Thierry de Cordier

Although it was a French poet who brought “spleen” to modern aesthetics, the artists of Belgium have made it their personal property. The Baudelairean rancor against life and its emptiness has manifested itself equally, though differently, in the work of Magritte, Michaux, and Broodthaers, and it may be found in its purest form in the work of Thierry De Cordier. In a text written in the third person and signed, enigmatically, with the initials E.B., one reads that this exhibition—De Cordier’s first at the gallery since 1995—refers to an event that took place in 1988. Invited to participate in a summer exhibition of outdoor works in the Tarn River region in southwest France, he installed a sculpture, L’Attrape souffrance (Pain catcher), 1988, in the medieval village of Puycelsi. Like many of his freestanding works, it appears to have been rather repulsive, made of seemingly unclean materials and redolent of a dark and grotesque humor as well as a sort of disgust with the body. The work mysteriously disappeared on the night of the opening—by secret decision, De Cordier believes, of the local council. With the work shown here, De Cordier hopes to transform “what might be called a misadventure into an artistic, indeed, theological motif.”

The project consists primarily of a series of totemic black or mostly black paintings with inscriptions—as though De Cordier’s art had donned mourning for its lost fellow. This display of grief is theatrical, even melodramatic, and at the same time quite cold and formal. Another painting, this one with a white ground, functions as a sort of handmade sign, launching the other paintings in accusation against the inhabitants of Puycelsi. It speaks of “tableaux ‘noirs’ comme un trou de cul,” which is to say, “black paintings, like where the sun don’t shine.” But one hardly believes De Cordier’s rage. Indeed, since he once said of his works, “They reject everything, and if, by coincidence, they do absorb something, they do not do anything about it. . . . [T]hey ignore it,” one imagines that their rejection in turn must be a sign of a paradoxical efficacy. Thus the paintings’ tombstonelike form can only be taken as ironic: The appearance of mourning as a sardonic form of jubilation. There’s a physical density, an absorptive quality to the paintings that, for all their apparent simplicity, seems to trap the viewer in some dizzying orbit.

De Cordier’s drawings, some of which were also on view here, are different in appearance but close in spirit to the paintings and sculptures. They reveal his essential affinities at a glance: not with, say, Conceptual art but with the Symbolists of the late nineteenth century—with artists like Redon, Rops, and Spilliaert. But De Cordier’s drawings include moments of pure provocation that the Symbolists, even at their most caustic and pessimistic, would hardly have countenanced. One, done on what seems to be a sheet of letter-writing paper, positions the salutation “Chère Maman” in old-fashioned script above the head of a woman whose nose and mouth have been transformed into a spread-open vulva. (Misogyny, too, is part of the Symbolist heritage.) De Cordier’s output seems animated by a flight from the body that leads only to ever-cruder manifestations thereof. Font, 1996–2003, a sculpture that reeks sourly of dried-up red wine, is probably the clearest manifestation of this: spirit transubstantiated into stinking matter.

Barry Schwabsky