Jean Degottex

Galerie de France

For Jean Degottex, painting is primarily an ethical rather than an esthetic enterprise, a matter of how a work is made. The work, no matter how autonomous once it is finished, must show traces of its making. Furthermore, the method or action involved must be determined by the “intelligence of the material” being used, as Degottex describes it—although it is not clear whether he intends it in the passive or active sense: the intrinsic intelligence of the material, or the intelligence that is brought out by the care and labor lavished on it. In other words, despite appearances, Degottex’s work is not derived either from any form of expressionism or of minimalism. Even though his gestures are freely chosen, the results, rather than revealing his innermost self, maintain a certain objectivity. However, the works’ reduction to the minimum does not come from any system but from the desire to capture the essence of a stripped-down, concrete materiality.

This approach is exemplified by the paintings in two series, the “Lignes Bois” (Wood grain) and the “Lignes Bois in Collor” (Wood grain in “collor”), all from 1985, which were shown here in the gallery’s street-level space. In making the “Lignes Bois,” Degottex first oxidized the canvas, then covered it with white acrylic. The interaction of the brown oxide and the white paint resulted in an iridescent gray layer in which, while still wet, he inscribed the “lignes bois” of the title. The “wood grain” effect was achieved by incising the painted surface with a series of closely spaced, roughly parallel, irregular lines, using the uneven edge of a long strip of chestnut wood as a guide. The process is almost identical in the “Lignes Bois in Collor,” but the oxide is replaced by long trails of glue (colle); the glue interacts differently with the white paint, thus resulting in a somewhat different “wood grain.”

In the works shown upstairs here, Degottex has gone from the image of the wood grain inscribed in paint to the wood itself. These are sculptures made primarily of discarded fir beams, planks, and moldings, which collectively structure the space around them. The main components of these humble wood constructions were treated with the same white paint and glue as the “Lignes Bois in Collor” and then subjected to various processes. Some, for example, have been cleaved by a wooden wedge, then incised with diagonals or chevrons, as in Cinq Chevrons (Five chevrons, 1986). In others, the work is made by juxtaposing wood in two different states (i.e., natural and painted). Thus, Bois Laurier (Laurel wood, 1987) consists of a wood beam that Degottex had painted white and then incised with parallel diagonal lines (revealing the original wood beneath) and a laurel branch that he had found on the ground after a frost. More pictorial than the paintings, this group of sculptures seduces by its strange synthesis of the concrete and the abstract.

During his long career (he will be 70 years old next year) Degottex has gone from writing to the written line and finally simply to lines. With these “wood grain” paintings and wood sculptures, he has given us works of rare perfection and unsurpassed elegance.

Daniel Soutif

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.