It was said of Erik Satie that he was born very young in a world that was very old. The dreamy delicacy and abstract purity of Satie’s music haunt the paintings of Michel Alexis, who also suggests a figure at odds with his century. One must go back in time – to the less hurried pace of early twentieth century Paris, to a world of elaborate manners and capricious décor, to the exquisitely refined ennui of esthetes like Satie, Ravel, Debussy, and to the rarefied circle surrounding Gertrude Stein to find the musical and textual analogues to his work.
Raised in Paris, and eventually moving to a small town in rural France, Alexis was trained in music before turning to painting ten years ago. He has refined an art of subtle nuance and barely stated irony, restricting his palette largely to shades of faded green, gray, brown and blue which bring to mind aged silk. An occasional blast of luminous blue breaks through the veils of muted color like the icy fingers of real experience tearing aside the curtain of memory. Time appears to have left its mark on the heavily gessoed grounds of the paintings in the form of traces of the palette knife and occasional desultory incisions. A sense of distance and mystery is reinforced by the layering of images and the play of forms or text which have been painted in hues of nearly identical values, so that they become all but indistinguishable in ordinary light.
The imagery is equally wistful. In many of the paintings, arabesques float within rectangular forms or curl over fields of barely decipherable texts. Alexis traces this motif back to the ornamented ceilings and decorative friezes which he used to contemplate as a child. The arabesque speaks to him both of a frozen energy and of the monotonous tedium of a proper bourgeois existence. In one work, a pair of Regency chairs sit side by side, their whirling, intricate backs signifying a way of life that has all but disappeared.
Other works contain plaster cupid heads or bits of decorative molding which have similar connotations. In a work entitled “Cherubini” a rectangle of vivid blue lies over a textured field of dull brown whose cracks and incisions suggest weathered plaster wall. A round piece of ornamental molding lies in the lower half of the blue intrusion while the word “Cherubini” in stenciled white letters floats above. Thus the work conjures a generalized memory of Renaissance painting – the heavenly blue, the choirs of angels, the elaborate architectural settings – without actually containing any specific elements.
Another recurring motif is the small outline or photo image of a child in late Victorian dress. While this image obviously points backward in time, it is not an evocation of any genuine memory. Instead, Alexis acknowledges that nostalgia is more a substitute for the past rather than a return to it – he notes that he himself has no memory of his own childhood prior to age twelve. As a result, the motifs that refer to childhood innocence and purity in his work are archetypal rather than personal, and seem to result more from an effort at invention than at simple recollection.
Recently, Alexis has begun to draw on the writings of Gertrude Stein as an inspiration for his work. Stenciling fragments of text from Stein’s writings onto his canvases in such a way that they can only be read through layers of paint with great difficulty, he gives visual form to Stein’s efforts to create a cubist language by fragmenting the English language and reducing it to a “continuous present”. Alexis notes that one feature of Stein’s writing is the way that the repetition of a word or phrase eventually drains it of any conventional meaning.
Something similar happens to the texts in his paintings. One series of paintings simply offers a recitation of the days of the moth, taken from Stein’s diary. Written out in words, the dates unroll across the canvas like patterns in a bolt of fabric, suggesting the sameness of the succession of days. In other works, the texts lie underneath the whiplash pattern of arabesques, little more than empty markers of meaning, like the calligraphic marks that Alexis sometimes incises into the thickly gessoed fields of paint.
In one work, the polite phrase “I am very sorry not to have been able to see you again,” lifted from one of Stein’s letters, is denuded of meaning in another way. A conventional expression, this phrase ornaments genteel conversation in the same way that the arabesques ornament a parlor or drawing room. In the context of this painting, it operates not as a caption, or explanation – the roles we usually assign to text in a painting – but as another decorative element.
Taken as a whole, Alexis paintings explore the territory of the elliptical and the esoteric. Even the gestures with which paint is laid on canvas seem arrested in time and frozen in space. As in the compositions of Satie and Debussy, two composers with whom Alexis feels a strong kinship, the sturm and drang of romantic expression has been spurned in favor of an exploration of refined sensibility.
To understand Alexis reductive impulse, it is important to locate him in the proper time and place. There is no trace here of the concerns of American-style minimalism with its desire to seek the elemental materialism of painting and sculpture. By contrast, in Alexis work, reduction produces not essence, but a melancholy sense of loss.
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
Eleanor Heartney is a contributing editor at Art in America and Artpress and has published a number of books on contemporary art and art theory, including most recently Art and Today.