Alain Séchas

Had I walked into the wrong gallery? Or the right gallery, but in the wrong month? Or somehow misread the gallery guide? I’d been expecting to see an exhibition of Alain Séchas, but this did not look like the work of an artist who has been plausibly called—by critic Jeff Rian—a “grandchild of Freud and Disney, child of modernism and Pop art, a first-generation TV baby, artistic cousin of Mike Kelley and Charles Ray, and one of France’s best artists.” Where, for instance, were the cartoony sculptures, often of cutely anthropomorphic felines—the artist’s name being a homonym for ses chats, “his cats”—for which he is best known?

What I’d walked into instead was an exhibition of abstract painting: ten works of vigorous gesturalism in the Abstract Expressionist tradition, all painted in acrylic on paper mounted on canvas. They are small-gesture paintings, not big-gesture ones; a real Abstract Expressionist might have found them too fussy (and I sometimes think so too). They are nimble, high-spirited, a bit rococo, painted with considerable indirection as if by an artist delighted with the tricks he can play on himself—good paintings, complicated paintings, with a genuine feeling for color and for the endless ways that paint can land on canvas, though not necessarily good in the way I’d expect in a gallery that shows artists like Claire Fontaine, Wade Guyton, Fabrice Gygi, Reena Spaulings—or Séchas. But a look at the checklist confirmed that I was in the right place and that the works were Séchas’s. Immediately I felt the need to look at them differently—with a different kind of semiotic distrust—than if they had been by an artist whom I knew to be a proponent of this type of painting, or even one unknown to me. Was this some ingeniously strategic ironic take on abstraction, not unlike the paintings Rodney Graham produced under the assumed identity he portrays in his photographic self-portrait The Gifted Amateur, Nov 10th, 1962, 2007? Should it have been glaringly obvious to me that, for instance, this is abstract painting as a cartoon cat would see it?

I guess I’ll never know how a cat sees a painting, because the more time I spent trying to puzzle these out, the less I thought they needed any conceptual alibi. Undoubtedly, they have their more or less unarticulated rules or syntaxes, but they demand no other raison d’être than simply the desire to come to grips with color, movement, the matter of paint. This game has been played before, but Séchas plays it with verve, reflection, and wit, even as he knows it to be a sort of self-indulgence. And it’s precisely through this sense of indulgence that the paintings link up, however tenuously, with his earlier work. More than before, in fact, these paintings seem to register the possibility that—as Theodor W. Adorno once put it—“irresponsible play seeks to overcome the ruinous seriousness of whatever one happens to be.” Yes, now I think I understand: Wouldn’t it have taken a terrible seriousness for a man in his fifties to keep on playing anyone’s grandchild, even Freud’s and Disney’s, or to stay merely the child of his very own Pop? What makes these paintings fresh just might be that they are not the work of de Kooning’s grandchild, or Bram van Velde’s, or of any other painter who might momentarily come to mind—it might instead be how little anxiety of influence they evince, how insouciant they are toward their own lineage.

Barry Schwabsky