Éric de Chassey


(Exhibition text - EN)

Jean-Marc Bustamante, Paintings 2019-2022

18 March – 30 April 2022

Curated by Éric de Chassey


For a long time, Jean-Marc Bustamante was not a painter. He was a photographer and a sculptor. At the turn of the 1970s and 1980s, he had made his mark by creating large scale photographs he called Tableaux [Pictures], a title that emphasized the fact that they assumed, albeit in a different medium, all the characteristics of the Western tradition of easel painting: depiction of a specific place, color and line composition, address to a situated viewer, emphasis on subject-matter rather than object-matter, etc. He also made sculptures and installations, sometimes combining objects and photographs, sometimes using the methods of the ready-made, sometimes coating his sculpture with color, which transferred into abstraction those characteristics by creating places and vistas that could be viewed from a distance or experienced physically by entering them. It was only when, in the late 1990s, the status of photography was secured as a legitimate art form, inside a multimedia landscape, when large scale photographs had found their places on the walls of museums and collectors’ homes, alongside paintings and sculptures – because, at least in part, of his pioneering endeavors – that he started experimenting with his own form of painting, albeit initially without any literal use of paint. In his Panoramas and Peintures [Paintings] series, he silkscreened colored shapes on large panes of Plexiglas, enlarging and digitally manipulating sketches he had doodled with felt-pen on sheets of graph paper, placing them on the wall or on the floor with metal brackets or under elaborate frames in steel. These monumental images-objects in turn assumed all the characteristics associated with painting since the advent of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, albeit with the mediation of a mechanical printing process: free-hand composition, association of various flat colors or shapes on a single plane, obsolescence of the distinction between abstraction and figuration, etc.


Since 2018, Bustamante has become a full-fledged painter. His newest body of works, which he also calls Paintings, differs from his previous series by maintaining in the final result the traces of the hand of the artist, who now works directly with color on a rectangular surface. In these paintings, Bustamante does not start from scratch, as if he had never been an artist before. He takes stock of what he has previously learned through his long multimedia practices, especially the fact that the effect of an artwork does not reside primarily in its formal niceties, nor in its documentary accuracy or in the intrinsic interest of the image it depicts, far from it. Since the early 1980s, Bustamante has spoken of his aim to create works “without qualities”, lifting this phrase from the title of Robert Musil’s unfinished novel, The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften). The quality of his new Paintings lies precisely in the finely tuned, profoundly paradoxical, non-quality of the combination of colors and shapes they are made of. In their stable final definition, they retain a provisional and frail aspect, which is the only condition painting might aspire to nowadays, in times when everything we know is always subjected to questioning and reassessment, when truth can only be reached with caution. In his notebooks, the artist wrote: “My paintings are in suspension [en sursis] … they are essentially suggestions.”[1]


If Bustamante does not start from scratch, because of this provisional situation, he nevertheless had to invent his own material – and not use solely what tradition and his own history had left him with. This has been a constant way for him to work: even when he was mainly a photographer, he pioneered large scale color printing, at a time when it was still uncommon and unprecedented in the art world (serious photography was in black and white, and small scale, as it signaled autographic printing, until he and some of other photographers from his generation made it colorful and monumental). Instead of painting with acrylic or oil on a stretched (or unstretched) canvas, he has devised a particular, idiosyncratic, surface by coating a panel with gesso and then sanding it, deliberately leaving asperities and building an uneven ground, instead of giving it a smooth finish. The pictorial surface is thus rendered tridimensional, more akin to relief than to the traditional surface of paintings: it has an object-like, haptic, quality, and presents itself as contradictorily disagreeable and desirable at the same time (in this sense, it is much more contradictory than when a similar process was used by Jean Fautrier in the 1940s and 1950s). It is impossible to cover this surface, apparently creamy but actually solid, with flat and continuous colors and lines: it breaks up any attempt at showcasing technical mastery, and necessarily brings about a kind of de-skilling, which corresponds with the artist’s acknowledgment that all he can propose are “some rustles, some frictions [quelques bruissements, quelques frottements]”. This feature is enhanced by Bustamante’s choice of tools to create his compositions on this demanding surface: instead of brushes, he uses ink and oil sticks, which unite in single strokes the processes of delineating and coloring but also tend to leave only a small amount of pigment on the surface. They do not adhere easily to the roughened gesso, thus creating a broken imagery, akin to what one expects in drawings, while being entirely painterly.


This broken imagery nevertheless yields, somewhat counter-intuitively, splendid and magnificent effects, as Bustamante never abandons the belief that “painting is above all a question of optical pleasure”. In their very frailty, his Paintings can also seduce. The intricate doodle of Le Printemps [Spring] is also a multicolored, subtle, arabesque; the superimposition of wide red-brown strokes on a disjointed network of thin dark brown, blue and yellow accents, in L’Étoile [The Star], a radiant centrifugal statement; the hazy patches of purple, black and yellow of Fièvre jaune [Yellow Fever], a vivid tapestry which creates harmony from elements that are in themselves contradictory; the superposition of a few irregular rectangles whose lateral extension is more or less congruent with the vertical and horizontal borders of the composition, in Juste assez [Just Enough], a visual feast akin to a romantic sunset; the juxtaposition of isolated and roughly parallel colored lines of Ensemble 2, a spectacular, though reductive, rainbow.


“There is no subject in my painting.”, writes Bustamante: “The challenge is to confront the void, the great vacancy.” His subdued colors and shaky lines push one step further what he had already experienced in this regard in his photographs and sculptures: they avoid any kind of narration, creating images which are always non-images, non-images which are always images. They abolish the distance between the artist and the world, which is not a given outside the painting but something produced by the painting, sometimes alluding to a figurative imagery, sometimes remaining utterly abstract. And, simultaneously, they establish another kind of distance, through the medium and the type of images they work from, which precludes any attempt to recognize in them any self-expression while asserting the presence of a self, albeit a self devoid of psychology, the self of the painter as a painter, as someone who is making the painting, whose gestures are both impersonal and personal.


Bustamante’s new Paintings summon a whole history of painting as well as his own artistic history. À la française, for example, appears like a generic bushy deep green tree with a black trunk on a blue-green soil that convenes memories of children’s drawings, tree paintings by Ferdinand Hodler, Piet Mondrian or David Hockney (isolated standing figures with a wide horizontal extension of foliage or branches, reduced to their essentials), abstractions rooted in nature such as the ones made by Joan Mitchell in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as Bustamante’s own LP II (2000), a photograph which showed a solitary tree surrounded by industrial elements near a lake. Folle espérance [Mad Hope] or New Future, are both abridged landscapes and monumental abstractions, reminiscent of the tormented skyscapes of Joseph Turner or John Constable as well as of the tiered background painted by Henri Matisse in his Baigneuses à la tortue [Bathers with a Turtle] (1908), the simplified abutting late compositions of Mark Rothko, the calligraphic Map Paintings of Brice Marden, or the symmetric landscapes with words of Ed Ruscha, while evoking Bustamante’s own series of photographs from 1991 depicting a row of cypress trees standing above a wall. Some other new Paintings – such as Triple Victoire [Triple Victory] or Reprise – play with the vocabulary of French Abstract Expressionism (Hans Hartung’s in particular) or with that of trivialized and decorative representations of plants – in Pickpocket or Bon Matin [Early Morning], for instance. This is not to say that they are not specific images, on the contrary; just that, in their very provisionality, they encompass both the past and the future: they stand somewhere, unfathomable yet very precise, between the generic and the general.


When there is “no subject”, any image becomes a compendium of an infinity of images (Bustamante knows from photography that one never invents an image). Any image can do, as long as it is non-prescriptive. It is the viewers’ responsibility to define for themselves its meaning or meanings. Bustamante’s painting, as he himself states, “does not force anything; it speaks of the frailty and magic of the world”. “One can walk by it without seeing it because it is without quality”, but, if one pays attention, it conveys, in itself, “the movement of life”. If grace is this state where “the movement of life” is experienced as a suspended moment and feeling, an ever present because ever suspended feeling, then Bustamante’s new Paintings are a return to grace.


[1] All quotes by Bustamante are taken from his notebooks, written as he was making this new series of works.