Christian Jaccard

Galerie Jan Six and Musée Cantini

One of these two exhibits of the work of Christian Jaccard (that in Marseilles) is a retrospective, while the Paris show presents recent work; together they allow an understanding of an artistic method formed around a logic that is highly unusual. Jaccard’s work has developed through a striving for the unrepresentable, the “sublime”; an investigation into the specific properties of abstraction is integral to his thought. This inquiry, which pushes the artist to relentlessly examine the essential elements of his work, is not a cold-blooded dissection of the different forces that combine to constitute painting, however; on the contrary, it is realized and progresses in an impassioned but ambiguous movement.

The “Toiles calcinées” (Charred Canvases), which Jaccard executed between 1975 and 1978, mark the introduction of a technique aimed at obliterating plastic space. Here the artist burns braided wicks inside painted, rolled-up canvases; as the wicks are consumed they cause changes in the chromatic relationships within the canvases, as well as imprinting their own shapes on the surfaces. These wicks are not simply tools of operation; they exist independently of the canvas as ligatures and knots in complex configurations, forming generic groupings whose proliferations obey their own laws. Moreover, whether as pictograms or geometric shapes, they have a graphic role, leaving as they do their precise imprint on the surface of the work, an actual scarring of the pigmented ground.

The “Trophées” (Trophies), from 1977–79, make even more clear the tense relationship between the “make-up” applied to the canvas—the traces of the action of painting—and the “tattooing” that cuts into it and denies it with a distorted, demystifying inscription. During this period Jaccard was using large animal skins, prepared for tanning, as supports; he applied to them the same procedures he had to his canvases. Here the metaphoric game approaches its literal basis. The pictorial act becomes a ritual act, a ceremony whose meaning is the revealing of the fetishistic subtext of art.

The paintings shown in Paris all have the same title: Anonyme calciné (Anonymous Charring). They were created in 1980–81 and draw their material from old canvases of the 17th to 19th centuries covering the conventional thematic range—landscapes, still lifes, portraits, academic works, religious and mythological scenes, and so on. The artist submits them to the same pyrotechnical treatment that the earlier work underwent.

But the trace left by the burning of the wicks is now more explicitly scriptural. These are relatively regular alignments of repeated strokes. The strangeness of these canvases owes to the fact that the images have not been completely erased; fragments surface with surprising vividness, acquiring an unexpected presence and an uncanny, unreal beauty. But Jaccard’s meditations on the subjection of art to abstraction, though iconoclastic by definition, are no final challenge to or defacement of figurative order, but rather a validation of the troubling tension between the conception of representation in question and the necessities of a practice that would explore the content underlying painting. Jaccard reveals the destructive but also deeply reverential function of the painter’s memory.

In his “Manifeste de l’iconoclastie” (Manifesto of Iconoclasm) Jaccard declares: “Refuse to think that there is a dissociation between art and iconoclasm and that they are two separate acts. Affirm that the passing of time, the corrosive erosion of its passage. . . affect the eternal value of all the spaces the artist produces, organizes, destroys . . . ” (in L’Ennemi, published by Christian Bourgois). In his “Anonymes calcinés” Jaccard has formed an apologia for painting which is a study of its practice over time, a laying bare of its interior mechanisms, but also a celebration of its pretexts and paradoxes. The history of the painter, the powerful currents of the painter’s motions, are conveyed and fixed by the image of a fire—surely here a sign of the desire for the sublime which is the alpha and omega of all modern esthetic enterprise.

Gérard-Georges Lemaire

Translated from the French by Jamey Gambrell.