Marc-Antoine Fehr, Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared), 2013, oil on canvas, 9' 1/4“ x 13' 1 1/2”.

Marc-Antoine Fehr, Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared), 2013, oil on canvas, 9' 1/4“ x 13' 1 1/2”.

Marc-Antoine Fehr

Marc-Antoine Fehr, Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared), 2013, oil on canvas, 9' 1/4“ x 13' 1 1/2”.

Two masks flutter toward each other, butterfly-like, in a carnivalesque duet, overlapping as though they might join together to form a single face, only to drift apart again in free fall through an infinitely luminous blue after this brief encounter: This is what we see in Marc-Antoine Fehr’s Le Baiser (The Kiss), 2013. The large-format painting is divided into a grid of seventy-seven rectangles recalling the frames of a filmstrip. The masks sport brightly painted faces, which tumble in many different directions through the work’s neatly demarcated sections, while their interiors, which are a blank white, occasionally slip into shadow. This hybrid of painting and virtual animation is most striking at those moments when our gaze can no longer differentiate between static and dynamic perception. The severely serial, surface-emphasizing grid structure is counterpointed by the buoyant movements of the masks in their light-blue color space.

And space is a crucial element in Fehr’s work. Although his approach appears to have been influenced by realist painting, his dreamlike motifs and, above all, his conception of space are informed by the worlds of film and virtual reality. The figure in Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared), 2013, quietly floats like a space traveler released from gravity in an unbounded turquoise blue, tilted slightly out of the horizontal plane of the painting. On closer inspection, we notice that the man’s slim, uniformed body is subtly rotated around its own axis: While his legs, which are pressed tightly together, look highly static and almost flat, from the hips up, his figure slips more strongly into an illusionist perspective of a third dimension. Displaced from the vertical to the horizontal, this liveried figure of a waiter no longer signifies elegant dining, but rather represents the possibility that painting might preempt all the freedoms of the digital age in entirely analog terms. Der Verschollene emerges from the sphere of a medium that has repeatedly been pronounced dead to occupy our field of vision with the indelible presence of one who is constantly disappearing.

Fehr, who was born in Zurich in 1953 and divides his time between that city and Burgundy, in southern France, has developed as a painter with impressive continuity, approaching recurrent motifs with many variations. In this show, “Fêtes,” masks, toy figures, crowded public squares, and abandoned rest stops are among the elements in a limited repertoire subjected to a dazzling, almost supernatural light that casts everything in sharp contrast with strong shadows. Fehr’s highly textured application of paint gives the pictures a strong physical presence, despite all his play with masks and distance. To view the work in the context of the historically informed painting that’s resurfaced in recent years is tempting. But his work also displays a singularity that can best be described by means of a temporal paradox: He paints as though his motifs had become unmoored from time and were able to move freely in a space we know only through our daily encounters with virtual forms of communication and image processing. His work is most contemporary when it offers this archipelago of possible modes of paintings that resist integration into any linear historical framework.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.