Tout Va Bien (All’s Well)
by Saul Ostrow, May 3, 2023
It would be nice if I could just write that the French painter Gwenael Kerlidou’s works are most importantly complex, insightful, formally playful, and should be seen. But… problematically, such praise tells you nothing, and as a species we like to know the reasoning behind the things we encounter; we want to be made aware of their cause and effect. This constant questioning of the phenomenal world if not satisfied to some degree is a source of existential angst. Yet, it is this desire to make sense of things that distinguishes us from other animals, who effectively make decisions without ever asking, why is the world as it is? In the case of Kerlidou’s works, there is much to answer for… as such generalities, do not account for the complex relationships and cognitive dissonance generated by the five works he has chosen to present in the two-person exhibit Tout Va Bien (All’s Well) at 490 Atlantic Gallery.
The exhibitions title is taken from Jean Luc Godard’s film from 1972, which portrays the complicity and complacency that sustains the socio-economic power of capitalism. Luckily, here the term Tout Va Bien is clearly being used by the gallery to metaphorically link Kerlidou’s abstract works and Scott Williams’ modest sized paintings of cars wrecks executed in a painterly realist style. But there is a conflict here. Kerlidou’s works are literally what is presented — there is no symbolism or implied metaphors — while Williams’ subject can only be arrived at by analogy, that is, by linking it to an external referent. What is suggested by Williams’ car wrecks, their settings and their photographic point of view may range from being a critique of urban decay, to a commentary on how mimetic painting is a form of abstraction. As such, Williams’ work is firmly rooted in the tradition of the late-19th century Realists, who were reacting to social conditions and the advent of photography, while Kerlidou’s work are events.
The fact that this exhibition is presented as a two-person show rather than two one-person shows opens up Pandora’s box. Therefore, given my interest in the state of abstract painting, I have decided to side step recounting how abstract and mimetic painting, though similar in kind, are different in type. Instead, in the space allotted to me I will focus on some of the things Kerlidou’s works does. To begin with, his work like Williams’ descends from cultural, philosophical, ideological concepts and technical skills, which have been sustained, revised, and sent forward since the European Renaissance. By the time Western culture arrived on the eve of the advent of Modernism some of these practices had become garbled, others ignored, or had become indecipherable; their codes having been corrupted or reified. In an increasingly mechanized world, Modernism sought to revive the aesthetic potential of these practices by bringing them into line with the changing patterns of everyday life. It is at this point in the story that the literary and literal paths separate. Kerlidou’s works follows the literal path, which had by the late 1970s-early 80s, culminated in a formulaic brand of abstract art. Kerlidou has taken up the challenge of re-engaging — without nostalgia — the material, technical and conceptual practices, which have come to be sublimated since the early 1980s.
Of an older generation Kerlidou’s project is presciently post-Modern; since the 90s he has been making works that extend paintings format. In his recent works, each component is an individual object anchored to a painted segment of wall. By making multi-part and site-specific works he has abandoned many of the tropes of traditional abstract painting. The only comparable work in the States that comes to mind and may serve, as a precedent is Leon Polk Smith’s aggregates of tondos. The principal differences are Kerlidou’s aesthetic leads him to play with a non-standard geometry of eccentric forms and at times his color and forms seem to reference the type of large-scale graffiti found on the side of buildings and subway trains.
Despite their fragmentation and pop-ish aesthetic, habits of reception and cognition— the process by which perceptions evolve into concepts —seem to be Kerlidou’s central concern. Since the transit from the late Gothic’s intuited sense of space to the Renaissance’s introduction of mechanical perspective, which created the symbolic illusion of spatial continuity, cognition has been a prominent subject of art. By the time of the Counter-Reformation as expressed by the Baroque, viewers found themselves at the center of a maelstrom in which multiple vanishing points were fused together. With Modernism, such illusionism was replaced by a preference for optical space. Formally and subjectively, Kerlidou plays with all these differing spatial concepts, presenting them as a condition of being in the world. So rather than trying to fix the viewer’s point-of-view, he offers up alternative frameworks by which to observe and interpret his work. In this manner, Kerlidou’s choices and intuitions are brought to the fore. Whichever frame of reference is used, Kerlidou’s works require the viewer to not only see what they are looking at but also to re-assemble that in a manner that makes it sensible.
One may view Kerlidou’s work in the context of formalism’s literalness, or the interplay of figure and ground. Then again, each work may be grasped as a composition of interrelated objects, which form a gestalt — surrendering their identity to an overall shape, or image. Still another framework would have us focus on the particular relational narratives his works entails. This requires that we approach his work indexically giving an account of each aspect or quality in isolation, only afterwards establishing their interrelationships. For instance, there is the temporal order of the works making — the spray on the wall must have been the last element determined, because its shape and relation to the parts can only be arrived once he has a fixed their composition. Inversely when the work is re-installed it would logically seem the wall painting must be installed first. Subsequently, with such a determination the viewer is left with such questions as to whether there is a template for the shape sprayed onto the wall, as there must be for the placement of the various shaped canvases within it?
By reconceiving abstract painting as an assemblage of heterogeneous events, Kerlidou has set himself upon a line of escape — the course least taken. From this, one may hypothesize his work is a response to the emergence of technology’s promise to make all things immaterial. The meta-world though called virtual in actuality is ordered by standardized models of cognition and, which in turn program the viewer’s perception and expectations. In this context Kerlidou’s works, can be understood to be implicitly concerned with deconstructing recognition, recall and association. From this one may extrapolate that what underlies his project is an aesthetic politic intended to promote self-reflectivity so the viewer must engage the world firsthand rather than through pre-conditioned responses. This brings us back to Tout Va Bien; where Williams seeks to make allegory and metaphor relevant and sustainable, and Kerlidou advances the notion that art is not only discursive but also interventionist. From this subtle cultural clash, one may conclude all is not well, after all as Godard ironically makes apparent it is not enough to shrug ones shoulders and complacently accept things as they are… differences of form and content do really matter.
Scott Williams,WHITE RACE CAR, oil on panel, 12x16, 2022.
GWENAЁL KERLIDOU, Indigo Night, 2019-2022
Spray paint on tinted canvas, spray paint on wall, 5 parts, 36” x 29”
Header Images: Left: Scott Williams, COMPACT CAR, oil on panel, 6x9”, 2020 Right: GWENAЁL KERLIDOU -Aladdin, 2022, Spray paint on tinted canvas, spray paint on wall, 20 parts, 51” x 57”
Images courtesy of the Artists and 490 Atlantic Gallery