Eros and Absence
—ROBERT C. MORGAN
For nearly two decades, I have had the occasion to see paintings by Michel Alexis in several New York exhibitions. My initial impulse was to interpret his paintings as a bridge somewhere between formalism and conceptual art. During the 1990s, the use of language in serious abstract painting implied something beyond the surface, reminiscent of the experiments between the Suprematists and the Russian formalist poets in Moscow Linguistic Circle on the eve of the Revolution. With Alexis, I became interested not only in investigating the semiotics in his work but the mystery that lingered after the signs had been deconstructed. This generic mystery – as the Russian linguist, Roman Jacobson, once explained – is not about ignoring the semiotic structure, but quite the contrary. Before mystery in art has any validity, one must investigate the system of signs within the work. To understand what exists beyond the artist’s construct will eventually incite the mystery or—more specifically in the work of Alexis— the absence or void from which his erotic content emerges.
Un acte de resistance
Il ne suffit pas de faire le contraire des autres pour élaborer une oeuvre. Cependant au sein d'un monde qui a depuis longtemps largué les amarres et rompu toute relation avec le sacré, Michel Alexis trace des
signes que l'on pourrait qualifier d'originels. Il tente d'élaborer un alphabet qui lui soit propre, un language loin de toute imitation et de toute complaisance. Au sein de la grande confusion demeurent nos signes qui vont quérir au sein même de notre mystère, la force qui nous permet de continuer à vivre. La présence de Michel Alexis aux Etats-Unis depuis de nombreuses années n'est pas anodine. C'est sans doute cet excès de séduction extèrieure parfois magique mais la plupart du temps technologique qui le contraint à un retour sur soi. Comment survivre dans un monde qui vous arrache à toute realité, comment survivre dans un monde fantasmatique? Le problème de l'homme aujourd'hui est celui du retour à la réalité. C'est aussi le problème de l'art.
Au milieu de la grande confusion au sein de laquelle nous nous trouvons aujourd'hui, où l'art devient parfois pure distraction en même temps que pure spéculation, le travail de Michel Alexis est essentiel.
Il est un acte de résistance. ❏
The lyricism of Michel Alexis's new work derives from the measured sweep of his arm as he marks and manipulates rice paper laid over painted canvas. He calls these paintings “epigrams," which literally means inscribed surfaces, or short poems concerning a single thought. Alexis's tools and materials maintain this literary metaphor, with monochromatic canvases (blue, green, red, brown) nearly obscured by large sheets of paper incised with engraving tools. The hue of the canvas functions as a ground for the paper, and as epigrammatic “text" where the artist has carved out curving slices of paper, skewing them to create narrow shapes and revealing the canvas below. Like punctuation marks, these curvilinear shapes, a superimposing of signs, serve as resting points for the eye.
Alexis: From Visual Text
to Textual Vision
The gesture of writing and that of drawing (more broadly, of making a picture) are remarkably similar in appearance. With good reason, we speak of “the hand” as a synecdoche for both. Likewise, we receive the marks produced thereby in a way that seems identical, through the eye. But elsewhere, invisibly, the two process diverge: they transpire, according to neurologists, in different areas of the brain.
Textual and pictorial activity are as inextricably intertwined as they are fundamentally distinct, perhaps even antagonistic. At least since Cubism, painters
have taken two fundamental approaches to this dilemma: either to purify painting of all literary resonance (or as much as possible) in order to present a wholly visual phenomenon, or else to display precisely this conflicted enmeshing by bringing the textuality of its materials to the surface of the work. (other possibilities seem to lead outside painting altogether: subordination of the pictorial activity to the text becomes illustration; distillation of the text from the picture, working towards a “purely” textual art, led in the 1960s to a new genre, conceptual art.)