Ernest T.

Galerie Gabrielle Maubrie

Many had assumed that the French artist Ernest T. had disappeared as surely as the ’80s, a decade for which he seemed almost an official critical representative. This artist, who has used various aliases to signal multiple ironic, elusive personas, first deployed the lapidary pseudonym “Ernest T.” in an advertisement he placed in Flash Art in December 1983. He later created a series of canvases that he signed with the letter T, repeating it in the form of an abstract motif in primary colors. His purpose, seemingly, was to mark the end of the avant-garde during a time of flourishing commercialism, and with that period over, the artist announced the retirement of Ernest T. from the contemporary scene, making way for groups like Présence Panchounette (which also scuttled its ship in France at the end of the ’80s). Thus, his return has caused a great deal of excitement, especially since it was announced as a “ceremony” with a formal invitation requesting “the pleasure of your company at a reception for the exhibition of French Drawings by Ernest T.” With its letter-sized format, excessively large blue type, and the wacky logos of fake sponsors, such as V.F. (Vanité Francaise) or Z.R.M. (Zone de Risque Maximal [Maximum risk area]), everything clearly suggested an official hoax.

This time around, however, the context is less “fun.” Ernest T.’s unexpected return corresponds to a more political than strictly artistic necessity, though in his case it would be difficult to separate the two. In response to the wave of reactionary attacks on contemporary art in France for more than two years now (from Jean Clair to Jean Baudrillard), Ernest T. has once again taken up arms. The show also has significance in the wider context of France’s identity crisis at a time of mounting xenophobia, racism, and populism. In launching this new offensive, Ernest T. has abandoned the use of the T, deploying instead cartoons taken from calendars—including small, impersonal sketches by a relatively unknown draughtsman named Paul Haraut—that present comical situations in a typically “French” spirit.

The exhibition represented two time periods: in the entrance area, one found a selection of twenty-four drawings dating from 1963, each of which had been enlarged and framed, while in the two rooms of the gallery there were white canvas tarps onto which the “French drawings” had been painstakingly transferred with India ink. Two things stood out about this exhibition. First, the bad jokes in the drawings, untranslatable into English, also elude the French reader to some extent—in fact, it is their strangeness that seems to interest Ernest T., particularly the uncertainty that they cast over what it means “to be French” today. And second, the use of the waterproofed tarps points, with delicious irony, to the construction of a national identity, something that is still in progress. It is also certainly a reference to immigrant workers, a population tolerated for its help building the country but eagerly ejected once the walls are up, out of fear for the integrity of the French spirit, no matter how good-natured that spirit is purported to be. Encouraging viewers to read between the lines of his drawings, Ernest T. extends the field of battle.

Olivier Zahm

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.