“The painting lies within the paintbrush, seeking to come out of itself. It looks for the ebb, the flow and the tide; the ribbon, the physiognomy or the face; the coherence through which the line holds to the canvas – like the one which makes the wave in the middle of the sea; the tension which underlies every fold of the drape; the asymptotes of man and of the world in a painting always started anew. How does the flux hold to the canvas? It can hold only by itself – at the risk of not holding at all, therefore risking losing all aesthetic, logical or ontological necessity. And the necessity of the line, whether imposed through violence or delicately, is essential: the movement must find its own initiative in a “before” or a “below”, in a spontaneity made of desire and pain, childhood and obviousness. “Now is already too late” as i like to say: only the brush ever has a chance of following things in their most intimate movements.
In my work, I try to visualise what a painting would look like if a Frank Gehry building was transported onto a two-dimensional plane. Each painting in the Serpentins series was executed with a single brush stroke. There is no possibility of backtracking or erasure. This risk of breaking down, building without any previous calculation, is the necessity of the very gesture that I emulate.
What i’m interested in, is not the movement of the idea, from its plan to its realisation, but the concordance of every single and singular gesture – which, however thought through, carries its debt to the arbitrary; not to the plan, not to its prior design, but the to intuition of things and their immanent organisation, and of their profound coherence. It is in this sense that i am, is truly an architect, but in a world which had yet to know the title, and in which every worker carries the whole cathedral by himself. The question of architecture has stayed with me: the problem of the foundation, the connection to the ground, the balance which allows the structure to hold. The medieval meaning also: the humility of the worker, the work of the organ builder, the stones, their dimensions, their carving, and a profound knowledge of materials.
As between the years 1990 and 1995 i decide to dedicate my life to painting, it is as if i had decided to launch myself on a quest for coherence for coherence sake, freed from the limitations the laws of gravitation impose on the architect.
Today i remind that “the real roots of the trees are their branches”, and my painting no longer starts at the ground to elevate itself into the skies, but illuminates from the meeting of brush and canvas, branch against branch, the invisible roots, made grave by their lightness.
For this conversion, i needed to go through China and Zhū Dā, (Chinese painter (1625-1705). Calligraphy, being too codified has no worth, but practised as by Chinese masters, breaking with rules, it enters into things. One doesn’t name them, one doesn’t satisfy oneself with nearing them, but we find ourselves within them. And when we find ourselves in them, things appear as they are; as pure movement, a motif, a structure of forces folding the drape of the world. Whence the fundamental lesson learnt from the Chinese master from the XVII century: “the being is in the paintbrush”. With Zhū Dā, we are no longer in Asian academic painting; we are in the realm of being, the being of the forests, of the mountains and beasts.
In my atelier, i free all the walls to explore the experience of the Chinese master in large formats, though concentrating the motif as much as possible. And as the surface grows (4m by 2m and bigger) – the paintbrush gets wider and wider, he makes brushes out of rows of smaller brushes, they become as big as a brooms, as wide as the canvas itself – the purer motif, the closer it tends to its own essence. The pictogram becomes pure movement, the horizon, the bird or the branch become ribbons – ribbons like a Chinese dragon freed from all figurative elements. How does a ribbon hold on canvas [; a canvas itself with its virginity intact]? How does it occupy space to hold itself there necessarily? The question comes back, recognises itself for an instant in the work of Zhū Dāand becomes conscious of itself.
My attention is always on the detail, on the imperceptible quiver, on the as yet unseen connection. Around the curve of the ribbon everything connects and resonates: the centrifugal path of a rain drop, descending onto the edge of an umbrella, the gesture of the lithographer grounding his stone to let images emerge, the sponge which every day gets wiped across the table or mirror.
I like to think of the obscure origin of the wind that brushes us: a flow, a swirling current which connects us to the whole; Tibetan prayer reels spreading their prayers to the wind, or further still the child hanging in a tree in Giotto’s Entry into Jerusalem. And it is no coincidence if i spent so many hours trembling in front of the canvases of the Tuscan master.
The untrained eye might, in his paintings, be hit by a certain static aspect, a certain rigidity in the organisation, but as i can explain, the straight lines which seem to hold his canvas, are in reality only curves, meetings, brushings of fabrics or canvases, like branches which the painter has made to tremble under the weight of the child. And it is these curves which connect man and the world. Giotto: “the drape is clever, alive, human”, one wants to sit in his workshop and watch him paint, to be one of his apprentices, to draw his architecture.
“Watch the meandering of everything”, said Leonardo da Vinci. There are undulations in all the forces that shape the world, and I believe that this quote from da Vinci well encapsulates that theory.
With Giotto, it is the man who appears in painting. And so the paintings stay fundamentally at a human level, at the level of man and man’s connection to the world. But man in painting for me since he himself has shuddered in front of the Autoportrait at 54, hanging in New York, is Rembrandt himself. Rembrandt is the whole of mankind, the man he would have like to meet, and of whom he says is: “like a cathedral stone laid in himself”. And i return to my obscure starting point : the cornerstone of the cathedral.
And between them, chasing his own artistic necessity, he has peeled at works – which are like essays on possible works – and paintings both varied (often made of series) and deeply animated by the the only and same need to update all that is hidden in the paintbrush. Is this concentrating being? Is this recreating it?” – Jérôme Karsenti