François Réau is an artist of travel. A rhizomatic journey, certainly undertaken at an early age, which today materializes in an artistic gesture of an improbable singularity that the exhibition at the Clavé Fine Art Gallery allows us to consider in a new light.
During his peregrinations, which took him from the mountains of the Aix hinterland (not far from Cézanne’s studio) to the great expanses of the Australian bush, from the Hospice Saint-Roch in Issoudun to the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire, from the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud to the former studio of the sculptor César, now transformed into an art gallery by Antoine Clavé, the places he explores are reinvented as mental spaces whose physicality he discovers and reveals through a formal vocabulary of unprecedented richness. Works on paper made with graphite, sculptures and other installations made from a host of materials drawn from the environment of his experimental sites, reinvent the contours of drawing before our astonished eyes to create a sensitive situation where our relationship to space and time is experienced.
The landscape is there, appearing behind each proposal, like a witness to the passage of time and the history of beings, the place where our intertwined lives are anchored, here and now – “the very space of our own desires”, to quote the artist.
From the back of his studio, located in the middle of an industrial site in the Paris suburbs, he searches, clears and accumulates, like a true alchemist, the elements that constitute the raw material of his works and will embody the projects to come. Lost in an indefinite space-time dimension that contrasts with the outside environment, the space reminds us of the flat in the Bradbury building in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, in which J.F. Sebastien designs and assembles strange robotic toys, grotesque prototypes serving as models for future replicants.
Some of the drawings have returned from past exhibitions and share the space with more recent ones. They speak to branches, spools of wire, pieces of fabric, piles of burlap, pieces of lead and other wooden strips sometimes recovered from the old rails that adjoin the building he occupies. Old cupboards and desks punctuate the space and fragment it into cabinets of curiosities on whose walls notes and influences also appear. Cy Twombly, Hantaï, François André Vincent and Brüegel the Elder, Dürer, Michelangelo, Barnett Newman, Giuseppe Penone, Anselm Kiefer, Brice Marden and Alighiero Boetti are all to be found here.
One by one, these elements constitute both the traces of a collective memory left in abeyance and the promise of new journeys, for which we impatiently await the stories that the artist will unfold in the places that will host their materiality. For “The way we think about the world – and, probably more importantly, how we tell it – is of major importance. What happens but is not told ceases to exist.
1 Olga Tokarczuk, Le tendre narrateur, Les éditions noir sur blanc, 2020
One had to look closely in the studio at the reproduction of the Abduction of Orithye painted by François André Vincent at the end of the 18th century to discover the roses on the floor and imagine that they would be invited through Ingeborg Bachmann’s words into the title and the rooms of the exhibition. Here again, sources and materials accumulate in layers like the memories of our past lives. They come together and conflict with each other to form the same sensitive space, each one affecting the work with its own qualities, its implacable memory – “As if this invisible light, the darkness of the present, cast its shadow on the past, while the past, struck by this beam of shadow, acquired the capacity to respond to the darkness of the moment “2 .
Thus they invaded the space in the same way as the branches skilfully pruned by the artist, arranged in strange bouquets and multiplied in a system that reminds us of Ger- trude Stein’s words from her Sacred Emily, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. They have been installed on carpets made of piles of burlap formed from rope, whose raw presence reveals the fragility of the flowers whose traces they seem to wish to preserve in an intriguing blend of power and grace. Anselm Kiefer is not far behind, whose memory of origins is revealed through his struggles with elements that the artist manipulates together to reveal their sensitive presence; likewise Jason Dodge, who has installed blankets here and there, held together by ropes, and who tells us that they were woven in Turkey using a thread whose size could link the Earth to the Moon, evoking – as François Réau does in his works – the place of beings in the cosmos. Installed in hotels that we do not know if they come from the origins of mankind or if they announce the inexorable end of time, the roses remind us of “what we hold dear “3 , beauty, history, myths, even dramas, existence in its intractable complexity.
On the walls, it is the very idea of time that has been tested, captured by the artist through a series of works on paper that he has entitled Measuring Time, some of whose elements have been hung in such a way as to punctuate the visitor’s path. François Réau imposes a strange discipline on himself, measuring time for days and months on end, entrenched in his studio between two trips. Here, with the help of a lead pencil, he tirelessly applies lines that accumulate until they cover the entire surface of the paper. One thinks of Alighiero Boetti’s strokes, of Roman Opalka, whose countdown in white on a white background told of his inscription in time, or of Brice Marden, whose graphite surface of some of his works from the 1960s, though stripped of all the subjectivity of the gesture, still bore the traces of the time spent by the artist in covering the surface. But in François Réau’s work, behind this imposed discipline of counting time – which he admits plunges him into a state close to meditation, into an almost shamanic relationship with the surrounding world – forms still appear. In the midst of this strange rain, the lines flow along the paper like the tears of oblivion and form so many strata of past hours in which the marriage of shadow and light is reinvented. The landscape is not far away, taking shape by chance, at the turn of a re- gard, behind the abstraction of this improvised game.
Suddenly, as if echoing Ingeborg Bachemann’s poem, the clouds have invaded the skies of a monumental painting entitled To What Extent X and seem to want to occupy the entire gallery space. The whole of classical painting is summoned in the dizzying force of this heroic gesture. It is as if the systematic application of strokes on the surrounding leaves, the precision of the drawing of plants and other views of landscapes had just exploded and been released before us, calling to our side the power of the works of Dürer, Michelangelo or Goya. However, it is impossible to leave it at that. Everything that appears to us immediately escapes us to reinvent itself in the works of François Réau: “On every surface we dream of depth”, as he announces in the title of two of his works located not far from there. It is impossible not to project oneself to Naoshima, in one of James Turell’s dazzling Skyspace, where we also wait, eyes riveted above us towards this open window on the world, for the clouds to invade the frame and upset it. “The sky is, above the roof, so blue, so clamorous” wrote Verlaine from his prison.
2 Giorgio Agamben, Qu!est-ce que le contemporain, “Petite bibliothèque”, Rivages Poche, 2008
3 The formula is borrowed from the title of Émilie Hache’s book, Ce à quoi nous tenons, published by Édi- tions de La Découverte in 2011
Born of the artist’s uncompromising desire to embrace the world to the very edge of its disturbing strangeness, the works presented in the exhibition will remain in our memories as “things that make the heart beat”, to quote Sei Shînagon’s bedside notes, and leave us free to inscribe ourselves in this improbable physical and mental landscape that is existence as told to us by François Réau.