Bertrand Lavier

Locus Solus

In times like these, when anything goes, it’s conceivable that one might see, for example, a painted-over piano that could still be played as it had been before it was painted. A certain type of intervention might transform an object into a work of art, but allow it to retain its original use; not only its new appearance but also its functions, which had been considered absolutely normal before its “treatment,” would now seem exceptional, and would acquire new connotations. Bertrand Lavier’s work exists among similar interstices in communicational codes, playing with the elements of those codes and their roles. Unlike most avant-garde artists, however, his intention is not to establish a new code, or to undermine contiguous ones; nor is he attempting to stake out an undiscovered area of play. He simply likes the game itself.

Good taste and lightness are the positive qualities that characterize Lavier as an artist; he has the skill of a high-class jeweler. At a time of heavy painting and weighty objects, his painted objects, while decidedly and concretely heavy—and, moreover, perfectly recognizable despite their made-up quality—are anchored in the realm of ideas rather than things. But where the primacy of the idea characterized conceptual art, it seems more appropriate to look for. Lavier’s focus in the discourse, or, better, in discursiveness—the typically French discursiveness of this half of our century, as best seen in the work of Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-François Lyotard. In his conclusion to Mythologies, written in 1957, Barthes remarked, “It almost seems that for a certain time one is condemned to speak excessively of the real. . . . ” Lavier speaks to us (albeit through the concrete presence of objects) about a reality already existent in the imagination, a reality of painting and of art, of possible games and the rules for playing them. It is always clear that he plays to play, not to win.

All this was apparent in Lavier’s recent show. The side panel of a car, a Giulia, decontextualized and painted, is transformed into a polychrome frieze—the Lion Gate at Mycenae interpreted by Steven Spielberg, perhaps, or a bricolage entrance to a gas station. Peinture blanche (White painting, 1984) consists of a white-painted fragment of a fluted white column: is the reference the Parthenon? Giulio Paolini? Post-Modern architecture? The piece sets up a dialogue with the homologously titled Peinture noire (Black painting, 1984), three black-painted steel I-beams—British Railways? Anthony Caro? The residue of some sort of explosion? In a votive chapel (actually a tiny room of the gallery) a book on French painting lay on a pedestal; the entire object was covered in a thick impasto, like a sponge cake with mascarpone icing—hints of Van Gogh or, more recently, of Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, or Neil Jenney. Irony as dessert, self-irony as bitters. Apparently unlisted on the menu, but to me the main course, was a photographic blow-up of an image in a ’40s Walt Disney cartoon, a painting in Goofy’s house. This latter presence further distanced Lavier’s work from material objecthood, placing it in the changeable skies of discursiveness: even the anecdote can be a structural element of discourse. Once again we are dealing with a game, one that we have all played, continue to play, and (when it is our turn) too often take too seriously; even more often, when we are merely spectators, we fail to think about it at all.

Pier Luigi Tazzi

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.