Bernard Frize

Galerie Crousel-Robelin/Bama

Unique in the landscape of French art of the past two decades, the work of Bernard Frize is difficult to define, often giving rise to misinterpretations, primarily because the artist does not work in a trademark style. Showing little concern for a coherent visual order, Frize is in the habit of employing new methods of painting, reflective of his methodical flirtation with chance. He demonstrates a pronounced predilection for aporias and for stretching logic to the point of absurdity.

This group of recent works thus depends, at least in part, on a premeditated abandonment to the physical properties of the pictorial medium. The large, decorative cartouche, entitled Pacifique (Pacific, 1991), a sort of Matissian hymn to intemperance, was done in one sitting, with the help of a jar of paintbrushes—eight or ten at least—each loaded with a different color, on a still-wet white ground, causing a dispersion of tints in pale and irregular puddles. From the same year, the two paintings, both entitled Oreiller (Pillow, 1991), also resort to using a wet medium, this time coupled with an acrylic emulsion that the painter, revealing the canvas, allows to spread around a central white zone, the iridescent droplets and smears taking on an oddly photographic aspect in some spots. Margarita, 1991–92, shows up the paint’s liquidity in yet another way: it consists of a candy-pink monochrome, that was dried hanging surface-side-down, so that stalactites now point toward the viewer.

But it is with his Suite C and Suite NF, both from 1991, consisting respectively of twelve and six small paintings, all of identical dimensions, that Frize most radically evinces his interest in chance, and in non-man-made images. Frize empties out the contents of jars of different-colored paints into vats of the same size as the paintings: in time, a mottled skin forms on the surface of the mixture, sufficiently resistant to be cut, like a scalp, and placed on the canvas. The paint works alone here, under the detached gaze of the artist.

The show ended in the gallery’s downstairs room where Frize presented an older work composed of four large, almost square paintings, entitled Quatre causes accidentelles et d’autres naturelles (Four accidental causes and some natural ones, 1985), that allows us to grasp the artist’s thinking in all its idiosyncrasy. This piece has its origin in the divinatory arts, which it both simulates and parodies. Thus, quite logically, the principal medium is coffee grounds, strewn randomly on the surface of four canvases, within the limits of a three-part red and yellow frame. Like Leonardo inspecting stains on old walls, Frize takes part in a search for images: armed with white paint, he either affirms or weakens each figure discovered in the coffee grounds—that is, he has either completed it (adding, for example, a line in the form of a tusk to emphasize the “sketch” of the profile of an elephant), or else he deprives it of the characteristic detail that might eventually have allowed us to perceive it ourselves. A most ambivalent intervention, and it doesn’t end there: every white mark placed on one of the paintings has been carried to the same spot on the three others, including incursions into the borders. The work gives the spectator the sense of being faced with a riddle the answer to which is being modified—to the point of being completely transformed, to actually disappearing—as it is being formulated. The evidence of a method, and of the spirit—light, inventive, and ironic—that exists in this method remains.

Jean-Pierre Criqui

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll