Luxembourg City

Jacques Charlier

Casino Luxembourg

“The ever-shifting course of an extraordinary artist,” proclaims Jacques Charlier ironically on the cover of a magazine, a parody of Paris Match, which serves as his catalogue on the occasion of the “recap” (the artist doesn’t like the word retrospective) organized at the Casino-Luxembourg. The historical division of the exhibition—the ground floor covering primarily the years 1965–75, the first floor the period from 1975 to the present—corresponds to the generally admitted distinction between two Charliers: a first, “good” Charlier, the conceptualist, agitator, and caricaturist, and then the more embarrassing “bad” Charlier, an academic painter and forger. This exhibition had the courage to confront the cliché and managed to destabilize it.

Of course, the works that emerged from Charlier’s employment by the Engineering Department of the Province of Liège from 1965 to 1975 generally considered his most important body of work—are very convincing. The arrangement of photographs of garbage dumps, desolate landscapes, and roads under construction, taken by his colleague André Bertrand in the context of his professional activity and accompanied by an interview with him, composes a formally respectable conceptual oeuvre. Yet the artist’s status as employee and, moreover, the fact of presenting photographs made by a third party completely outside the art world forces the irruption of the real and of the working world into the purified sphere of conceptual art. Some caricatures from around the same time, showing overburdened workers with rolls of Daniel Buren’s famous striped paper on their shoulders and trade union disputes between André Cadere, cane in hand, and his enraged assistants, prove that this irruption owes nothing to chance. For if Charlier knows, frequents, and belongs to the art world of this period, he nevertheless remains a ferocious observer of it who immediately understands as hypocrisy everything implied by the orthodoxy of dematerialization. By adapting yet maintaining a distance from conceptual form and procedures, Charlier reveals not only their contradiction but also his own—being an artist but also being “just like everyone else”with all that this implies in terms of freedom and alienation.

Starting in the ’80s, after Charlier became an instructor at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts de Liège, enormous figurative paintings, regressive arrangements with sculpted figurines and nineteenth-century frames, fake Cubist and Futurist works, and scenographic arrangements accumulate with a formal aggressiveness that cuts short any possibility of pleasure. This period bears witness not to an artist who lost his footing only to flail about in bad taste, but to one pursuing with bold consistency the same attitude he asserted from the very start. He remains the ferocious and ambiguous observer that he was, but by obliging the art world to confront its most extreme deviations, he becomes undesirable. In contrast to Buren, for example, who sustains a formal signature-effect while profoundly transforming the way it is used, Charlier systematically adapts his formal strategy to the art of the moment. If Charlier allowed himself to send up Conceptual and Minimal art, it was with some respect for the radicality of their operations. Faced with the backward-looking ’80s, the humor becomes irony, indeed sarcasm, and beautiful dematerialization yields to pictorial and baroque bombast. Charlier’s position, however problematic it may be (there is also a certain timidity in refusing to abandon the observer’s position), has the great merit of putting us face to face with the fictions and affectations of the art world in which we inscribe ourselves.

Anne Pontégnie

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.