Jephan de Villiers

Galerie Caroline Corre

Jephan de Villiers’ antidote to the end of history is the continuity of nature. Working with the random findings of the forest—branches, twigs, bark, leaves, feathers, dirt—he creates a private world of figures and forms that hovers between memory and premonition. His tiny tree-creatures consist of no more (and no less) than masklike faces perched on limbless bodies of scrap wood or bark; garbed in dried leaves and/or winged with a pair of feathers, they cluster together in wall reliefs and shallow boxes, in mysterious coffers, and in an enormous processional entitled Mille et trois souffles d’écorce, ou La dernière Pet en marche (1003 souls of bark, or the last forest on the move, 1989–91). Egg-shaped “memory fragments” of molded newspaper, carefully sealed and bound with string, are similarly shelved or boxed, or casually piled up in a corner of the gallery as Les Mémoires tranquilles (210 fragments de mémoire) (Tranquil memories [210 memory fragments], 1989). Some of them are incorporated into larger tree figures; others seemingly anchor the bases of the delicately curving fragments of wood that de Villiers calls “wind poles” (batons du vent). And everywhere there are traces of writing: a nervous (pseudo) script that patterns the whitewashed surface of the “memory fragments,” runs over the empty sides of the various containers, curves around the “wind poles,” and also serves as an elegant (but no less pseudo) calligraphy in black and crimson on large sheets of vellum.

It would be hard to miss the ecological import of de Villiers’ “last forest,” but there is much more to it than that. As the French-born sculptor points out, he has been making common cause with nature since he settled in Brussels more than 15 years ago. Where do the forms come from? “A whole existence, a whole life,” he says: memories from childhood (illness, solitude, artistic pastimes, the trees outside his bedroom window), models and mentors (Alberto Giacometti, Ossip Zadkine, Henry Moore, Germaine Richier, Constantin Brancusi), ten years in London, the subsequent move to Brussels, cosmology, numerology, the “parallel memories” of the face and the forest.

In transforming this personal archaeology into art, de Villiers has developed a visual idiom as spare and understated as it is suggestive. His found materials are not Marcel Duchamp’s found objects; they are not catapulted from nature into culture, but subtly reworked into a state of permanent suspension between the two. His esthetic is one of meticulous accumulation—of shapes and volumes, tones and textures, and ultimately meanings as well. The memory fragments, for example, could be secret relics (according to de Villiers, each one contains a found object from the forest), human brains, models of the world, or even the pods of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956. With their egglike shapes, they point toward the future as much as the past, and the mysterious writing that covers their surface never completely blocks out the newsprint they are made of. The figures, likewise, have all the power of archetypes, and, at the same time, the intimacy of anecdote: Mille et trois souffles d’écorce, ou La derniere fôret en marche echoes an archaic Greek funeral procession and every exodus in history, Yugoslavia included.

Ironically, the power of these works comes from their fragility. Not simply because of the materials that are used—these fragments of nature in decomposition—but, once again because of the way they are accumulated. Nothing is really freestanding, physically or otherwise: not the “memory fragments” in their piles and their coffers, not the “wind poles” that rise from metal stands, not the winged “angels” that are hung on the walls, and surely not the masses of forest “souls” that are propped one against the other, with the anguish of their condition—literally suspended between nature and culture—stamped on their tiny faces. And it is precisely the precariousness, the look and feel of anguish, that gives these works their immediacy: these are not the noble relics of a distant civilization that we have long destroyed, but the frail witnesses of the battle we are still waging, against nature and ourselves.

Miriam Rosen