Los Angeles

David French

New Strategies

David French’s paintings are steeped in the antitenets of post-Structural theory, specifically the deconstructive strategy of différance. Unlike those artists who slavishly reduce painting to a series of rhetorical simulacra, French demonstrates a much more playful intellect, owing more to Jacques Derrida’s linguistically slippery and semantically absurdest approach to philosophy than to the preordained dogma of post-Modernist gurus such as Jean Baudrillard. As a result, French’s witty image/text combinations attempt to mystify as much as clarify, fictionalize as well as rationalize. By deliberately eschewing the combination of allegorical posturing and art-historical pastiche that characterizes most self-reflexive painting, French is able to focus instead on the more hedonistic aspects of the hermeneutic game.

French’s latest works are concerned with various myths of creation. These range from the purely esthetic (originality itself) and sociological (reification through the aegis of the museum, gallery, or art critic), to procreative and mechanical reproduction. However, French complicates matters by dislocating all distinctions between signifier and signified, between the autonomous artwork and the critical theory that seemingly reinforces it. Indeed, at times, French’s entire output appears to be a visual form of art criticism, whereby each painting simultaneously justifies and deconstructs itself. Through wordplay and visual puns, French explodes conventional textual codes and transforms his “creative” metaphors into free-floating paeans to pure painterly style. In these works, as newly liberated textual strategies variously contradict, reinforce, and colonize each other, we become more aware of painting’s endless lexicon of tricks than any precise notion of “meaning” per se.

A typical example is a series of paintings of babies, each rendered in a different style so that the pictorial metaphor for creation is inevitably at the mercy of the language system used to express it. A Resurfacing of Being, 1987, with its green-tinged depiction of a hospital birth, resembles one of those highly processed Ektachrome shots often found in news magazines. The moment of birth is captured through the rhetoric of realist painting, revised through the language of photojournalism, and then repainted/reevaluated as a critical commentary on representation as received information. Similarly, Missing from MoMA, 1987, exploits the high art historicism of Rembrandt and Velàzquez to recontextualize a simple sign (a newborn baby) as a mythologized and presumably mislaid museum artifact.

The conceptual resonance of French’s works lies in this deliberate ambiguity of just where esthetic mythmaking begins and ends. In Pipe 6/6 (Hebrew-English Edition), 1987, for example, René Magritte’s La Trahison des images (Ceti n’est pas une pipe) (The betrayal of images [This is not a pipe], ca. 1928–29) is recreated against a background of a Hebrew text and relabeled “It’s all right to call this a pipe.” Is this a wry reworking of Magritte as just one more arbitrary text among an infinite number of other possibilities, or a hidden allusion to Mike Bidlo’s recent appropriation, (Not) Magritte, 1984? Alternatively, the work could be a deconstruction of Michel Foucault’s famous 1973 essay on Magritte’s original painting, or a simple blurring of distinctions between object and image, painting and criticism, appropriation and reappropriation. By reducing everything to oblique language systems that slip and slide against each other, French seems to be saying that all interpretation is equally valid and erroneous.

Because he so obviously delights in rhetorical manipulation, French ultimately comes across as a visual sophist, a Protagoras of representational painting. In his work, hermeneutics has little to do with its traditional role as a search for origins and truth, instead existing solely for intellectual and sensual pleasure. Here, language is shamelessly manipulated to form an endless interplay of revealed and concealed signs, and the audience, ridden of its anxieties, participates in the game, smiling benignly.

Colin Gardner