Mysteries of Incarnation
Notes on the straight line in works by Jérôme Borel
Over the past few years it has not been difficult to get in touch with Jérôme Borel, because once a quarter he has hosted two artists, friends or not, for a two-anda-half-day flash exhibition. These events took place in his studio, which he made available for the works of others for the occasion. Of course, we visited the studio to talk with all of those present, to taste thedishes prepared for the occasion by the head of the house, who was keen to provide his guests with the best hospitality, but also questioning the initiator of these sessions, known under the generic name “La
Belle Absente/présente” (The Beautiful Absence/ Presence), was certainly not off limits.
But who is this ‘Beautiful Absence’ that he has managed to get so many others to take notice of ? Answering this conundrum, even with a barrage of questions, would produce nothing more than a
sketch of the outlines of his practice and his work. We could sure-footedly jump to the word painting, except that it is present more than absent in these places. Always directed, always activated and forever elusive as such, it shines, in fact, not by its absence as a realised object, the painting, but by the absence that radiates from its very heart, from a centre that cannot be grasped, from which are born, in each one, the images. But we must add that The Beautiful Absence/Presence could just as well be the colour as the face, the gesture rather than hope, hunger rather than thought, the silence that hollows the sky as an unexpected encounter with the unrepresentable.
There is in Jérôme Borel a simple bias which constitutes the axis on which he has pledged to lead all aspects of his life: to consider that nothing that he does, lives, creates, refuses, choses, should not nor could not be outside the central magnet that he calls existence. There is neither ease nor truism here, but rather a choice that is as difficult as much as it is passionate, a continued choice giving birth to a line that has become a guideline, taking into account all the aspects of the moments lived, and which reveals itself to be existence.
To try to understand this unity that Jérôme Borel seeks to achieve, we must take note of what painting is capable of bringing together, coordinating and revealing, some of the essential mysteries of what makes existence. If, here, the singular is imposed as a measure of the shareable, it is because it is the source of the thinkable shared by the sensitive.
The major plank of Jérôme Borel’s existence is the act of painting pictures. The painting, the element which allows him not to lose the thread and, in particular, to continue to create, to invent, prolongs life itself through its gestures. To gaze into his works is to experience for oneself what it means to set existence in motion.
While the term emotion keeps the vibration of this movement active within it, that of thought brings together the various traits that it is vital to let fly in all directions if we want to succeed in defining the direction in which we are moving. It is against this yardstick that it is important to understand these paintings. Looking at a painting means both facing a moment of existence and looking at all of them. The concomitance of the unique and the ensemble being developed is the very heart of an ‘existential’ approach to the act of painting. It is both that without which the pictorial visible would not be and that which escapes all representation. Jérôme Borel himself says that in each painting he tries to ‘represent the unrepresentable’. The correctness of the wording
should not lead to the illusion of immediate understanding. To achieve this, we must enter into the modes of manifestation of the incarnation that is a painting.
There is what the painter himself says about it, arguing about his sensitivity, the impact on him of certain ‘images’, perceived, received or conceived, of its major link with what those who preceded him brought to painting, monochrome artists and artists of a renewed abstraction and figuration, gestures relating to covering and gestures allowing the emergence of a figure.
There are moments, stages in a work. Not that we have to go towards a goal that has been fixed in advance but, each time, specify a little more, a little better, what secretly motivates and comes to the table of the visible that is the painting. So we see ‘the’ figure emerging as if the gestures of painting were to also open it up to a magmatic world. So we see a human figure planted in front of a block of violent red. So we see an animal emerging from the non-place represented by the crossing of flat colours, lines forming a cross and silence populating the objectless expectation that vibrates in every living being. Everywhere we see the active presence of the straight line. And hardly a glimpse of it, a presence that is both mysterious and disturbing, it imposes itself on us as the entity without which almost no painting by Jérôme Borel seems to be able to exist. Yes, something takes place here, which is a meeting, combat, insistence, authority, measure and excess, something of which the straight line – and its multiple variations – is at the same time the trigger, the actor and the so singular establishment of a measure.
For Jérôme Borel, incarnation does not first produce a figure but expresses the meeting of an era and an existence in the process of being developed. In order for the painting to gain access to the power of the incarnation, it is therefore necessary for a diffuse consciousness to act undercover. And for this, it must grasp the nature of the time, which is none other than the undermining of the living by a rationality that has been driven mad by dint of rationalism. And one also needs a powerful capacity to summarise so that this mad rationality, in its oldest form coming from the field of ‘conceptual’ thought and the most anti-natural there is, namely the straight line, can be shown as existing in a coextensive manner with all the non-rational elements that haunt the human psyche and drive the world. By staging in almost all of his paintings the encounter of a being made of flesh with patterns, objects, colours or traces, Jérôme Borel invites us to the party of a sensitive thinker, a party that he has designed for himself and is offered to us in passing.
Thoughtful, Jérôme Borel’s paintings show that their future is to be thinking, on condition of accepting that, in the same gesture, we can also heal a little the wound that each of us carries within, that of having been thrown into a universe where one is not expected and where one will not be missed. Spending your life waiting for an answer amounts to nought. Each answer comes only from the capacity of each one of us to embody the world which haunts us. This response can only be heard if one participates without fear of creation in the creation. So this response takes the form of a singular lifeline. For Jérôme Borel, it is that of a pictorial incarnation.
Writer, art critic, IAAC member, editor-in-chief of TK-21 La Revue
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Jérôme Borel’s paintings are contemplative and climatic; shapes seem almost to vanish as they are sucked into the artist’s sfumato, which envelops both the background and the details of the subject in a sort of pictorial cloud. Borel paints « abstract representations with figurative shapes » and should figures be present, they seem to be looking for something, a direction or rather a meaning, within the painting itself. The pictorial space is usually treated in a frontal manner and, on the occasion that elements of perspective do intrude, they tend to define an environment as would Bacon, i.e. not by placing the viewer in front of a large wide-open perspective, but rather by creating the feeling that we are observing a parallel universe, a world within a world, a place whose logic escapes us. It is sometimes the titles of the paintings themselves (which are full of historical, artistic and literary references) that provide us with a key to understanding, for example « Eurydice » (2013) or « La confusion de Narcisse » (2014) in which, by means of a graphic interplay of contours and surfaces, the young hunter’s body becomes a structural element of the surrounding landscape.
Paris, september 2019
Jérôme Borel was born in 1958 in Gap, France. At the age of 16 years old he began his painting practice following an accident that caused him to be immobile for an extended period. It was at this moment in his life that Borel decided to become a painter. He built his practice on his own and took a detour at the University of Montreal, Québec, to expand his knowledge in modern and contemporary art history (American art history in particular). His background as an art historian is noted by his hybridization of styles as well as his reconsiderations of themes, eras, and genres.
In 1989-1990, a collective project brought him to Djibouti with the support of the Villa Medici Prize. In 1992 he participated in a residency at the French Institute of Naples, Italy. In 1995, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fellowship, he travelled to a residency in South Africa, in Johannesburg and Soweto. In 1997, The French Institute of Thessalonique invited Borel to pursue the graphic style work he began in Africa.
He recognizes himself in the brilliant thoughts of Jeff Wall, for whom the utmost activity of the artist is not to destroy or violently attack the tradition of the image to which he belongs, but rather to explore its legitimacy by integrating a critical dimension to his or her work.
With this unique blending of influences Borel explores universal and contemporary themes such as sex, death, religion, media, and war. “I paint abstract representations with figurative shapes. Each work is a possible answer to the fundamental questions of our existence”, states the artist. He developed a visual vocabulary both powerful and subtle, combining a strong narrative with the systematic deconstruction of the subject. Between presence and absence, representation and suggestion, Jérôme Borel opens a mental space, where the imagination navigates through literary and cinematographic references. Among the influences in his paintings are modern masters in painting Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Claude Rutault, and Bertrand Lavier. Filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Luis Buñuel, and the music group Joy Division have also been cited as inspirations.
Each of his canvases is immediately noticed by the oscillation that imposes itself on the gaze between a floating, non-figurative object and a clearly identified object. Jérôme Borel works, it seems, directly on the dynamics of perception. It proceeds in layers. « It is often the work process that determines the subject, » he says. And he incorporates experiments into his approach: “I like movement, composing, recomposing, coming back to paintings many times, erasing everything, starting all over. This is why the question can arise, for each painting, of when it is completed. But Borel’s paintings do not have the status of sketches. The artist has, of course, developed a style which resembles the non-finito, the sketch, but which also gives rise to very conscientiously completed canvases.
In « The Poet and the Activity of Fantasy », Freud notes that literary creation – and by extension creation in the other arts – applies to arranging a world separated from reality by the imagination. Jérôme Borel’s painting could very well illustrate this principle, in particular through two particularities which are, so to speak, an active application, not to say a carefully calculated application: he de-realizes the figures he represents by putting blur, and he always takes care to operate in his paintings spatial contradictions.
As far as style is concerned, Jérôme Borel does not have a clear outline that separates the figure from the bottom. – We have already seen this effect of blurred paint at Gerhard Richter. But with Borel it is not a question of a conceptual approach which plays on the illusion of a blurred photograph enlarged by the medium of painting. The borders with him are porous. And the spatial contradictions join this porosity to produce an effect of de-reality, as if it were a question, then, of illustrating a certain state of consciousness, a back and forth between a state of dream, or of half. -consciousness, and the direct taking into account of the material of the table; or again, a back and forth between the memory of a dream and the perception of reality. As such, we are dealing with open works, an open work characterized by the fact that it can never lend itself to a single interpretation.
The fact remains that the painter plays with our habits of perception. He traps them in impossible spaces because they are contradictory. For example, a horizontal surface, at the top of a table, becomes vertical below; the edge of a pool is just as inconsistent as the pool water; elsewhere, the foot of a character finds its support on a void…; everywhere full becomes empty, and reciprocally…
In each painting, the motifs, in search of supports, create the space. But, in return, this space betrays the motive by freeing itself from it. The meticulousness of the painting imposes on the space of new rules, incompatible with the real world. The painting thus produces impossible encounters, that is to say between irreconcilable dimensions (between the two-dimensional space and the three-dimensional space, between the inhabited space and the floating space …).
It is with these impossible encounters that Jérôme Borel invents the space of painting. Each time, the world (i.e. the motive), or what remains of it, loses its support. The result for him is always the loss of his substance. It is only an indication, or the simple diagram of itself. Each painting therefore applies to removing its support from a piece of the world. And each time, the world (on which the motif naturally takes its support) gets bogged down in the painting and disappears there. The whole then constitutes a random and disorderly inventory of everything that disappears …
From painting to painting, Borel insists on a world (of motifs) which is no longer made but traces of itself, traces that he left in the perception that we have always had, perception that is designated here as being nowadays inadequate. At Borel, our familiar world is stuck in something that is completely foreign to it. Thus, this foreign world requires him to appear only in the state of quotations or reminders. We could say that there is a becoming-graff ‘ or a become stencil of our familiar world, which is then made superfluous and optional in the other world. We thus witness become optional of our world. It seems as if painting is only used to evoke the familiar world by a remnant of complacency with it.
We are therefore witnessing, at Jérôme Borel’s, the eviction of our familiar world by painting. It is this process of eviction in progress which is each time captured by the artist in the stillness of a canvas. Here the paradox of immobility is not to present the moving world (as with Turner who paints storms, or with Monet who paints poplars waved by the wind), here the paradox of immobility is to say the world by train to fade, to disappear. The familiar world is caught there in its phase of extinction, one could say, a phase analogous to what one would see in a room still lit, between the moment when the light was on, and the moment of complete darkness. As for Borel, therefore, the painting is there by train to extinguish, to abolish, the motive. It is also why this motif, presented on the path of its disappearance, is conferred melancholy on certain paintings – but only some of them.
Let us understand well, it is not a question for Borel to evoke the evanescence of things, it is not a question of the fragility of beings destined for death, nor of things destined for erosion. and to destruction. Borel evokes an abolition of a completely different order. It is the abolition of the very coherence by which we have access to the world of ours, of which his painting tells us. What is painted by Borel is the ongoing abolition of a coherence that makes figuration possible, and which gradually gives way to another coherence that makes figuration impossible. Unlike the great modern deconstructors of figuration that were the big cats and Cubists, Borel exposes the grounds to a radical violence, because metaphysics could be said. His motives do not come to integrate new codes of reality and thus find a renewed coherence, as do the patterns painted by the cubists and the big cats, where they remain in perfect harmony with the world. Borel’s motives are confronted with an order of reality that is not theirs, with a coherence that hits them because it does not belong to them. The patterns are then placed in front of (that is, just before) their disappearance pure and simple. Each time, the painter forces an impossible encounter between two heterogeneous coherences – an impossible meeting that takes place anyway – with all the damage for the reason that it will cause. This meeting is always at the price of the announced defeat of the motive.
Let us note that there can be, resulting from this shock, only defeat of the motive … The motive reveals its fragility, even if Borel presents it before it has been entirely off, before it has disappeared. Borel perpetuates this moment which, having to lead to the defeat of the motive, keeps him alive. Note that this paradox is not the first in the history of art. We remember the Milon of Crotone de Puget, representing, in an entirely impossible way, the same body both master of itself and succumbing to the attack of a wild beast. We could also quote High Priest Coresus sacrifices himself to save Callirhoé de Fragonard, where we see the priest enter death by an attitude of theatricality such that it designates a perfectly alive man.
However, this persistence of figuration (even in a dying form), wanted by the painter, questions us. Is it a farewell song? Borel never presents to us the established, consummated defeat of the motive – which would be the effective abolition of it. Borel always makes us witness a defeat in the state of promise, a defeat that eats away at the current substance of the motif, which, therefore, still exists before us. The motif is still standing although it is already dead. It’s like Borel is diagnosing – and predicting.
In fact, one could see in Borel’s paintings a universe of post-figuration, or even (and more radically) of non-figuration, but of a non-figuration which would be enhanced by mistreating, or by citing (with great care, moreover) the figuration. This is why Borel may still imitate figuration, seeing him do it, we no longer really believe in it. It seems that he applied himself to answering the (somewhat absurd) question – what fate will be reserved for the figuration when it is dead? – and that he has fun making the world of non-figuration still work that of figuration. In this way, he always places the figuration on the edge of the precipice.
Jérôme Borel calls one of his paintings Abandonment : the figure abandons himself to his engulfment, not in the expanse of water that his boat suggests to exist. It is the mere presence of the boat which suggests that there is water below; the figure abandons itself rather to its engulfment in painting: it has already lost all clarity, its body is nothing more than a stain. All that can be said is that the model and the motive undergo there, in fact, the consequences of the impossible conciliation between two universes…
Why then is this persistence of figuration above the abyss? Can the painter answer this question? In fact, each painting sends us back to something more than we can say. Let us then leave poetry the last word, or rather what Freud says: “The opposite of the game is not serious but reality […]. The poet [we will say the painter] now does the same thing as the child who plays. «
Julia Garimorth, Chief Curator at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris.
Patrick Scemama: If you had to define your work, how would you like it to be?
Jérôme Borel: I would like us to talk more about paintings than painting, that an amateur could recognize that they belong to our time and that we no longer talk about series. On this subject, I believe that we have too often confused form, pattern and style. I never try to demonstrate a theoretical point, I allow myself the possibility of tackling all subjects, whatever they are. An artist can escape from himself because he has only the limits imposed on him by his thought, his body, his action. This is why regular work on his sensitivity inevitably defines the contours of his personality. I always have in mind this line by René Char: “We make our way like fire sparks. Without cadastral plan. ”
Patrick Scemama: You are given the sentence « I paint abstract paintings with figurative motifs. » You claim it?
Jérôme Borel: Yes, absolutely. Years ago, during a workshop visit, a creative inspector asked me to pitch. I was totally panicked and I understood that I also had to work on this aspect so as not to be caught off guard. I took it as a game and had fun summarizing in one sentence what occupies me: it is first of all the painting, this framework very culturally connoted, denigrated for a time in favor of the word painting whereas for me , painting is an inert element (…) I do not directly paint a face but a figurative motif (also taken in the sense of what prompts one to act). The result is just an identifiable and recognizable form, resulting from a pictorial material.