New York


Jamison/Thomas Gallery

Flèchemuller, who enjoyed success in his native France during the ’70s and became known in New York by the mid ’80s for his quirky, childlike primitivism, has moved from painting images of objects to painting on objects themselves. Throughout his exploration of apparently “straight” painting, Flèchemuller thematic restlessness and emphasis on surface tactility were harbingers of a dissatisfaction with the limits of genre. This show marks an exciting new direction for the artist: the extension of his familiar painterly brushwork and scrawled hieroglyphs onto found objects and scrap assemblages. He has covered each construction with handwritten chess moves. There is an obsessive quality to this manner of marking that signifies ownership—even worship—of the objects covered, imbuing them with an intensity that evokes a child’s “transitional object” or a religious relic.

Several works consist of thrift-store objects, unaltered except for an allover covering of chess symbols that heightens their enigmatic quality. OÏCHI (all works 1991) is a freestanding African sculpture on which the painted numbers and letters suggest ritual scarification. PRATTSVILLE incorporates an antique-looking photograph of a baby, to which the artist has added the caption: “died at Prattsville N.Y., at 21” in cut-out newsprint letters. The grafting of the ubiquitous chess moves onto this captioned photograph creates an aura around a presumably empty artifact. Other works involve discarded containers that have been resuscitated as wall-mounted tabernacles. TRÊVE A LA PERFIDIE (Truce with perfidy) consists of a small wooden grocery crate, the hinged doors of which open to reveal a triptych of chess sequences, suggesting ancient scripture.

The majority of works in this show are mixed-media constructions, quirkily appealing Rosetta Stones of the junkyard and flea market. Flèchemuller’s penchant for ritualistic doubling is evident in VISIBLE INVISIBLE, a work in which a pair of soapstone slabs, suspended in a three-sided drawer, are marked with chess symbols as well as with the text of the title. Less enigmatic is A REUNION, in which a progression of chess moves is interspersed with alphabetized lists of names. Although the chess formulas take on a different valence in each work—historical, religious, informational—they are nevertheless communications in a self-contained language that unifies all it inscribes.

Although Flèchemuller employs found material, his approach differs from that of ’80s appropriationists in that he nourishes his objects with layers of meaning instead of emptying them out. Far from intrinsic to each object, meaning is revealed instead to be a function of interactive object relations. Flèchemuller has acted out an elaborate, narcissistic ritual to reveal the pathology inherent in ownership. Although this project implicates commodity capitalism (especially art collecting), such a critique is but a by-product of his practice, achieved without irony or even intention. Flèchemuller’s efforts are refreshing for their unfashionable sincerity, reflected in a written characterization of the act of appropriation that accompanies the show: “I just lay my hand on something and I say, ‘You belong to me!’”

Jenifer P. Borum