Michel Alexis:
Eros and Absence


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.

One senses that one reason for his fascination with Gerrude Stein is their common status as expatriates. As a European who now travels between France and New York, Alexis feels the pull of the history and the burden of past greatness. Words and images hover on the edge of the void, rendered powerless by the whispers of nearly forgotten meanings at the far end of memory. Alexis evokes a vacancy, but the emptiness is haunted language verging on rhythmic cadences comparable to Alexis’ partial synesthesia where the syncopated transfer of scribbled words returns to drawing and color. The result becomes a kind of painting that exists in suspension without a designated history – without a past, present, or future—yet existing in time or, perhaps, within time, as a kind of meditation. This is the moment the mind’s eye stammers in a flurry. They are paintings searching for a spatial reprieve, a synoptic authenticity, an aesthetic fusion where experience is less contingent on meaning than a profound absence of meaning. These paintings do not move. They are immobile contractions without pixilation. Their stasis holds within the hub of the Taoist wheel, the spokeless wheel of Non-Being, emanating away from the boundaries of meaning . This signifies a potential darkness, the emptiness prior to rebirth: sunyata (Sanskrit) or “the pregnancy of the void.”

A couple of remarks about the current paintings are necessary to further elucidate my understanding of Alexis. There are paintings titled Epigrams in this exhibition, a title indicating a short matter-of-fact poem, often with metaphorical content. Again, the transfer from word to painting is implied. There are often one or two sections that appear within a loose grid, created from the adhering of the Asian papers, which is the constructive basis of these paintings. Epigram 10, for example, is 60 x 48 inches, painted with oil and a thin resin-based medium overlay. One may detect a half-moon shape in one area, a vaginal form in another, and a Matissean contour weaving down one side. Epigram 38 is painted on a square format with eight paper sections, the contours are loops, both drawn and cut (decoupage), and appear overwhelmingly feminine, suggesting Fragonard more than Titian. Here I feel it is important to know that Alexis is a self-trained artist with a social science background in economics. For eight years he lived in a secluded village in the Alps when he was not traveling to foreign countries outside of Europe.  I mention that because – like Morandi – Alexis maintains a certain consistency in his formal approach in spite of his exposure to many cultures.

Therefore, Asian ideograms or Proto-Sinaitic script are not outside of his purview. I am fascinated how these multicultural or transcultural involvements inform two other paintings, titled Sailing from Byzantium and Subtracted Word.  (While there are no dates available on these works, I am assuming they were within the past three years, more or less at the time of the Epigrams.) The clarity of line and shape in the Byzantium painting is astonishing, and the animal-shaped contours – like cave drawings – are evident in the second. What I gather from these paintings is a sense of space whereby the linear elements function as a kind of undergarment that does not impose its sense of Eros on the body of the painting.  Rather it gently and indirectly gives the surface a distinctly erotic tone, heightening the desire to optically attend to the surface, to move into it, to become part of it.

While contemporary painting (since the postmodernism of the 1980s) has largely assumed distance – even cynical detachment as in new American figuration – Alexis retains something deeper, a quest of the legibility of feeling with the discourse of painting.  This is its attraction. To come to terms with the linguistic infrastructure of such paintings implies an ability to glance between work and contour and to attend to the cryptic density of the surface. These paintings are not merely visual – a highly generic term – but they are exceedingly optical in the sense they are not without illusion or the illusion of shifting elements intentionally placed in a manner that disrupts the predictability of composition. Indeed, Alexis has gone through the window of conceptual art – which he understands – and come out on the side of painting. Can we still call what he does abstract?  I am not convinced. Even so, Alexis has retrieved the aura of attentiveness in painting by searching the roots of language through an absence given to Eros.

Robert C. Morgan is an American art historian, critic and curator. He holds both an M.F.A. in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History and Aesthetics. Since 1992, he has been a New York correspondent for Art Press and is currently a Consulting Editor for The Brooklyn Rail in New York.  In 1999, he was awarded the Premiere Arcale award in Salamanca for international art criticism, and in 2011 was inducted into the European Academy of Science and Art in Salzburg.