PRINT October 1985


BERTRAND LAVIER'S WORK IS MARKED by a search for a mixed state in which art becomes both painting and everyday object. While the separate identity and autonomy of each category are maintained and reinforced, they are also amended by the reciprocal dynamic that Lavier establishes between the two modes. All this French artist’s “sculptures” stem from an osmosis between the object as solid and color as fluid. Often, a uniform, loosely brushed thickness of clear or colored paint covers the skin of the object, whether a piano, a mirror, a refrigerator, a window, or a camera, transforming it into a soft, flowing form susceptible to the explorations of touch and both visual and physical pleasure. Subjected to this greasy, slippery, sensuous process the object becomes pliant and elusive, half solid, half liquid, sumptuous and voluptuous, nearly disappearing under the elastic coating.

Lavier is interested in precisely this “elasticity” of painting—its slow liquefaction, its softening of reality His work engages not only expressionist painting but also the Duchampian transposition of everyday objects into art, and his intention is to work at the edges of both. Introducing the object into the viscera of painting, he negates neither one; at the moment of greatest tension between the two poles he seeks to lose the object in color, as if to establish a soft, pleasant dislocation as a symmetrical balance to his work’s conceptual elements. Lavier shrewdly ensures that the viewer’s glance over his objects perceives not weight and encumbrance but only surface. Whereas Duchamp’s stance was distant and detached, checking the expressiveness of painting in favor of its intellectual potential, Lavier desires a deeper hold, a more voluptuously immediate relationship with the work, and to this end he seeks an epidermal contact that can convey sensory messages through the impregnation of a thing with “light,” that is, with color.

Light, whether applied through chromatic pigment or otherwise, both congeals and enlivens Lavier’s objects; it places them in pictorial perspective. They are seen as impregnated from without, whether painted and covered with color (a framed painting in Peinture No. 2, a desk in Stafor, both 1983); painted and incorporating artificial light (the wall and light brackets in Peinture Light, 1983); separated from their context by their color and by a frame (the section of wallpaper pattern in Brasilia, 1983); or finally just displayed (the safe and refrigerator in Brandt/Fichet-Bauche, 1985) or cut from a series of images (the fragments of cartoons in Walt Disney Productions 1947–1984, 1984). Thickening and mutating the object, light effects a passage from the anonymous to the personal—a passage based not on cold Duchampian crystallization but on the sensuous visual coagulation of pictorial illumination. To cast color or light upon an object means, in fact, to become intimate with it, to slow its passage through the viewer’s gaze and effect a metamorphosis that immobilizes it and takes it over, making it the center of more intense activity or agitation.

By painting an object, or, put another way, by giving objectlike form to painterly impasto, Lavier establishes an equivocation between reality and painting. He affirms the uncertainty of both, moving along the boundary between them. Which is perceived as more real, the experienced or the represented, the reproduction or the painting? In or not to be, 1978, and Landscape Painting and Beyond No. 1 and No. 2, 1979, the sculptural and pictorial experiences are thrown into question. In or not to be the creation of a bronze copy of a block of acrylic paint, identical except for its color, produces a dance of reflections and reverberations and an external confusion about which is the “real”; in the Landscape Painting and Beyond pieces Lavier introduces a sort of perceptional vertigo at the edges of a painting of a landscape and a painted-over photograph of a landscape, both of which are continued in paint on the wall. Working at the borders, Lavier overturns meanings, as in Slide Painting, 1978, where images oscillate from reflecting to reflected light as a photographic slide of a painting is projected on and off against the painting’s surface. He reverses relationships, making the reproduction material, dematerializing the object/painting. The bridging of the two entities—painting and artifact—reinforces the effect of fusion and confusion. Which is the mirage? Where does the exchange end? Does painting extend reality? Are the two symmetrical? Is some kind of opposite the case?

This identification between painting and object intensifies Lavier’s equalization between painting and reality, setting up a metaphor for material passage from one condition to another. Color becomes thing, thing becomes color. Expressionist painting is regulated as it enters the object cycle of the world. If the object “sinks” into color and emerges transformed, it still maintains its image, which is portrayed in Lavier’s painting. Yet it refuses to delegate its representation totally to painting, for it remains itself, mimicking itself through the outer, material dimension of the added pigment. Lavier’s work establishes a coexistence between reality and representation, assimilating the external world, bringing it into the painting. It establishes a territory, somewhere between Jasper Johns’ and Yves Klein’s, where the object lies both out of view and within it, is painting and place of reflection as well as universal substance. Thus the work is a unifying machine, one that dominates and integrates dispersed artistic “sites.” It causes a unification of truth and verisimilitude within itself, combining them into a single linguistic block which seeks to embody the dream of the unity of painting and painted.

Coloring, illuminating, cutting out, or framing an object is Lavier’s way of “awakening” it, subjecting it to an unfamiliar excitation, to a liberating inward push. Painting and light undulate, radiating sensuality, on the other hand, the substance that covers, limits, defines, and surrounds Lavier’s objects works to contain them and focus them inward. Lavier illuminates the way that painting and sculpture containan element of suffocation and smothering, of imprisonment; they recall those things that lie within, hidden and forbidden, which, when individualized, allow reflection upon their own origin or memory. The surfaces of Lavier’s works; interrogated and touched, reveal depths, as does the skin in the work of Valéry or Proust. They represent the depth that, summoned up, flowers and is expressed.

This is where expressionist painting, in Lavier’s hands, serves to regenerate the flesh of objects, bringing them to life. Brush-strokes appear on the surface as signs of an intense interior force; structures and signs of touch, they recall both 19th-century impasto and minimalist painting, and give a living, palpitating emphasis to the work. The substance that runs inward from the light (whether chromatic or photonic) emanates a power beneath the epidermal surge. With his chromatic or luminous cover Lavier seems to promise a forbidden, magical interior, vital and sweet, distant and dreamed. Color introduces dimension and depth, a sense of something “under” that allows one to hypothesize a different richness, desired but out-of-bounds. It allows one to see the object fully without touching it, so that it preserves an inner secret to be deciphered, something that might be discovered and revealed only through the impassioned interrogation of the surface above. Painting becomes a site of analysis, and each painting (one might say each painted epidermis) a flood of intellectual transparency.

Germano Celant is a contributing editor of Artforum. His most recent book is on the architect Frank Gehry.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.