Philippe SERS - Ordeal - An encounter in the workshop
The first thing one notices about this painting is how courageous, how serious it is. Is the viewer of the painting strong enough to follow the painter boldly?
For Sylvie Bezançon, in the beginning was the square – one of the three primary shapes, demanding, strict, a meaningful character full of potentialities, unnatural as an obvious fact. From the outset it places her painting in the modernist tradition.
Painting and mathematics are the artist’s preferred subjects. She lays claim to them rather than reading and writing, which are foreign to her. She works within these fields, exploring them systematically and rigorously, according to her own self-imposed, strict limits, holding them naturally, firmly in their paradoxical relationship to one another. Was it growing up surrounded by the art world or having been introduced early to basic mathematics, architecture, a family inheritance (from her father who worked in La Plagne and Valmorel, creating buildings in grey, brown geometric forms ensconced in the surrounding rock and snow) or is it from the experience of painting that she inhabited, experimented with, understood and adopted alongside her grandfather?
Despite the seriousness of her approach to art, a marked taste for construction and the architectural character of her work, Sylvie Bezançon is nonetheless a painter exclusively. She has made the choice to work in the domain of painting, the only field where she can work completely freely, where she completely accepts the laws.
“The square is my shape” she says, “the square is part of my culture”; these short declarations resonate with anyone who hears them as being a finality, perhaps a little too like the square itself, or even a shade aggressive, and Sylvie Bezançon feels it is wise to make herself clear, temper her words and add that she is above all “earthly”.
Four equal angles, four equal sides, the square is in fact the traditional representation of the earth, meaning the place where human beings place their feet, settle down, where they plant and make their homes. The square is the summit of human invention, a shape that is almost unnatural (if we don’t consider the presence in nature of some cubic crystal structures).
Here it is, painted on the canvas, this square – alone, regal, presenting itself to the viewer, a seemingly plain white beneath the surface of which flows colourful energy, or floating on a grey-beige background mainly worked with a knife, yet supported, highlighted, made stable and steadied by two earth-coloured bands, one vertical and one horizontal. Here it is again – black this time on a brown background – underlined with a green horizontal band and braced against an earth-coloured band on the left. And here, looking for its place on the rectangular canvas, conquering the space with its shape, its weight and colour, supported, made stable and steadied by one or more bands.
The painter chooses the strict format of the classic canvas, a rectangle, for the setting where the square must find its place. This is because Sylvie Bezançon has agreed to obey all the laws of painting. One of those laws is the acceptance of the rectangular format.
She places the square, imposes it on this uncomfortable rectangular format that is the canvas, similar in its symmetry, where the square’s stable, balanced presence creates a certain tension.
Once it has sought and found its place, the square is always stable although it may allow a small rotation, just the slightest bit, the slightest tilt, and we distinctly feel the circle hovering near the square, as the square is merely the perfect shape intuited from the natural perfection of the circle – there is a circle beneath the square, and it is palpable. And if the square never plays at being a diamond, it does stretch itself to become a rectangle.
Sometimes, it is up to the viewer, asked or rather required by the painting to take part in a game, to perfect the balance of the canvas and mentally complete it, as it were, in order to make the rectangle reveal the square. The square playfully comes to the fore, after disguising itself as a rectangle, then letting the viewer guess its presence, search for it and find it as if it were a game of hide-and-seek.
Or perhaps the square will split, thrusting itself forward into the glare of white space, disappearing behind the dark colours in another game that recalls, with its advance and retreat movement and cross shots, the stills from the film Rythmus 21.
The Stèles on dark backgrounds, tall, imposing, masterful canvases are those sorts of vertical rectangles that can then themselves be divided delicately in two parts, with millimetre precision, revealing a new rectangular element that returns to the square. During this transformation, one of the two rectangles may be filled with a dense colour, for example a rich blue, bordered in red, pushing the original rectangle to lean towards that dawning freedom. Everything is painted using a knife, with extraordinary mastery of technique.
While the original shape moves so delicately, stretching out to a rectangle in thick or in thin lines, sometimes tilting slightly, and other shapes are on a tangential line in an unstable equilibrium, we know that the painter is constantly, firmly holding to an invisible course. These miniscule movements are already a battle, controlled by the seriousness of the stakes, proof that the painter is constantly moving towards the new.
Finally, there are canvases where the square triumphs on a square format, as in the Pierres series, powerful monochromes of blue, grey, red, yellow where the purity of the square and the finely worked material create a gripping dialogue. Crushing brown squares over delicate lines and a grey background are seen in this same square format, one of them with the appearance of wood, another one a grey square on a black background. What seems to be white is achieved through frottage or grattage. Dark canvases spring up like dense forests, made of thick matter.
The squares also can increase and pile up – parallel piles supported by a vertical or horizontal line, multiples of four or variations on the numbers on either side (5 and 3) to again destabilise the mathematical basis of the square, which when surrounded this juggling is made more boldly beautiful.
These lone piles of three squares are referred to by a painter friend Grati as “windows”, open or closed depending on the background they are placed on and depending on whether, lighter, they appear to move forward or for the darker ones, seem to retreat from the viewer. Keeping the name given to these paintings by her friend, Bezançon created more in the series and titled them Fenêtres, or windows.
Another possibility, the nearly square rectangle appears again, alone, containing a small, trembling square or two timid squares curled up inside of it.
The squares also imagine themselves as bands pressed tightly together, wrapped vertically and/or horizontally. They appear on bases, create libraries or towns all in a thick paste.
Later the square stretches into horizontal bands with the rhythm of music, forgetting angles and becoming parallel lines, lines that begin to tremble, to soften, to come undone.
Despite the rigorous nature of the square, we never know which angle the painter will take to give it freedom.
There is the very real temptation to leave the canvas to set off into real or imaginary space. The Paysages series, so called to validate the feeling of those looking at the paintings, a feeling that the painter fully accepts, is a progressive movement from dark to light. This series, separate from her other works, shows a new hesitation, worry, a solitary search with no more squares as they risked being dissolved by colour. Red appears, absolute, violent, along with ochre against grey. The colour is applied with small foam rollers. Shades of beige, black, grey-brown, green stretch across the surface of the canvas, taking it over. Then it seems as if the painter has begun to explore a completely different universe, pale and emptied, one in which it seems she might loose her footing. Yet when we look closer, there is just as much mastery there. Weak vertical lines still mark the way through the painting, and in a strong way, even if they appear only as a pale memory, recalling the supporting bands that surrounded the first squares in the rectangular field of the canvas.
Traces retain only the incidentally similar look of the initial, founding construction of her work. The series Traces begins with a horizontal ray of white light against a black background trying out its independence. The white is sometimes made from a sandy material; the canvas is painted black on the edges. With the remains of ink and lines from a Chinese brush, the work seems to be precisely the evidence of that vital experience that Sylvie Bezançon is constantly putting forward.
We understand then that the painter looks to the material itself rather than the form for a basis, to the material in its paleness and its unstable fluidity that generates the renewal of the line, the return of the squares in dense piles, made out of a thick material, the accumulation of almost reptilian-like scaly layers.
Or the unexpected explosion of colour as the background for dancing constructions of slim lines like squares coming undone. Squares dividing into rhythmic bands, organ pipes, peals of sound, and a never-before heard song rises from this new painting.
More recent work includes jointed bands forming lighter squares where light appears on black, grey and zinc white created with frottage or grattage. The vertical and horizontal, almost musical, sequences give way to the latest untitled series, horizontal lines, black on white, like a sort of gentle lapping that reconciles Carrés and Stèles with Paysages and Traces with the rigour of colour.
In this controlled painting style, all is constantly thought through yet vibrant. There is no running away, rather an elucidation, determinedly facing whatever comes to the painter from both inside and outside.
Painting is a serious act. The painter allows or refuses a canvas. The gates are lifted only after the artist has weighed the idea for a painting carefully within herself, examined it with her reason, her will and her desire. When that has been done, and only when that has been done, the painter steps fully onto the field, creating the painting immediately, directly.
And yet, there is the playfulness of a game in this work, a serious game that plays at finding stability, in which the artist weighs and balances contrary, warring forces and includes them in the field of the canvas.
“For me [painting] is something of a game”, the artist tells us. And this game is also mathesis. This means that art functions in anthropology, for example, the same way that mathematics is part of natural sciences. This idea is one that helped form the work of Russian Constructivists as well as the work of artists in the De Stijl movement with Theo van Doesburg, the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier’s Esprit nouveau. In the writings we have from Alexandre Rodtchenko, Le Corbusier, Théo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, they clearly set down the idea that it is in the workshop and with free research that the ideas for a house, the city, the human environment in short, come, not only in terms of beauty but from a standpoint of rigorous ethics and spiritual fulfilment.
Furthermore, this also means that a full, complete interpretation of the great works of modernity, and with the writings of the artists themselves as a support, it is possible to render an ethical judgement, based on the works. Grand success was achieved by Kurt Schwitters, Tadeusz Kantor, Sergueï Mikhaïlovitch Eisenstein and Joseph Beuys.
In the case of Bezançon’s work, the game conforms to the strict rules of painting. It obeys painting’s laws and requirements, uses its methods. They are the canvas, the material, the instruments, colour, light, construction and even the ethics of painting – to accept the laws of painting and follow them. The initiation of the painting, its execution, the acceptance of innate laws, known only to the painter – the laws of truth, authenticity, the completed character of the work – it is under these conditions that the work becomes painting.
For example, when Sylvie Bezançon accepts the severe two-dimensionality of painting, despite the instinctive and earthly character that she feels as an artist, the contemplative character of her painting as a function of this two-dimensionality is instantly felt in her work. Her canvases become items to contemplate.
“For me, painting is vital.” There is no more intense declaration of truth than that, what Kandinsky recognised as the expression of the artist’s “inner need”, the guarantee of pictorial truth. These words characterise artists in the midst of a process that is simply beyond them, forced to continue despite themselves, something beyond their will that for some even endangers their own lives. Painting becomes a vital obligation, necessary for their survival. Such words can bring tears to the eye of one who speaks them. I truly believe in what I am making. I have to do it.”
When painting is on this level, of that quality, it can break free and explore; unattached to any moorings, it cannot lie, it is free from any idea of attraction or even aesthetic: “if it were only aesthetic, I would make you a painting to match the curtains.” And indeed, it is no longer about aesthetics but about need, about the vital experience, and the artist may just as well declare “You can read my life through my paintings” as she may say “my painting is a constant self-portrait” or even “a canvas is as if I were writing you a letter”. And yet, the mystery of the work remains. Faced with the things that she herself has made, the artist wonders, for they are as inexplicable to her as they are to those who view the work. There is something inexpressible in the paintings, something that remains opaque for some viewers who are put off by the impossibility of expressing and speaking, but that opens to those who give in to their truth. These objects are part of the unspeakable, the ineffable that the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch talks of – “How many people can understand what I am saying here?” The work is the trace of the ineffable, this incommunicable experience of life, so dear to Sylvie Bezançon and that is the very substance of her painting.
Should some viewers latch on to the system of dates and names and influences, to the little tricks of art history in order to find something to say about her works, they will be sorely mistaken. There are no influences but rather common paths taken by the members of a single pictorial family, through the ages and in different places. There are meetings and confluences of certain artists who have made the same choices, even loving, appreciating and recognising in one another members of the same family, creating groups or sets, in the mathematical sense of the word. Bezançon says of some painters “we are part of the same family”. She discovered with surprise her closeness to Soulages upon seeing one of the painter’s works, created 40 years before any of her own pieces.
And she gives the names of “her” painters, citing in no order Degottex, Soulages, Pincemin, Aki Kuroda, noting that one of the requirements of her own research is sometimes not to go see works that could create an outside influence on her. She must maintain her course, following the rigorous interior rules. That is the truth in which she works.
This experience of truth can also be seen in Sylvie Bezançon’s work in the obligation she has to prepare both physically and mentally, like an athlete gathering her forces before she dives in; then it becomes possible for her to give her all, generously, within the limits of the field where the action takes place, the field of the painting.
She must gather all her forces to cross the threshold into painting and bring out a work. She is not painting simply to paint; again, painting is a serious act. She does not paint every day, but “constantly in my head, then I know when I’ve found something and I go ahead”.
Everything is ready in the workshop. The work that will be created is already present as an intention. It has already been made to resist sleep, night, the unconscious, dreams; has withstood the test of the irrational and thereby shown that it will hold up, that it remains, imposes itself on the spirit of the artist, across nights and days, that it has proven itself; the future work is severely judged. If it endures, if it can withstand the harshness of these trials and of time, only then does it have the right to be given material form by the painter, and the painter has the right to receive it.
The shape remains dormant within her, until it matures and is strong enough to emerge, fully armed after that long interior preparation, that rumination.
“That’s exactly the word”, admits the painter, adding that indeed, no matter where she is, before the work comes into being, whether she is out of the workshop, at the cinema, the theatre or a concert, she “paints within herself”.
This is also the case, somewhat rare, for some painters who carry entire canvases within themselves, like Kandinsky, again Kandinsky who we see in a short film painting one of his large compositions in one go, entirely reconstituting it directly on the canvas down to the smallest detail. We see clearly here that in this process of maturation, it is not a mental canvas, not purely a projection of the mind or simply a lowly, repressed thought “spewed out onto the canvas”. The genesis of the work required entire, complementary capacities to be brought to bear – mind, heart, will. The canvas is the material projection of the painter’s capacities united.
Chinese painters recognise this process as that of the heart-spirit emptying itself, opening itself completely, gathering things to itself until it is full and overflowing. For the Chinese, the Xin, or heart-spirit plays an essential role. The character that is used to represent it originally represented the human heart. It is the seat of feeling and the inner life of the soul. When the heart is empty, it leaves the body and goes to gambol about at the beginning of things, making it the source of creation.
We know the story of Zhuang Zi: “Prince Yuan, of Song had ordered a map to be drawn and a great number of scribes came to do his bidding. After paying homage to him, they all busied themselves sucking on their brushes and preparing their ink. One scribe however arrived later. Not perturbed, he paid his respects and withdrew. The prince sent someone to see what this scribe was doing and was told that he had simply undressed and was sitting there doing nothing. Upon hearing that, the prince cried “he’s the one I want; he knows what he is about!”.
And indeed this scribe went to the essential, the total purity of a heart that contains nothing, not a single thing, making itself vast and empty. As soon as the heart is in this state, “without the shadow of a grain of dust” the landscape will well up from the most intimate depths of the soul because the painter is in direct contact in her inner, intimate depths with original union.
For Bezançon, this interiority, something she seems to reject (“I have no spirituality. It’s just vital instinct”) is nonetheless present in some sense; “there certainly is something more that guides me – I’ve never gone about things from that point of view – but I need to do it, it’s vital.” This overflowing is exactly what gives her painting its value, even its freedom. The painter watches this overflowing, goes with it, giving up her control of it, accepting her own metamorphosis when in communion with the unknown that inhabits her, and reproducing it, perhaps surprising those who look for the work of art in one spot while it has already moved on.
The painter has a taste for canvas because of its stiffness and resistance. She prefers it to paper or cardboard which have a tendency to take on moisture and warp. This preference for the noble material, the traditional base for modern painting, is also for Sylvie Bezançon a way to remain in the continuum of this particular history and to show the deep respect she has for the pictorial. Painting is for her a direct form of expression, without any transition through drawings, not because she doesn’t like drawing or has never drawn (far from it, she has done her share of classical drawing, pastel and even copying), but because the work of colour, the sensual handling of pigments, powders, oils, siccative and binders with the knife, on the canvas, is important; in her own personal, authentic mode of production she finds a physical, anthropological tie to the material, to the work of bringing into the world an object, directly, not through the process of mental projection that is drawing. Drawing is relegated to the role of a bothersome middleman because it creates a screen to cover the creation. It may be a laboratory or a trial run, but that risks letting the work get bogged down in the attractiveness of the unfinished. Sylvie Bezançon would rather deal directly with the energy of the material.
We can apprehend the regular progression of her work over time, a progression that is a search, from the original square that is still partially giving in to the security of the mental and the construct, towards a vibrant echo of the interior explored through the material. It is as if we are drawing ever closer to a hidden spring. The canvases become ever freer and truer, launched into the world, entire and definitive, with a character that is sometimes too abrupt or disturbing, with no concessions to aesthetics nor to the viewer’s expectations, now murmured by a thousand voices.
The painter’s approach to the canvas is quite original. She does not turn towards it or face it vertically; she leans over it laid flat on a table, as if tucking it in, leaning over it almost maternally. An upright figure leaning respectfully over the thing that is to come into being, making the painting come, waiting for it to show itself.
The movement and the motion are primordial – Sylvie Bezançon says she works instinctively. This instinct is in tune with reason and with the heart, accompanied by the will, the determination and the concentration necessary to keep a firm hold on the painting.
She jumps into it bravely, even boldly, she “goes to it” as she says, to the end of it, with a single and clarified energy. For a painting that is already imagined in its entirety will suffer no approximations. It cannot be accomplished by those who continuously touch up a canvas, nor by those who see multiple forms in their mind’s eye, who hold onto trials, failures, impasses, wrong turns and dead ends. The field of action must be completely cleared. Sometimes it happens that she makes a mistake; then mercilessly, she destroys it, returns and begins again, as recommended by the Dadaist Hans Richter, another artist for whom a work appeared complete and entire in his mind.
We can see that the material is the true source of freedom in her painting, the place for lyricism and her savoir-faire.
Does this come to her from her previous training in pottery? Sylvie Bezançon remembers the packets of grey powder containing what would become colour after the trial of fire. This working “blind” that is part of pottery is an important point for her, a memory that reappears in her pictorial work. The movement of the material itself is a fact that she works with, a freedom that she accepts, as the potter accepts the accidents of firing, the Zen painter the freedom of the ink filled brush as it splays to show the flying white (fei bai) where energy whirls.
And in the same respect, for the material, for the canvas, for colour, for a quick, sure, energetic gesture (the artist loves that which is full and whole), she uses the knife so as to leave no trace, leaving the material free to act. She uses the knife with the utmost precision. It is her favourite instrument, the one her painter grandfather taught her to use early on.
An inner tension is always present within the material – polarisation and contrast in the material create the intensity of the painting. Sometimes, she uses a solid background (“if I don’t want it involved in what I am going to create afterwards”), sometimes she works on the background. There are contrasts between matte and shiny, rough and smooth, work on dry or wet paint, oil applied liberally with the knife and cut, the material thick or as light as a veil. The result is a material both soft and crackling, like something sweet and salty. The use of sand and mortar in the hieratic canvases from October 2001 in the Stèles series gives a precious, silvery or gold metallic look.
In the Stèles series, dark and severe in an exploration of solitude, the material searches gravely, alone, solemn before coming to an unexpected discovery in an overarching black with only the mineral sparkles of sand – the certainty of attaining beauty, the comforting truth of the material. A similar thing is to be found in the Traces series where the material seems to dreamily question its own limitations.
The form is clearly mastered, the material carefully selected, yet the material retains some of its own freedom to act after the painter has made her choices. It is free to move, to transform itself at night, to create a surprise the next morning, be it shrinking, running, the appearance of a colour or material… a surprise that can be denied or openly accepted.
It happens then that the painting finishes itself, through the action of the material, not because the painter has abandoned it but because the painting has the right to declare itself finished just as the painter can decide that the act of painting is finished; in both cases, whether the decision is the artist’s or comes from outside, the balance is there, the canvas is finished, there is nothing to add, an internal law that cannot be questioned.
The painter disappears behind what is made; there is always, paradoxically in the fullness of her mastery, a moment of letting go, here to the material itself, there to the shape, in a moment of breath, of release. The painter and the work are free, even if it means that the painter will approach the next canvas with even more determination.
While the progression within the work is consistent, there are breaks, returns, ruptures and shatters due to this inner need that governs the artist’s acts.
She mixes her colours herself, blends them, “whips up” her powders. The colours she chooses are voluntarily limited to a particular range, beige, grey, brown, earth-tones of course, Sienna, “rotten stone” tripoli, shadows, sometimes lapis lazuli framed by the magnificence of black or white. The limitation is voluntary, economising means, so that it is possible to vary and subtly change the tones. Her love of black and white has to do with their immanent character, the ability to contain and call up all other colours. The blacks on her canvases appear very diverse. Some of them are luminous. The sharp eye of the painter perceives the most subtle changes due sometimes merely to their matte or shiny quality. While she prefers matte, the artist enjoys playing with the contrast between the two. Similarly, she obtains dull, opaque, coloured or transparent whites. Sometimes it takes 20 layers to get just the right white. Some paintings are a sort of hapax, in which a colour, red, yellow, blue, bursts forth, filling the entire canvas with an expansive strength, like the entirely blue canvas that the artist painted while thinking of her daughter.
The ground is dried because several paintings are created at once. One material then another material are applied, a minimum of five layers, and in the fresh paint there are scratches or pencil lines. Sometimes, a thin pigment or binder is laid over it all like a veil.
However, generally for this painter, less is more, and it’s best not to overdo it. The canvas is finely worked, piled up pictorial layers is enough to create the colour. “Since I use several pigments, there will always be colour. There is a transparent side, material, colour. I never know what surprise the next day will bring, whether it will be finished or not.”
“Imitations of reality have never interested me. For me, that is not creating.” Bezançon is resolutely, entirely, naturally abstract, convinced by that abstraction which she understands so well. Creation remains the invention of realms parallel to reality, to the ordinary world. Bezançon shows that artistic creation takes stock of the anthropological possibilities; in human behaviour it plays the prospective role of mathematics and is a veritable mathesis.
So it is that painting and mathematics can be reconciled, in the most serious game that exists.