Human Being Human
Interview with Xavier Noiret-Thomé and Henk Visch, orchestrated by Carine Fol
In his remarkable book Le Lambeau, Philippe Lançon wrote: “Most interviews with writers or artists are a waste of time. They only paraphrase the work they are talking about. They fuel the publicity and social noise. Through my function, I contributed to this noise. Through my nature, I was disgusted. I saw in it an infringement of the reader’s privacy and autonomy, which wasn’t compensated by the information that was given to them1.”
This joint interview is in no way comparable to the above definition, as it demonstrates a genuine complicity and meeting of minds. The encounter between the two artists here has indeed revealed artistic and philosophical affinities through their thoughts on life, their work and even humour. It was not easy to make this conversation happen: as a Frenchman, Xavier Noiret-Thomé did not speak Dutch and Henk Visch, being Dutch, attempted to speak his interviewer’s language, whilst I served as an intermediary. This led to some unpredictable situations which lent the interview a certain light-heartedness not to mention humour, a form of wit which consists of drawing out the funny, quirky aspects of reality with the level of detachment required to explore the truth.
1. Philippe Lançon, Le Lambeau, Paris, Gallimard, 2018, p. 31, (free translation).
Carine Fol: Xavier, when I suggested you organise this exhibition at the Centrale in a duo with an international artist, your choice settled on Henk Visch.
Xavier Noiret-Thomé: This choice is connected with my interest in confronting sculpture and painting. Furthermore, I too make objects, which although they are not sculptures like Henk creates, might be called “paint sculptures”, precisely to overcome the boring feature of exhibitions where we only see paintings on the walls. Sculpture brings about another way of moving around a painting exhibition. It shifts the relationship and the way of looking at what is happening. I also like Henk’s work and sculpture, which partly echo with my own concerns. Indeed, Henk’s sculpture is both extremely figurative and sometimes perfectly abstract, as is the case in my work. Furthermore, a deep humanity transpires from Henk’s sculptures which touches me greatly.
Henk Visch: Xavier and I met during a workshop at the Art Centre in the Domaine de Kerguéhennec. It is important to remember that the exhibition here is also the result of that encounter. I like working with other artists who are for me the most important people. The art space is a space of freedom, too rarely recognised by society, and it is always an honour to work with other artists like Xavier, as it allows new ideas and new ways of using the space to emerge.
Carine: This was indeed one of our first concerns as soon as we began discussing the exhibition, the dialogue between sculpture and painting and their presentation in the space at the Centrale.
Xavier: Painting in the public space is almost inexistant, whereas sculpture comes into its own there, structuring and giving meaning to its environment. To exhibit painting, you need walls, which is a constraint. We therefore had to find a way of enabling our works to coexist.
Henk: Painting always has a frame, to maintain the illusion. Sculpture on the other hand has no frame, the world is its frame.
Xavier: Our intention is to create formal echos whilst generating an original dialogue. Something “beautiful like the chance encounter on a dissection table of a sewing machine and an umbrella,” as Isidore Ducasse wrote in Les Chants de Maldoror. The exhibition thus becomes a sort of “exquisite corpse” in which each work responds to another. The silhouette of an aluminium sculpture can evoke a character from one of my paintings.
Henk: There is always a relationship between things: the colours, shapes and an associative communication. It is not really a dialogue but more of a relationship. Dialogue stands in opposition to monologue, to encourage people to speak to one another; it’s still a very idealistic term. The curator and art historian Rudi Fuchs introduced the idea of having an exhibition with painting in dialogue with other works in the 1970s. It was very new. Previously, art had been considered as a creation produced by a genius, cut off from the world, and the presentation of works followed this same pattern. But Rudi Fuchs began to think about the relationships between objects. Dialogue remains an overly discursive literary form in my view; for art I prefer to speak of conversation or encounter. There are not only words, but also an ambience, a context and physical relationship.
Carine: The choice of the title was not easy, but you finally opted for Panorama. Why this title, which implies a view which offers a global vision of the landscape and objects, but which also emphasises that we are discovering a wide range of your works?
Xavier: A panorama assumes a movement to achieve a 180° view. It is a view that is worth seeing, as in Petrarch when he described the ascent of Mont Ventoux. It is therefore the idea of a mental and physical journey in a lush, beautiful environment. The path is more important than the destination, and this also applies to life in general.
Henk: A panorama is a view, an opening, that means there is a horizon and something to see. It involves a journey, entering an unknown world. Formerly, the journey might have been associated with the great colonialist adventure, which still weighs on us today. With romanticism, we began to see the world as it is and the people who inhabit it as they are. A decisive moment for art was when primitivism and orientalism were unmasked. Edward Said has written at length on the subject.
Xavier: Yes, with romanticism, we began to accept nature, we stopped rejecting it and enduring its torments. Turner braved the elements to steep himself in nature. In my view, there is a phrase by Robert Filliou which aptly sums up this phenomenon: “Art is what makes life more interesting than art.” It is a loop, an implacable logic. In Panorama, we have the sense of vertigo, falling, spiral and a force which absorbs the being. In the immensity of the universe, the human being is nothing. In a panorama, everything is disproportionate, the perspectives are immense. This just shows how small we are in nature.
Carine: This panorama is symbolised by the landing that overlooks the column room at the end of the visit. After discovering the various rooms that you have named like chapters (Lieu de la pensée (place of thought) – Miroir du monde (mirror of the world) – Vitrine du déjà-vu (déjà vu showcase) – Corridor des voyants (visionaries’ corridor)), this landing overlooks La Fosse métaphysique (the metaphysical grave) composed of one work by each of you: Xavier’s painting Opera and Henk’s sculpture Monologue.
Xavier: For La Fosse métaphysique, there was the idea of playing with words. The metaphysical fosse (grave) or fausse (fake), like a fraud…
Henk: But at the same time, the written/painted word “opera” is monumental, it is similar to the words “demagoguery” or “propaganda”, it is a word that conveys an idea and even an order and a power: you must obey! This annihilates the sensitive subtlety of the world. This room underlines that the metaphysical moment is very important, even if we don’t really like it, either Xavier or me. This subordinated sensitivity… is really the metaphysical moment. For me, metaphysics is a form of escape and art is an entry ticket to reality.
Xavier: When I proposed this large triptych (made in Italy at the Villa Medici) for the column room, Henk’s reaction was at first violent and then he accepted and decided to present a sculpture representing a horse that is about to collapse called Monologue. The word Opera is an injunction, it is a dictator’s authoritarian monologue… Ultimately it’s an interpretation, and this horse which is collapsing here, like death, like the victim of an accident, confronts the public with this sort of authority of the work of art. But at the same time, presenting this doesn’t mean that we agree with this demonstration of authority. On the contrary, we are critical of it. When we are told that museums are the new churches, this room is its critical, parodical representation. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but one has to react to this insidious violence represented by authoritarianism and demagogy.
Henk: I don’t aspire to any ideological vision or religious world, which is ultimately an escape from reality. We are lost there. For me, art is a sensory experience, a moment which offers a sensorial access to the world.
Carine: In other words it is a very strong statement to round off the exhibition in this way.
Xavier: But what makes it possible is precisely that there is a whole preliminary journey that contradicts this outcome.
Henk: And it is not the end of the exhibition, it continues and starts again here because we turn back on ourselves... The confrontation is softened by the transparency of the lightly drawn word which operates as a mirror.
Xavier: It is not a culmination, a point of no return, but rather the place of reversibility. The spectator facing this mirror has to turn around to go back towards a more tangible form of reality in the world. On this landing, we are overlooking something which is of the order of an image, a mirage or an illusion. We do not have direct access to this gulf and the objects that it displays. We are kept at a distance, forbidden to touch or approach them, like the Lascaux caves, the Mona Lisa or Jan Van Eyck’s Mystic Lamb. Relatively speaking, of course! (laughs)
Carine: This play on words and things in painting is rather Magrittian, wouldn’t you say?
Xavier: Yes, René Magritte played with words in the 1920s. What is more, we know that at the time, he discovered Giorgio de Chirico’s “metaphysical” paintings which greatly inspired him. But even though he was influenced by Chirico’s world, I’m not sure he was involved in metaphysics. At the time he used words and associated them with objects which did not represent them, or he inscribed words in irregular forms that release them from their meaning. He evokes an object but in fact the object is not real as it is only the word. He destabilises the spectator and induces the question of language as a deceit. It is actually all a matter of false appearances. I like this period of Magritte’s work because I think that painting can also be a delusion, a way of saying, “let’s be careful and develop our critical eye.”
Henk: But art is often a game.
Xavier: Playing is certainly an aspect that unites us as I also have the impression of being in a permanent game with my work. I mean that I invent rules for myself and then I break them.
Henk: For me, adding such elements as a horse’s mane to a sculpture, or paint on a bronze is a sign. It is like singing or whistling instead of speaking. We don’t say anything, but we whistle to attract people’s attention, like birds during their courtship displays. The work of art is a secret message. For me, the work of art is silent and solitary. When I have finished a work, I take it out of the studio. It has already disappeared, it has left my thoughts. Art is like a love affair: we believe in it, we are passionate and then there is the separation which is a sad, very sad moment.
Carine: Your works are eminently polysemic, they offer various levels of interpretation and understanding.
Xavier: And this will be no less true during this confrontation of our works, which will inevitably provoke collisions between all the levels of meaning to be deciphered and interpreted, just as in life… and that is what interests me. I have the impression that this exhibition will be something of the artistic reflection of the highly complex and at the same time, highly unitary world in which we are living.
Henk: For me, the presentation is the most important moment. And I always envisage the work in relation to an exhibition space, even a mental space. People communicate, not objects. The works communicate visually, by the fact that we see them together or in a particular context. The work and its presentation are indissociable.
Carine: One section of the exhibition is called La vitrine du déjà-vu (the déjà-vu showcase). What was the origin of this title?
Xavier: This refers to the observation that spontaneous generation is non-existant and that the notion of originality in art is rather stupid, when we are all permanently borrowing from history in a way that is more or less taken for granted. Personally, I accept my borrowing. When I take a paella pan and stick a mirror onto it, the reference or the joke with Marcel Broodthaers is obvious. It is also a way of forestalling criticism, by saying: “of course, I’ve seen that before”. The mashup is not a recent invention, but the practice has come into its own in many art forms. The modernist notion that art has to constantly produce novelty, originality and revolution is completely absurd, it’s a delusion! Once again, it’s completely dogmatic. It’s an aberration and we know very well that art history doesn’t work like that. Advances take place in little loops forward and then sometimes a large loop backwards. Without De Chirico there would have been no Magritte. Without Magritte there would have been no Broodthaers. Without Broodthaers, etc.
Henk: Speaking of “déjà-vu”, we have to remember that seeing something is recognising it. When we don’t recognise anything, we do not know what we are seeing. The “déjà-vu” is an explicit form of recognition. Authenticity is a highly charged word in art. We ask the artist to strive to be authentic, which implies being original and unique. But we know that we are never entirely original, because we allow ourselves to be influenced, which is a living process. Authenticity is important for me, not to defend any sort of originality, but to be able to free oneself from prejudices and preconceived ideas. Originality has been lost. Originality is a preconceived idea. Because, as you say, it is a process, an evolution. Nothing is original. You produce something that changes all the time. I am searching for myself but I don’t succeed. To console myself, I make works of art.
Xavier: There is something terrible in this human propensity to validate what we recognise, that is to say, what we already know because it has already been validated by everyone, like the Mona Lisa or a Van Gogh, which we end up no longer being able to see, precisely because we have “already seen” it. In the end it is like another form of authoritarianism. Only surrounding ourselves with things that have been validated by others and not seeking originality, the “idios”, what is different. It’s tragic, people have to constantly be able to stick a label on things, to make sure that it is fully validated by society.
Carine: Isn’t it antinomic, this search by the artist for authenticity and then the acknowledgement by the public and the art scene?
Xavier: Pablo Picasso said, “An artist needs success, not only in order to live, but primarily so that he can realise his work.” The fact that art lovers can say, “Ah, it’s a Picasso” enables him to have entire freedom of movement. Recognition is an important milestone in an artist’s life, even if being recognisable can often be a trap.
Henk: Everything that the public says about my work suits me, personally I don’t know what my work says to its spectators, I do not have the privilege of explaining my work. For me, when the work is finished, everything I know disappears in the work. Everything is hidden inside it. In the 1980s, Emmanuel Levinas introduced the notions of “the other” and “otherness”, and imposed dialogue as the rational, universal model of art. But “the other” implies a form of exclusion and “otherness” defines negation and rejection. Art brings a different force: the subject of art is precisely all of these problems of exclusion. Nothing is excluded or exclusive. For me, art stands up in the midst of a battlefield.
Carine: To conclude, what do you hope to offer the spectators who will visit your exhibition?
Xavier: More than a message, as that would be another authoritarian act, I would like people to choose what they want to take away from it. We are not prophets or guides. If there has to be a message, it would be this: “let us love one another whilst we are alive”.
Henk: My work is not easy to pin down, because the details contradict one another. I like that very much. However, when I visit exhibitions, there is often something that makes me happy. It is not perhaps a final message, but rather emotions. Mankind, human beings, are meant to create things and observe their effects. The artist is the specialist in this knowledge transfer in each work of art. In art, no one obliges anyone to do anything, art comes from the tradition of giving.
Carine: Thank you!
Sigmar Polke and the yellow vests
The Pirate's Fiancé and his Lawyers, Richter Vache Period... The paintings are not only worth for their title and some of them do not have any. I write "painting" rather than postcard because it is about painting. But they could also be interpreted as theatre or opera paintings: moments when the scenery changes on sight, without the action being interrupted by a black or a drop in the curtain. Since we are not in the theatre and even if there are also "moments" in the painting, we should rather talk about states: when the yellow vests intrude into an image of Sigmar Polke or when Goya's dog heats up a Mondrian, it is a story of layers, colours, composition... and above all a very great joy.
I believe that it is linked to my relationship with art, and more notably with painting, during my childhood. It's not very personal: I lived in a world where Derain filed a few pages after Raphael and a little before Magritte, in the encyclopedic notebooks of the daily newspapers. A vast corpus that, from aviation to the fauna and flora of our country, constituted the Wikipedia of the 1980s. The trick was to be conscientious enough to have the complete collection, a single lack would have ruined the whole thing. The value of the object was only in the patient's mind to constitute it, to have it complete and if possible connected. We kept all this for a while, but never really went back. This was part of a documentation that could always be used for the school - but the school was not asking for so much.
Many of us, in the 1970s and 1980s, lived between a reproduction of a Buffet rooster and a boy with a tear. Dead and ugly images whose frames, rather baroque, justified that we look at them with a minimum of deference, in any case as objects a little precious. In any decoration, it was rather a garnish, as kitsch as a sugar rose on a birthday cake. Essential things, however, such as a tie during communions, Sunday roasts or a Letter to Elise without a typo. Because from Beethoven to typing, the step has always been taken quickly: in preschool classes, Mondrian now serves the cause of geometry, Calder or Miro to the "graphic reproduction of elementary shapes to be coloured without exceeding".
Religious rites have never required us to understand them, we reproduce them and it is even better when they are pretty. In doing so, art is everywhere and above all nowhere, in Andy Warhol eau de parfum, Virgil Abloh's claimed duchampian design, at Zeeman and Vuitton. It's different and ultimately the same: you don't see anything behind the soft plexiglass of the Ikea frames. It's not made for that, but it fills the room, exactly as before: Matisse in the kitchen in the colour of the time, like a navy on a flowery wallpaper. Not art, then, but signs, which together form the domestic ethos of an ill-defined middle class with which almost everyone is invited to identify.
If Xavier Noiret-Thomé's painting has provoked in me the joy I mentioned above, it is because of his fabulous ability to untie this bond, to fold the cards by thwarting the traps of my eminently social dispositions, to no longer be able to see a painting on canvas. And it does so in a way that is as direct as it is pleasing. The question is not to "question" the painting, nor to make a joke of it and even less to shoot it, but rather to get rid of the cultural mess darkening with a bad varnish the small red spots smearing the Giverny field, and to make it, finally, the hectic and crazy affair that it must never stop being.
If there is an iconoclasm, it is against these frames of incorporations which, from hotel rooms to waiting rooms, hide sex in Manet's house or the outrages of a Schiele until they disappear: only the gaze one can have on her is petty bourgeois in painting and it is difficult to escape this. The virus is endemic, like a kiss from City Hall in an Airbnb apartment.
It is precisely for this address that this series of postcards is intended, as if to cleanse the eyes and swap the cultural implicitness that moves away, much more than they value, the public and painting.
It is because the stakes are above all pictorial that this set works. It is a story or rather stories in painting, about painting. It is not Rauschenberg meticulously erasing a drawing by de Kooning, a conceptual strategy of reappropriation or symbolic rupture. More than painting on or against, it is painting with, in a generous, turbulent and mischievous way. To join the other without giving up anything, and thus to make happen vagabond, crazy or funny who seemed frozen forever.
The most curious thing is the full presence of these reproductions, as if the mask that Xavier Noiret-Thomé made them wear injected them with new energy. By diverting them from the used reception frames without ever totally compromising them, there is more than just farce and disguise. The mixture would not last a second if it were not educated and skillful: each of these scenes can be read in millefeuille, both pictorially and conceptually. This is full of clues about new directions to take: art history does not say that Picabia understands himself better by listening to Captain Beefheart, but it is not inappropriate to try, like associating Klein with sunflowers, backdating an On Karawa at his own convenience, seeing Western sets in De Chirico. I believe that it is under these conditions that art acts best, below or beyond the authority it is attributed, in this vast moor where one can still be Indian.
The quiet struggle
For Xavier Noiret-Thomé’s second solo exhibition in Roberto Polo Gallery, The Quiet Struggle, the artist, who was born in Charleville-Mézières, France, in 1971, lives and works in Brussels, shows a recent series of fifteen paintings on canvas and paper. These paintings are the result of simultaneous research on genres and styles. They clearly reveal a thirst for renewal of his practice, which, although inspired by the history of art, neither recycles its images, nor directly quotes them. Thus, fleeing cliché Postmodernism. As such, Xavier Noiret-Thomé’s work defies any sort of aesthetic synopsis. It is more about clearing the air than about historical re-visitation. Painting can be this extendable geography, the concrete expression of unmarked, surprising, and sinuous paths.
There is a Belgian word for ‘curl’ that is more expressive than boucle in French, which is crolle. No hair is said to be bouclé in Belgium. It is crollé, which does not mean ‘frizzy’. It is freer, a bit heavier and tousled. By nature, it resists combing. Between painting and a strand of hair, between Mondrian and l’Oréal, there is just a short leap: it is the missing link of a story that has already been set, the closing of the loop of Postmodernity. Straightened by the dictates of fashion, ‘conditional’ painting, as described by the art sociologist Nathalie Heinich, has been released from the confines of bourgeois domesticity in favour of institutional spaces. It espouses necessarily gigantic formats. It also inevitably operates in the field of irony or childish imagery, as if to exonerate itself from any pretension of expressing interiority. Nathalie Heinich sums up this short and simple description with an apparently definitive phrase: “It is painting for contemporary art specialists, rather than for amateurs of modern art.”
Except that is not true. The history of painting only provides examples to the contrary. Anyone who has come into contact with it, however briefly, will know that like hair, it curls up, kinks, stands out, and resists. The tufts are not merely epiphenomena, but more the daily life of studios, or even museums. We only have to compare Ingres and Delacroix, or Barnett Newman and Sam Francis. We might also focus the same precise attention on Ad Reinhardt’s monochromes and caricatures, Guston’s two lives, and Richter’s ten… and even judo in Klein’s work. In short, from the wondrous incongruities of the Déjeuner sur l’herbe to Buren the Elder’s architectures, Twombly’s Peony Blossoms and Alÿs’ falsely naive miniatures, painting requires a subtler sociology and more detailed historical analysis, for its protagonists are neither straight, nor well-behaved, and in the complicated game they play, they are too free to avoid contradicting one another.
This is literally the case with Xavier Noiret-Thomé’s paintings, which are particularly hirsute and unruly, bringing together Malevich’s false vacuums and Leroy’s density, Mondrian’s grids and Ensor’s jocular insolence… The artist knows how to weave together a painting, suturing at every possible opportunity, cannibalising or conscientiously dishevelling a story in which he sees himself as a happy, orphan monster. For the references captured here are not direct quotations; they are in no way the authenticated deeds of an inheritance. If it were the case, Xavier Noiret-Thomé would be a commentator (of Postmodernity) rather than a painter. We have to forget the motifs and the images—which we believe we see—in favour of the method, which is more essential to painting. For the letter is never the envelope.
Anyone who substitutes gesture with image has understood nothing, seeing a mark as a mountain, or a flat tint as a pipe: the problem remains as relevant as it is misunderstood. For the dice are indeed loaded. What mattered in the Chauvet cave paintings, and what still matters today, is to strive to use the right hand, select the right brush, the right filbert, to make the line, the space, and the colour relevant… Also, and just as importantly, you have to find a good title, in other words the right nail, the semantic catapult. The thing that makes a painting hang on the wall is never the narrative literality, and even less the little aesthetic housing in which we believe we can preserve it. The history of painting in Xavier Noiret-Thomé’s work is never strictly conceptual and typological. Instead, it fits into an ample, highly extendable space and time. It is entirely performative and seems to promote a syncretic, hybrid regeneration of even the most well worn motifs: a mouth, an eye, a tree… All of these would be dead images if the artist had not turbulently, and radiantly, reconfigured their authenticity.
This, I believe, is the secret of a good painting, a wild strand in the thick mane of ideas that can be seen in it: pure dis-abstraction. It makes life difficult for symbols. This is what resists all scenarios.