Michel Alexis: Poetic Gestures
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.
For paintings that seem relatively flat, Alexis's Epigrams hum with intricately crafted structure. As the artist begins building his surface by laying wet sheets of paper over the painted canvas, he turns the chain lines in the paper's structure in different directions, sometimes aligning them with an adjacent sheet, sometimes placing them perpendicularly. The result is subtle but quite effective. As one views Epigrams from a distance, the chain lines are almost invisible.
Drawing closer, the viewer is slowly pulled into the paper itself, which is mediated and enlivened by other treatments of the surface—stippled dots, collaged cloth, sgraffito, and rectangles of translucent paint overlapping both paper and canvas. These rectangles unify the surface and introduce another hue where they touch the canvas, like poetic similitudes.
Another dimension of visual excitement is generated by other painted shapes, especially filled circles and triangles, which balance the gridlike squareness of the paper. These shapes resonate in each painting. In Epigram #1, for example, a dark triangle in the lower left corner is reprised in the upper right quadrant by a second dark triangle stippled with small circles. Alexis’s intuitive poetic approach can be conceptualized as translating shape into rhyme and color into meter. The canvas provides an underlying rhythm, flashing around the paper edges and breathing through the cloth, and his solid painted shapes are like repetitive sounds, linked by shape and color. His curving marks, written large and small, suggest textual content, and his thin symbolic lines hint at thematic meaning.
Epigram #5, for example, includes a tall, thin form that could be meant as the ankh, an emblem of life. The artist's use of basic geometric shapes, abstract signs, and symbolic coding indicate a sensibility similar to that of Paul Klee, for whom poetry was a key element in much of his painting.
Most literary epigrams end with a witty ﬂourish; these paintings are bursting with them. They run like a refrain through each Epigram, broad strokes echoing carved—out shapes and densely patterned inserts. Vibrant with content, Alexis’s Epigrams tantalize the viewer with the possibility of interpretation.