The River Game
These drawings are paintings.
In black or in colour – the artist's colour-blind.
Mostly there are two phases, three movements: small drawings in the sketch books he carries around, making use of them at all times and places; (selection, projection, enlargement); then bigger paintings on paper, which may be framed, hung on their own or accompanied by setups that are almost like sculptures.
The main element in Nicolas Schneider's art is water. It's at least as important as the medium (watercolours) and the backing material (paper – etc.).
The main thing about this water is that it flows, flows out, goes.
Schneider quotes the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who liked to "accompany the stream […] walk along the banks, in the same direction as the current […] which leads life elsewhere…" He also said: "Water always falls […] it always ends up in horizontal death." But here it's as if, finally, the water didn't dry: on the sheet it can make a stain; and stains, far from disfiguring, play their part.
The titles contribute quite a lot to the impression of continuous flow: Good River, Bredele River, Psychotique River – to mention but a few. There are, it's true, other series whose names aren't those of rivers, or lakes, or oceans. But the river thing keeps recurring. There must be a reason for it.
Sketch books (extracts in almost chronological order)
December 2007 – January 2008
• A box – an open packet, its edges in shadow; blackness flows over the floor.
• A reindeer or an elk wearing a bonnet, with its antlers sticking out, grinning.
Late March – April 2009
• A window with a broken frame; a rectangle, open onto nothing. For those who are nostalgic about Painting, a gaping Clyfford Still, a Sam Francis with dark borders.
• Indescribable (let's give it a go): two Siamese radishes. Links between them: their white faces and the frizziness of their tops. Between a face with hollow cheeks and a heart with a plume.
We might propose, posit that everything revolves round rivers. Their banks. The lines of the landscape: flat horizon, a tree, the outline of a building. How the water slips along.
Natural phenomena can accommodate a certain abstraction.
Creatures soon make their appearance. Not completely real beasts – characters that draw on tales, cartoons, illustrations in whose eye or gait there are airs that aren't those of adults. Children, heroes, toys, smiling a droll, sideways smile, reversed, white with fear?
Schneider long ago got interested in the water of real rivers (not that those he paints aren't real): the trace they leave behind, evaporating, on the sheet; that almost imperceptible line. He took photographs, designed sculpture projects. This was no doubt related to his past activity with Jean-Marc Bustamante, and with the experience that's kept on increasing since then, on the terrain of different exhibitions, volumes as well as graphic works, installations… This is one of the reasons why he can take into account how his works will appear, in space. He doesn't balk at large formats, or the idea of his drawings floating in too-large rooms. It's lucky they do. But they also do very well alone, or among works by other people.
Sometimes they're colour fields, or fine, lithe lines, often an apparently accidental material, in keeping with the watercolour canon: blotches, with the pigment concentrated beside the water, making traces and marblings – stitches redolent of patchwork on a Frankenstein body. The line may be awkward, ostensibly: what's being expressed is something other than the perfection of a line.
Among the recent drawing-paintings, on a backdrop of regular inspiration derived from nature, the integration of decor elements into the background of the image created with the character or creature. The latest sketch books to be seen contain something like moving frames; something suggesting water waves, mobile, enclosing the motif, which is equally labile.
In general, it's also a sort of elementary geometry. Criss-crossings represent a partition, a segment of wall. Same logic: to somewhat distort the reality that's being referred to, so that it's no more than a pleasant fantasy, an intrigue.
A canoe slides across the water without disturbing it. A carpet beside a nine-legged table ends up in a string of drops. Is it a heap of strange petals, rabbits' ears? A diver hanging like a swing. And all of it poppy-red.
An almost Indian landscape, a conical mountain, totems or cactus – saffron.
Tiles fall from a roof eaten away by moss. Reliefs replicate clouds.
A lamp post in the middle of nowhere – burnt sienna, or terre d'ombre.
Facile. That's the word that comes up, the feeling that's felt, for anyone who knows a bit about technique, in relation to these drawings, paintings. Not in the sense of it being too much, diminishing its value because it's only that. Facile in the sense of easy, happening without effort, self-evidently. It couldn't be otherwise.
Schneider draws a great deal. He paints a lot; often. There can be no obstacle, no impediment, to his zeal. And this is how, over the years, he's established his method and mode, sinuous and prolific.
Sketch books (continued)
Start, 3 May 2009
• On the left, perhaps, a sort of angel, not really free, but powerful; on the right, smaller, a tombstone close to a dead trunk. There's impact and rhythm: even though it came to nothing, for me everything was already there.
• The original version of the animal has skinny paws. Prehistoric horse rather than chimera. Not graceful – better than that.
Commenced on 11 May 2009, recommenced on 25 July
• In one go, more or less, the curve of a soft mass that's unravelling, illuminated by a hole. Not a jellyfish, but what then? No importance, given the sumptuous grey wash that constitutes its coat.
• It's broken, but the pieces still hold together – or it's a distortion of architecture, a kaleidoscope, and not just that. It's both delicate and strong.
To begin with, the game consists of filling slim sketch books, numerous, some very small, others somewhat less so, dated, some with a place name. The rules can change. Ink, felt tip, pencil, watercolour. Water, already, always. It makes the paper undulate and swell. Allow to dry.
The game then consists of choosing. Chance or luck – it sometimes seems to go without saying, other times not at all. Then digitise, "work with the computer" – some retouches, guided by what… other than an experienced spirit of decision, sure enough. As the artist says, it has to go fast. That's when you see what can be left.
The game consists of projecting enlarged drawings, luminous thanks to the video projector, and, taking the line made with "watercolour crayons" as a starting point, to "inundate" the whole thing. The rain pours down on the sheets. The water wins, invades. Drawings are born out of this intended inundation. Often, beyond the landscapes recalling the original river, animals, bipeds, incomplete bodies, shaky shapes…
Schneider hides nothing of the process, from the sketch books to the stagings chosen for certain series, in certain places. So they can be discussed in formal terms. Between the two formats, media, between the studio, the exhibition space, something decisive happens, of the order of transmutation.
But for those who discover the large drawing-paintings, exhibited, reproduced, without knowing or possessing any modus operandi: is it absolutely necessary to know the origin of this world? And if the viewers see it as a fiction, if only after filling in the blanks for themselves, as a fiction they make their own, well, why not?
The game continues like this, from the viewers' side, if they wish. And they do. It may be a question of discovering forms, getting used to motifs, without wanting to know who, or what. The titles give a better idea (though not always). The water shoots back up, an isle to get lost in; each river has its (musical) key. If "All's Well", it's not so clear…
Something like animals come in sometimes; other times, intertwinings. In The Siren Songs, none's seen; the thing is to hear them.
The dimension of play is capital. Without it there would simply be neither drawings nor, above all, paintings. Well, possibly drawings, in the legions of sketch books filled with a sort of impulse, notes, the ability to remember, when it grabs you. But there's nothing laborious about their transposition, eclosion (explosion?). The artist's having fun. And such pleasure, to see things larger, to see the drawing freeing itself, and the painting deploying itself.
What also varies, apart from the primary black, is the colour. The quality of the monochromes presumably has to be related to the painter's eye and affliction – flowery red-pink-orange, or bright, acid yellow, and earth, of winter or spring.
For this or that exhibition, apart from the frames, Schneider designs structures, and in particular the strange, vertical, curlicued furniture in charred wood that he calls "balusters", in which his drawings are set.
An animal with an oversized head opens its nostrils. It seems to be weeping, the paper soaked (from the Lost in Iceland series, 2009). Two black eyes joined up by an unsteady smile, or headphones for astounding sounds (from Psychotique River, 2008)? Of moth-eaten Space Invaders, something nonetheless remains – and too bad for the geometry (ibid.) A shaggy she-bear? Her footprint, head coquettishly tilted (ibid.).
This paradox, among so many contemporary artists: their lack of declared taste for glosses on their work; but still, it's impossible not to observe that it takes its place in a network of references, whether avowed or not. So as not to have to revert to them, we might cite Bruce Nauman, Christopher Wool, Ugo Rondinone, Silvia Bächli.
Going just a little further, there's the Gothic vein that was opened up in France by Victor Hugo, and has more recently been shared by, let's say, Edward Gorey or Tim Burton. Like an American, and cinematic, tropism, which means it's not incongruous to cite Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, after Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter – and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man.
But this risks going too far, and in particular beyond the movement that brings into being drawings and paintings, and remains essential. A spontaneous, instinctive movement, certainly not intellectualised at the time, but subsequently thought out, weighed up – when the drawings extracted from the sketch books get larger. Some become paintings, and, with their colours and dimensions, take on their own identity. Their sense, not necessarily: it's not especially explicit, knowingly. Nothing narrative. The byword, secret, is more like: ambivalent.
Sketch books (end)
Started on 23 July – finished on the 25th
• White rectangle-lozenges on a black background; no, falling sheets, paper for letters of condolence – they glide softly in the night, land on the ground, in a pile, pending…
• A face (the eyes, but no nose or mouth) framed in successive contours. You might say… doubtful. And like the horse with the star on its forehead: it's a death's head, two white holes, the crenellated top. Boo!
Beginning, 8 July – end, 22 July 2009
• Okay, maybe it's something completely different: among the flowers, a return of the enchanted garden, among the fine stems, unfolded corollas… a variation on a theme from Courbet.
How's that, not at all?
The artist has two little boys. He places their beaming faces among the photos of his studio, the work table, himself drawing, the sheets laid out flat, or framed, hanging on the wall, on the floor, anywhere, "for the ambiance". In these places, nothing to fear, though we've known for ages that in stories to be told there have to be dreadful monsters, the kind that hide under your bed, and catch you if you don't run fast enough, if your parents don't arrive just in time to turn on the light. "Come along, darling. There's a Yule log." Who'd believe there's no lurking ogre?
Except that these drawings and paintings aren't "for children". It's just quite disturbing and fascinating to see how the father's imagination draws on his own memories, things seen here and there, but also, as may be supposed, the imagination of those who come after him, close up. Without mawkishness.
Colour, not so tender, acidulous, once he's got going, does everything: a weird rabbit, legs flexed, water pistols. And this is also where the enlarged format of the paintings comes in, imposing the image not just on a grander scale, but on another level.
Schneider lets grating laughter, stifled, wry, resonate in the air. No reason to die of fright. But to shiver, feel a slight uneasiness, and wonder, in reality, what you see.
The atmosphere would be less surprising in America, England, even, in Germany, Central Europe. A gruesome side, caustic or cruel, uncomfortable for the viewer, totally accepted by the author. We're not in the purview of seduction, but in mixed charm: suddenly, everything gets dark, then the cloud passes, though we can't forget, abruptly cold. By the waterside, somewhere in Alsace, an artist scrawls; back home, he lets it rest, then decides what to paint; only then do you discover what's happened; who's going to stay, whose image haunts us.
Looking at certain masks (rather than heads, or faces), nothing to laugh about. Or cry about either. I like the elephant leaning over, giving the impression it's freed itself, having partly destroyed its cage.
The lean animal, paws together, bowed horns, three pairs of eyes. Better than the crocodile with the short snout, a bit hump-backed. How to inspire confidence?
In good weather, everything seems fluid. No longer threatening at all? But it sneers, it slopes off. Death hangs on a thread. It can be seen multiplying (eleven little spoons aren't really so). It's just a laugh, but nothing's calm, and at every moment, if not A Risk of Rain, there's at least an irruption of uncontrollable elements, invited in this respect to participate.
So, a bestiary of crooked limbs, birds capable of singing, not of standing upright, less still flying. Tomfoolery, plunder, a bit like a phantom train in broad daylight. Freaky, even scary: fearsome? The artist doesn't seem the slightest bit tortured, or melancholic. But: when he composes a bouquet, his flowers are cut, black.
Elsewhere there's a pine tree growing straight up on what's not instantly identifiable as a leg stretched out on the ground – a corpse? Autumn crocus colour. Revolvers made of cardboard, and "Bang!" in the kitchen. Mickey Mouse in profile, abashed: what prank has he been up to? A white clown scratches his ear like a cat rubbing its own; with the makeup, it's impossible to tell if he's sad or happy.
A house sways in the void, mauve. A pink staircase endlessly ascends, or descends. Another pine tree rises up above a laughing skull. It must be a birthday, or Wednesday; there's a scuffle going on between elves, a costumed monkey, it snaps – and ends up with a hanging body (chicken for dinner?) Tonight, the landscapes seen on the bank will scroll by, washed-out reminders of strolls, as if solarised, in the depths of winter. A squall among the pines. Wind.
This enigma, to conclude: the artist draws and paints; water's his element. His creatures, animals and characters, in between, the atmosphere of microscenes to be decided, brief encounters, durable sensations… all well and good, the way he traces it and lets the liquid take him over, moves round it in a now-familiar gesture that responds to his volition as much as to his desire for unpredictability.
River, nature, game. But neither blue nor green.
Where does the colour come from?
Translation from French: John Doherty