Jean-Louis Vila

Musée D’Art Moderne De Céret

Jean-Louis Vila tries neither to shock nor to provoke violent reactions in viewers of his work; it seems more likely that his desire is to pose riddles. And since these riddles are never answered, they create an esthetic suspense that attracts us only to trouble and disconcert us, making our continually hazardous relationship with products of the imagination all the more problematic.

The group of “Mirrors” that Vila assembled for this exhibition are perhaps the works most characteristic of this attitude. The oval canvases, colored an intense black, are all the same size; if these mirrors show no images, do not seem to reflect anything, they nonetheless suggest the face that looks into them. But nothing allows us even to intuit an expression. The “mirrors” completely conceal the traits of those who are supposed to be reflected in them.

The metaphoric relationships established here tirelessly question the foundations of specularity. Painting does not offer mediation on any level; it is not, however, reduced to nonsense, accused of absurdity, or denounced as being in its decline. What this blacking-out of the surface, this abandonment of references to anything other than illusion tends to bring out is that the fascination exercised in painting by absence is parallel to that exercised, in language, by memory.

Jean-Louis Vila has pursued this inquiry in a series of ovoid canvases entitled “Circuses.” They are similar in shape to the “Mirrors,” but are violently colored. The rough wood-and-plaster surfaces seem overcharged, and the rough outlines of the color suggest an overflowing off the edge of the work. Once again the title, and the outlining in a tondo, join a movement of allusions and intersections, thanks to which a rhetoric is developed that is all the more strange in that it stems from the work’s strong resistance to interpretation.

On the whole, Vila’s strategy consists of reducing painting itself to a thought and of making the thoughts implicit in it more tangible. But he is far from confining himself to this functional reversal, which would sacrifice the work to the discourse it engenders. On the contrary, he does not desert the specificity of painting for its historical, ideological, linguistic, or phenomenological implications. In a series of works entitled “Doors” he explores the practice of the fresco. Fragments of fiber-cement bearing marks and other graphic references are arranged around door frames to produce a contradictory effect: on the one hand the exploded, dispersed elements seem to be the remains of a work impossible to reconstruct; on the other, they affirm themselves as a lacunary work which reconstitutes a narrative space.

Vila is among the rare artists today who are forcing themselves to discover new stances toward contemporary abstraction. He achieves this by refusing to lock himself into a die-hard logic, and by resolutely involving himself in the contemplation of the sad condition of painting.

Gerard-Georges Lemaire

Translated from the French by Jamey Gambrell.