeling for the present in its lively animation and street-wise panache. Kerlidou’s paintings insist on their cartoon-like presence in our reality, projecting from the wall in chunky relief. The sides of the constituent forms are in a contrasting color, creating a second, anamorphic image, when the painting is viewed from the side, rather than straight on.
In "Alladin", a work about five by six feet, a variety of reds dominate, as a mass of locked-in forms start dispersing across a field of diffused color. The overall effect is of a magic carpet in extremis, maintaining its levitation, but subject to airborne break-up. In Indigo Nights, jagged, angular forms in black, with a single blue shard of the sky, against a lime green sprayed field, resist coalescing into a fixed gestalt.
"Tag", is a small work that is a single, snappy image made of interlocking parts: the top of a red heart connected to a sky-blue oval by the vertical of an exclamation mark, whose point is the open center of a wonky rectangle. "St. Sabastian" is a strong, knot-like painting, structured around seven apertures, which read as wounds in the body of the painting. Made of tightly fitting sections, the composite image moves against a halo of lemon yellow which shows through the holes, except at the center, which is a view of the reality of the white wall.
Like all of Kerlidou’s paintings, these are works clearly made by hand, whose forms are custom-built wood stretchers covered with found, colored canvas. The assembled parts rest on a cloud of color, spray painted on the wall behind them. By becoming part of the wall, the paintings suggest imaginative gestures that blur into real space and architecture. Here, there is a trust in analog materiality, rather than the virtual screen, and an assertion of abstraction as something with a physical and poetic place in the lived world.
In Scott William’s paintings, brokenness takes the form of wrecked cars. The vehicles are parked on the streets or in lots in the aftermath of tremendously violent accidents. There are rear-ended sedans, economy cars with flattened front ends, and totaled compacts. With shattered windshields and crumpled metal, the cars take on a mundane version of the unsettling glamour of a spectacle – Warhol and Weegee come to mind. All that is missing are the injured or the dead. Beyond depicting a realist artist’s subject par excellence – the cars with their myriad angular forms and reflective surfaces – what are these paintings telling us about the beliefs that shape how this artist sees the world?
In these small works, Williams paints with an assured gestural attack, directly from observation. There is the sense of touch evident on the paintings’ surface, with the eye and hand of the artist coordinated in defining a series of discrete parts that coalesce into the image, mimicking the car’s construction and its break-up. A near-expressionist roughness is at work here, a feeling of impulse and action, the necessity of getting the form down immediately.
These stylistic qualities, joined with the subject matter, suggest a kind of furious embrace of the damaged and the abject. The cars are like bodies left after a calamity of speed, now bereft and derelict, which Williams treats with a kind of hard-won empathy. At the same time, there is a kind of ritual commemoration of destruction at work here, the kind that animates the demolition derby, the motorsport of crashing cars. Catastrophe, in its ubiquitous presence in these paintings, is seen as a built-in feature of the culture of cars in a dystopian present. Jean Baudrillard wrote on "Crash", the novel by J.G. Ballard about car-crash sexual fetishism and the staging and participating in real car crashes. “Crash is our world, nothing is really "invented" therein, everything is hyper-functional: traffic and accidents, technology and death, sex and the camera eye.”
The cars are most often painted singly, like portraits, and at times with partial views of nearby wrecks. A few paintings feature a line of three vehicles; some are of extreme close-ups. "WHITE RACING CAR" possesses kind of perverse allure, with an angled, head-on view of its large mashed-in hood, spread out like a broken nose, and staved in door panel. "TOLEDO SUBARU" is a painting of a rear-ended automobile, whose back and side have been transformed into a crumpled Cubist array of reflected sky.
In a panoramic format, "CARCASSES" depicts three cars, alternating front-back-front, with the center vehicle with the black, gaping maw of the trunk fully exposed. "COMPACT CAR" is a small work, whose intimate view of a destroyed auto is a nearly abstract vision of silver and rust. Compared to the close-up view typical of Williams’s paintings, "GREEN WALL", seems like a casual street scene, with a construction wall backing a silver wreck. As in some of the other paintings, we see hints of the neighborhood, with commercial buildings, painted street art, and striped jersey barriers.
When we step back from close looking at each painting, and a series of accompanying etchings, we are struck with an undertow of mixed feelings: clear-eyed, avid reportage, shot through with sense of gritty acceptance. We live in a culture of excess and expendability, concentrated power and impotent anger. The wrecks that Williams paints are facts of contemporary life, but they speak of larger realities of loss, both personal and societal.
Scott Williams,TOLEDO SUBARU, oil on panel, 10x16”, 2021.
GWENAЁL KERLIDOU, Sebastian, 2023, Spray paint on tinted canvas, spray paint on wall, 13 parts, 49” x 42”
Header Images: Left: Scott Williams, GREEN WALL, oil on linen, 14x21”, 2022. Right:GWENAЁL KERLIDOU, Tag, 2022, Spray paint on tinted canvas, spray paint on wall, 4 parts, 28” x 23”
Images courtesy of the Artists and 490 Atlantic Gallery