A method and a relationship with time govern the work of Frédérique Lucien, who has been experimenting since her beginnings with processes of variation. Founded on a practice of line and drawing, her series reveal tiny modifications, combinations of colours, changes of format and reworkings involving the slightest of alterations; and this in works whose groupings suggest herbals or plates from manuals of entomology, works which systematically derive from a long phase of observation of the world. Adopting a musical register, they emphasise, using the “theme and variations” principle, transitions from one drawn line to another, scarcely different, in a mode endlessly recommenced. Constructed in sequences, the first gouache Pistils (“Pistils”, 1990) invented four-part modules, open to association and inducing a notion of time passing; numerous, interconnected modules that seem to go on developing ad infinitum. And yet the inventory never comes to an end: this is not the method of a scientist. Situated in an interspace between a quasi-scientific approach and the musical variation, these series bring to light impossible classification processes. Rather than method, we should speak here of a kind of anti-method.
The recent works confirm, open up and intensify an artistic process that appeared in embryonic form in 1990. The considerable maturity they attest to is to be seen in the way Lucien’s choices are validated and consolidated. This is an artist who pushes observation to the limit in works in which every element of a vocabulary with twenty years of definition behind it seems to have found its place. An artist who assembles, tweaks and generates interplay between the same motifs and the same obsessions. In the series “Anonyme” (“Unknown”, 2010) with its drawings of pieces of the human body—the legs, arms, genitals, torsos, feet and hands of friends—the divided shapes take on an almost sculptural dimension. While the fragmentations were already there in the early works, which opted for showing a pistil, maybe, or the stem of a flower, here we find them systematised, covering whole walls. The transition from line to form—another structural element of her approach, tested in the series Forme (“Form”, 1995) and Îles (“Islands”, 2001)—is replayed too, with an extra degree of intensity. In her choice, in these recent works, of bodily fragments, lines, angles and edges, together with her rendering of flesh, the artist states a complex poetics rooted in a hesitation between surface and line. The Pistils, kinds of totems or erect penises, were primitive and naive. The Anonyme and the ceramics embellished with mouths replay this primitivism while working their way towards a stranger, excessive, almost Baroque form of expression. And so a disturbing singularity, more discontinuously present in the early works, now seems to be taking concrete shape and leaving its mark on her style.
Observation, for Frédérique Lucien, takes several forms, borrowing from slow journeyings and long maturation periods. It emerges in her work through an insistence on outline, which begins with line and leads to form. Sometimes this operation takes place in reverse. Surfaces, areas of flat colour and sheets of aluminium are cut up, refined and polished until lines are obtained. Images built on this constantly renewed choice between drawing lines and wrinkles and creating solid forms structure different themes and motifs, suggesting combinations of several elements and emphases. Which makes them “dialectic” in the Walter Benjamin sense1 emerging in a flash and involving an unfolding of time, a past and a present.
Observing-drawing: Seeing things accurately
Long observation as practised by Frédérique Lucien translates into precision of line and exactness of drawing. In Pistils, Forme, Magnolias (1994), Îles and “Calques additionnés” (“Accumulated Overlays”, begun in 2004), form and line are clearly part of her explorations. Modelling form and not volume, the artist sometimes extends her reach to the low-relief, but never further.
Delicate and concise, her works make choices in the domain of the real, dropping accurate sampling of things seen in nature in favour of inventories of shapes and structures. The yellow, blue and red pistils come in windows of four. These simple outlines, with their stem and cap—the style and stigma of the flower’s pistil—seem to have forgotten their original form so as to concentrate on a rendering far more lapidary and schematic. The retouches, reworkings and overlayings of colours are to be seen in each element, as if the precision of the rendering were to be obtained only by trial and error, in fits and starts. These shapes absorb the extremely fine paper, which often folds and wrinkles under the mass of colour. Medium, paper, colour, interaction between components—everything seems part of an economy seeking to express a fragility and a lightness. The charcoal Pistils take on an appearance much closer to Baroque profusion in the way they offer a drawing style that is all curves, folds and subtle intertwinings. Baroque, writes Gilles Deleuze, “twists and turns its folds, pushing them to infinity, fold over fold, one upon the other. The Baroque fold unfurls all the way to infinity.”2 Marking the outline of the pistil, more or less accentuated strokes call up all the intensity of the forms, sometimes reminding us of the folds in which Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa is engulfed, folds swept away by a yearning for movement, expressiveness, inconstancy of matter. All twists and turns, the Pistils‘ strange, multiple, sinuously swirling silhouettes retain the subtlety and grace of the sketches.
Comparison of the two Pistils series provides an understanding of what is going on with line and contour in Lucien’s oeuvre. She recently titled one of her aluminium low-reliefs Moncontour (“My Contour”). Working from an initial sketch, she reworked and cut the form until the image emerged. In the drawings of legs in the “Anonyme” series she stresses their interspaces. Sometimes the heels, folds and wrinkles are emphasised as places where friction gives the surface a sinuous character, where two elements encounter each other: skin and scar, skin and beauty spot.
The image, then, seems to emerge out of accentuation of the stroke, the course of certain lines. It comes into being with time, with the repetition of a gesture, with the same delineation of the forms. Working from her observation of reality, the artist insists on form and contour in a way that stresses the rhythm of the images.
Bringing out form
In theory this method leaves no room for preliminary studies or sketches, because these are endlessly reworked, replayed, matured. She insists that they do not exist in her work. The sketchbooks she uses in parallel with her drawn works—in particular for the “Anonyme” series—are not considered studies. They are a form of research in their own right, close to the artist’s book and more like something to be picked up and looked at. No preliminary sketches for her works have survived. The sketch or the first idea is absorbed into an exploration that takes place in stages, via successive overlayings. For the series “Orée” (“Edge”, 2008), a group of drawings of human mouths of varying sizes and materials, and for the “Anonyme”, the starting point is photographs of friends. The second stage involves photocopying the photos so as to home in on the saturation of their different areas. Next comes a sketch which will lead to the form, which is then accentuated at certain points and its contour emphasised, while the flesh areas are more or less lightened or darkened. Lucien opts for emphasising now the surface of the skin, now the drawing of the body’s lines and angles. Following the image’s areas of luminosity, she highlights the drawing of the flesh and the articulations. Although she finds this interpretation not quite accurate, it seems that for her there are several types of bodies—male and female, angular and rounded—and several types of sensuality: that of bodies made up of lines, and that of plumper bodies.
The artist asserts her taste for birth, for the commencements (beginnings) that were the title of her exhibition at the Galerie Jean Fournier in 2008. Orée, the title given to her mouths, indicates something in the process of appearing, something delicate, alive, on the verge of being born. She observes the transitions from one state to another, homing in on the thresholds and inventing a veritable poetry of lines.
The poetry and the thinking that surface in each new drawing are absolutely visual. There is no place for language here. Scrupulous observation of reality develops into a totally silent form. This is the silence that strikes you when see her work for the first time—and which continues on when you observe them at greater length and regularly. Everything in the oeuvre seems to be born out of sensation and vision. As if these delineations of plants, minerals and closed mouths derive from a form of observation that cannot be put into words.
This exact notation of the real morphs into a abstract version of line. What emerges is something like a rhythm, a cadence of strokes and visual signs from which all meaning has disappeared. What happens, in fact, is that the artist retraces, recommences the same motifs ad infinitum, as if forced to pursue a list which, like any other, always demands to be completed and can continue vertiginously. Meanwhile other drawings, fragments and variations on the rendering of flesh or a wrinkle can be added in, the outcome being a rhythm without end.
In this urge to paint the thing seen down to the last detail and in all its possible variations, there would seem to be a kind of parody of scientific research. But from the start the artist destroys anything resembling archival methodology. Her approach is based, so to speak, on a collection, with each oeuvre a fragment of a run-through of forms into which Lucien instils a kind of discrepancy. This is the case of the moulds of mouths made at the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres in 2010, and presented in lines. The juxtaposition of seven little white porcelain mouths creates an effect of weirdness, a sensation of the primitive. In the same way, the close-knit wall presentation of the “Anonyme” produces a dense set of fragments-signs that can sometimes look morbid. In their systematicity these groups can remind us of the photographs of Berndt and Hilla Becher; yet in these pieces Lucien is often closer to certain works by Herman de Vries, whose creator designed them as overviews, as groups made up of components of documentation. In his travel diaries of the 1970s, in particular, de Vries included sketches, annotations and photographs, but also samples, and rubbings of soil, which he arranged in big paintings taking the form of giant herbals.
“Each diary reflects aspects of the other, of the identical, as I meet them along the way,” de Vries notes. “I see, I document, I show.” His agenda is crystal clear and applies to the rest of his output as well: sanctuaries, herb gardens and other natural objects—trunks, branches, bark, seeds, leaves, dried flowers—together with rubbings of earth and ash, and samples of earth collected anywhere and everywhere on the planet since 1979. Herman de Vries does not exploit nature: as he puts it, he “mobilises the eye”3 “Mobilises the eye”: a striking turn of phrase and one that fits perfectly with Lucien’s works. For if they are the result of experiments with form, their point is nothing other than this mobilisation, this halting, this recapturing by the eye of an outline made by the hand. Their singularity and strangeness are due to the obstinacy of an exercise in observation which draws, cuts and sharpens forms until they in turn catch the eye.
While they emerge from observation of the real, these works possess an undisguised Baroque character that was latent from the artist’s very beginnings. This attraction towards the Baroque can be read in the complexity of her lines and drawings, and is equally evident in her choice of vanitas-like subjects. Her Vanités (“Vanitas”) series have included several types of works: drawings, colour pieces, and prints. In a series of aquatints of chrysanthemums (2004) she repeats her serpentine, complex, proliferating lines, in a combination of exactness of stroke and Baroque abundance. The recent “Anonyme” series take this plenitude even further via assemblages, the creation of entire walls of disparate components.
Frédérique Lucien works via fragments. She draws separate elements which she then confronts and associates, with her decisions sometimes seeming like acts of surgical cruelty. This approach also finds an echo in the popular practice of the ex-voto, which consists in taking an isolated element—a damaged limb, for example—and making a replica in wood or wax or clay (“Anatomical ex-votos”, these are called.) A plea to a divinity can then be made. The artist has been building a collection of these items for some years now, and on a trip to Brazil she visited a museum for wooden ex-votos that had previously been in churches. Recently, in the Church of St Roch in Lisbon, she saw ex-votos showing male and female limbs separated from their bodies. The ceramic mouths made at Sèvres generate the same sense of strangeness: as if a segment of the fantastic, the disturbing, the almost terrifying—see the white mouths, like excrescences on a wall, and the lips to which she has added colour—were waiting to assert itself.
Hollowing out, assembling and working on forms
In her latest aluminium pieces, titled Moncontour, a drawn shape is repeated ad infinitum, from the outside to the inside, like Russian dolls, until the initial contour vanishes into a central element now rendered unrecognisable. “The form is reduced to zero,” she says. She has stretched and reworked the same forms in recent assemblages of withered, gouache-painted flowers left over from the De rerum natura polyptychs (“On the Nature of Things”, 2005); or in making play with the chrysanthemum motif from the graphite Vanités (2005), already reused in the positive-negative dialectic of Xéranthème (“Xeranthemum”, 2008) and Simple temps (“Simple Time”), those enormous widths of cut canvas. Ultimately she made form disappear in assemblages of fragments that make up infinite collections.
Frédérique Lucien distends, hollows out and squeezes forms until they express a kind of quintessence of stroke and line. Each time she calls on and mobilises our eye, inventing the signs of a visual thinking only to be found in powerful, singular bodies of work.
- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 473: “The dialectical image is an image that emerges suddenly, in a flash. What has been is to be held fast—as an image flashing up in the now of its recognizability. The rescue that is carried out by these means—and only by these—can operate solely for the sake of what in the next moment is already irretrievably lost.
- Gilles Deleuze, Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1992, p. 3.
3. Fabien Faure has said “I detest art in nature”, in a comment on Herman de Vries’ Sanctuaries in Esthétiques de la nature, Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 2007, p. 114.