New York

Jean Charles Blais

Leo Castelli Gallery

Jean Charles Blais’ giants hide their small heads in their hands, the swollen hands of peasants or drunks. All these sad creatures’ activity is purely physical; like workers leaving factory shifts, they seem to have no thoughts. Big footed, with overdeveloped muscles and heavy shoes, these grotesque, outsized figures are cumbersome, tired, dumb, and impassive. Filling their scenes with their bodies, they inspire no sympathy.

The shapes of these hybrid characters are halfway between a deformation of comic-strip vocabulary and the graphics of a certain, particularly odious, French advertising. (The billboards of the Paris metro always seem full of strange figures with abnormal heads, overlarge hands, and exaggerated features.) These are the products of a generation that looks lazily out at past and present. From the past, Blais draws on the solid figuration of this century, and on the silences and enchanted spaces of Metaphysical painting; as for the present, he portrays a rather facile, smoothed-out reality. Blais, like other French artists of his generation, is not concerned with struggle. Rather, he is an artist of consensus. He falls tranquilly into the trap of quotation, adjusting his work toward a leveled-off pictorial ism whose only flash of intelligence lies in the emphasis of the grotesque and the massive. Sandro Chia has been swelling up the muscles of his figures in a similar way for years now, but to much more powerful effect.

If Blais would make us believe that in the faces of his figures lurks some secret anxiety, it is not enough for him to hide those faces. Nor is his use of a “different” support sufficient to make us think that he has a new idea. Blais paints not on canvas, but on torn billboard posters; is this a wink at the techniques of the neo-avant-garde of the ’70s, or at Nouveau Réalisme? Surely it is, just as the iconography of these pictures is a wink at the realism of the ’20s. A skillful manipulator of superficial memories, Blais fails to delve deeply into questions of technique, but simply revisits and quotes. He composes not on a flat surface, but on frayed, scratched, uneven paper; the edges are cut in an irregular shape, and the layers of paper swell out to emphasize the rotundity of the painted figures. Are these works a fake fresco, the tears the blisters of humidity? Or do they mean to evoke the painted plaster of a sculptural relief? No, they are simply a sly joining of Mimmo Rotella’s collages and Niki de Saint-Phalle’s plump sculptures—but without even a scrap of the irony of those works, or a glimmer of their iconoclastic power.

Blais does not have sufficient strength to make a story out of his adventure. Ideologically, he has a short memory, and his work lacks substance. Outside the urge for social confrontation and criticism, what values make up the support structure of new image works such as Blais’? The all-too-crowded group of young painters in which he appears offers an extemporaneous affirmation of small myths acted out within private worlds; a body of mystical, nationalistic, petit bourgeois notions which are concerned not with why but with how; and an artifice that seeks to conceal a dearth of content. This is precious little compared to the political and critical motivations of the historical avant-garde, which is quoted to the point of abuse, Blais participates in the disciplined ranks of these young conformists, a small star in a firmament of mediocrity.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.