Guillaume Bresson, Sans titre, 2010–12, oil on canvas, 67 x 88 1/2".

Guillaume Bresson, Sans titre, 2010–12, oil on canvas, 67 x 88 1/2".

Guillaume Bresson

Galerie Nathalie Obadia | Rue du Cloître St. Merri

Guillaume Bresson, Sans titre, 2010–12, oil on canvas, 67 x 88 1/2".

I probably shouldn’t like Guillaume Bresson’s work; it’s really not my thing. And what kind of thing is that, that’s not mine? Well, it’s something like what certain Italian critics of the 1980s promoted under labels like ipermanierismo, anacronismo, or pittura colta: a way of painting that depends on using stylistic codes taken from the art of the Renaissance, Mannerism, and above all the Baroque and somehow updating them. Not that it’s absolutely impossible to make good painting today while channeling styles of past centuries—I loved John Currin’s neo-Cranach phase, and would still go out of my way to see the work of Carlo Maria Mariani, the brightest light of ipermanierismo—but those efforts largely amounted to a tedious academic hash. Besides, most of the hypermannerists painted so badly—without energy, without tenderness, without apparent pleasure in their materials.

There already, Bresson has an edge. He paints with contagious gusto, as evidenced in this recent exhibition of seven paintings (including three diptychs) and a couple of drawings. Even in paintings that can’t exactly be deemed successful, you’re rooting for him; it’s always clear that this is a painter worth watching. Consider the grisaille Sans titre (Diptique), 2010–12. Really, the conception of it is absurd: A windowless, circular concrete water tower is being demolished by a Hitachi crane, while around it, various robed witnesses are vehemently gesturing or tumbling over one another in awe, as if this were the Assumption of the Virgin. Bresson’s cultivation of self-evident anachronism, and of a disproportion between the mundane and the melodramatic, seems to let the viewer off the hook by placing the work’s contemporary content at an even greater distance, if that is possible, than the historicist fantasia he’s woven around it. And yet there are still wonderful things in this painting: the middle-aged woman with the bun in her hair in the right foreground, for instance. Not only does the anachronism applied to her costuming somehow work—the Speedo tank top, bathrobe, and Guido Reni–esque drapery combine in a way that’s both funny and casually glamorous—but the play of light across her head, shoulders, and clothing is so fine that you can forget, for a moment, her place in the concocted allegory of which she is a part.

When Bresson downplays rather than highlights his taste for art-historical mash-ups, the paintings can be wonderful. I’m thinking, above all, of another Sans titre, also from 2010–12, painted not in grisaille but with a shadowy, close-valued palette that gives the painting depth without sacrificing clarity. It shows three men in tracksuits sitting in the woods, engaged in what looks like serious talk. One of them perches on the hood of a car, and you wonder how it got there; another on a piece of log, which makes more sense. The whole thing is so cannily composed that it might take you a while to notice that the man in the middle seems to be sitting on nothing. The surreality of the situation succeeds in lending a vividly eerie atmosphere to an otherwise convincingly mundane scene. And if the hand gestures on these guys might be those of the disciples at some Supper at Emmaus, they’re also nothing that would strike you as out of place among any three buddies working something out on the stoop down the street. Here, Bresson succeeds in defamiliarizing the everyday in order to give it an emblematic power that remains powerfully inscrutable.

Barry Schwabsky