Jean-Pierre Raynaud

On a square stele of white faience ceramic, a carved skull from Papua, New Guinea, stares out at us with empty eye-sockets. This work is exemplary of Jean-Pierre Raynaud’s work from the past few years. The stele’s whiteness, symbolic of the purity that Raynaud has always sought out, together with the perennial beauty of the carved lines of the skull, manifest a desire for stability, a struggle against ephemerality and death. But this is also a vanitas, a sobering warning, not of life’s seductions (which might be reduced to the allure of estheticism and ornamentation), but of all the forces of destruction that we have devised for our own ruin.

The vanitas is not directed against the sins of the flesh or of opulence. Raynaud’s art discarded such a notion in the ’60s. Disembodied, and seemingly distanced from nature and from passions, his unclassifiable work symbolizes a search for its own truth, as can clearly be seen in his two flowerpots filled with cement, and by his famous house outside of Paris, the interior of which is covered from floor to ceiling with white ceramic tiles. A self-portrait from 1980–86 exhibited here is yet another example: for the body, a tall, simple stele is covered with the familiar white tiles marked with black; for the head, a socle of these same squares has been placed on top, with a slight gap separating it from the central axis.

Now Raynaud has turned to a more exterior reality, disturbing in the extreme: the dangers of chemical and nuclear pollution. Without being anecdotal, and without any fascination for the powers of evil—which other artists might contend with more lightheartedly, ostensibly opposing them while making use of them as devices in their work—Raynaud manages to impose on us his vision of a sick world that is drunk with power. “Are we blind?” is the question that seems to be posed by the relief work Carrelage + Canne blanche (Tiles + white cane, 1990), in which eye-charts are hung over white tiles, behind a blindman’s white cane. The clinical universe of these objects—enclosed between glass and tilework, or in Plexiglas, white lab coats, sterilization jars, the logo of the Red Cross on enameled plaques—is comprised of warning signs. The works most charged with the evocation of danger are certainly the 9 Containers + Ceramic, 1986, white jars of the sort used to contain toxic substances, upon which are glued red labels naming inflammable gases. The message is very clear: the death’s-head signals nuclear danger, and the jars are presented beside the “tri-sector” ribbons that mark off radioactive zones.

At the same time, these works are not dominated by a sense of catastrophe. They seem like a taxonomy of objects that were once parts of our daily life: perfect, plastic, and presented with a cold distance. The use of beautiful, ancient objects, like the Gaulish bronze vase from the second century B.C., juxtaposed with the bronze pot by Raynaud, discreetly counters the perpetuity of spirituality and of the artistic object with the looming terrors of annihilation. Raynaud’s ethical position, however, in a twist characteristic of him, does not altogether abandon sculptural concepts, in which color and composition predominate.

Anne Dagbert

Translated from the French by Dianna C. Stoll.