Jean Kerbrat

Galerie du Genie

The moral of Jean Kerbrat’s sculpture is that life consists of memory, responsibility, and death. Especially death, which is evoked, if not imposed upon us, by the very material of his most recent pieces: funereal slabs of granite and marble that hang on the walls or lie on the floor as implacable monuments to mortality. On their flat surfaces, laser-engraved in pseudotombstone style, are an assortment of texts—book indexes, front-page news stories, a personal ad, and one stranger-than-fiction but no less authentic letter from the Social Security administration announcing artist Kerbrat’s own demise. But unlike tombstones, these are not, in any sense, monolithic works; elaborated and overelaborated with their texts and textures and incongruous accretions—metal frames, tin boxes, a drinking glass, or a piece of rock—each one is a puzzle, and more often than not, a provocation.

What else to think, for example, of this rust-gray granite page from the index to a French history of the Apaches bearing two columns of names and, smack in the center, an old tin candy box, decorated sampler-style with the motto: “To the house of a friend, the road is never long”? The first clue, as it were, is inside the box: a classic portrait photo of a mother and child from the French provinces, vintage 1890s. And at the base of the pedestal that served to support both subjects (for the length of the exposure) appears a somewhat unexpected caption written in the artist’s hand, “Corentine Kerbrat, train crossing guard, committed to the Mayenne psychiatric hospital by the French government.” On closer inspection, the same hand has also left its traces on the index, where two interlopers, “Kerbrat, Gilbert” and “Kerbrat, Corentine,” are scratched in with all the visual violence of graffiti, as if to say that these names too have the right to enter history. Those may enter history in the company of the Apaches, those noble losers of the Indian Wars who were evicted from their land and transferred to a succession of prisons around the same time that Kerbrat’s unwed grandmother, Corentine, was forced to leave her native Brittany, to become an “internal immigrant” in the Mayenne, and ultimately to finish her days in a psychiatric hospital.

A similar blend of history and personal history runs through the other works as well, with referents that are variously autobiographical, topical, political, philosophical, and ecological; for example, C H Q, 1990, an ironic commentary on the destruction of nature. One relentlessly recurring theme is terrorism, both individual and state, as evoked by France’s recent encounter with the ultraleft group Action Directe. But there is also a pervasive and profound current of mystical thought, inspired by the Jewish cabala and the writings of Edmond Jabès, which explains, among other things, the focus on names and texts, as well as the frequent visual allusions to the Scroll of the Law.

All of these preoccupations, Kerbrat explains, are long-standing; what is new, and dramatically so, is his medium of expression. For the first two decades of his career, Kerbrat worked exclusively on monumental sculpture (and has done some fifty public commissions throughout France). Only in 1984—at the age of 45—did he decide to return to the studio, not as a retreat from the public arena but, on the contrary, as a means of assuming the urgency of art, the anxious search for forms capable of bridging craft and conviction. Like Jabès and his Book of Questions (which has inspired one of the most awesome works in the show), Kerbrat monumentalizes the uncertainty of life as a counterweight to the certainty of death.

Miriam Rosen