The Debacles of Painting
When I look at the painting of Xavier Noiret-Thomé (alias XNT), I am faced with a dilemma: do I attempt a meticulous, complete description of a few key paintings chosen from his corpus, or do I let myself go with the currents and flows of an art that blithely oversteps the lines of periods and styles in a topsy-turvy tumult of signs, materials and references. It is difficult, indeed, not to be tempted by the descriptive delights of ekphrasis, not to want to thoroughly rehearse all the teeming and tangling in each work. But such an undertaking would quickly prove inadequate: XNT’s paintings mirror each other, and are traversed by intensities that are at once divergent and convergent, centripetal and centrifugal.
So, to hell with my dilemma! Noiret-Thomé’s painting cannot be contained by traditional aesthetic oppositions between figuration and abstraction, figure and ground, drawing and colour, iconophilia and iconoclasm, high and low. It subverts those dichotomies in a joyous, turbulent frenzy that is utterly free of melancholy. If this painting has sometimes been described as postmodern, that is more a matter of intellectual laziness than artistic imperatives. For there is not a jot here of that contemporary cynicism which plays with figures from the past only to prove their obsolescence. There is nothing fake about the energy that runs through XNT’s painting, no more than there is about his admiration for his predecessors. As it happens, it was through a shared passion for the work of Eugène Leroy and Francis Picabia that I discovered his art. Eugène Leroy and Francis Picabia! On the face of it, these two painters have nothing in common, except the uninterrupted use of paint. Use, that is the point: for these two artists, painting is never a closed, autarchic world, tautologically folded into itself. Beyond their formal differences, Picabia and Leroy have an open conception of their pictorial practice: open to others, open onto the world.
XNT discovered Leroy when he was studying at the Beaux-Arts in Rennes in the very early 1990s. The main thing that struck him was the artist’s relation to other artists (painters and writers). “The lesson to be take from Leroy lies in the way he is constantly matching up to Poussin, Titian, Rembrandt or Cézanne, but also Rimbaud, Montaigne, Lautréamont… Painting isn’t the only thing that interests me: there’s also literature, cinema, History.”1
What XNT takes from Picabia is the freedom of an artist who follows no ideological or formal dogma. The artist finds it incredible that common sense has yet to digest Einstein’s notion of space-time and that we continue spontaneously to oppose the two notions. “Relativity obliges us to conceive of space and time as imbricated. It is not enough for me to see my painting as simply a matter of space. I take everything: history, memory, cinematographic forms as well as specifically visual ones, and in a space-time that is not linear but elastic. Today, painting has reached a stage where it needs to be able to use anything. Actually, the market hates that. And of course that’s why Picabia’s works, which are so difficult to identify and pigeonhole, are still not expensive, and are so little understood.”
XNT accepts painting in all its states: he is open to everything that happens, emerges, and occurs at any moment of its elaboration. He is a painter on the watch, in ambush, more than a painter of protocols and pre-established programmes. Whenever he embarks on a painting, XNT is thus particularly attentive to incidents, to accidents. No programme, more the implementation of pragmatic methods, without any formal discrimination or aesthetic catechisms.
“Usually, it starts with a blotch (several colours) or a drawing (automatic or otherwise). Then I move on to translucent varnish, and I start again over that; it’s slippery like glossy card and at that point I start to construct the painting and the story. Because for each painting I always tell myself a story.” For the Gummy Paintings, XNT covered the works with a dark colour and “chucked objects onto it, like when you empty your pockets or make a pizza.”
XNT does not fetishistically venerate revere the medium of painting, and likes to juxtapose the most contrasting media (oil and acrylic, industrial paint and ink, industrial varnish and spray paint, etc.). “Painting is an old lady that you can ginger up a bit and with whom you can try new things.”
XNT does not have a puritan, absolutist conception of painting. He accepts it as much for its “grandeur” (its history and tutelary figures) as for its “weakness” (its impurity, and even its triviality). “When I start painting very quickly, I’m as likely to be thinking about Clyfford Still as about nothing… It’s as if a workman had thrown a slightly dirty bucket of turpentine over a Clyfford Still.”
XNT takes an almost childlike delight in playing havoc with the codes, recommendations, protocols and hierarchies attached to the medium.
“It is important to me to maintain this permanent re-enchantment which exists every time you take up a brush, but also when you’re looking at a Picasso, a Rembrandt or a Poussin… The idea, ultimately, is to replay that moment of grace that is close to what happens when my little girl, who’s six, picks up a crayon and draws: she is perfectly concentrated and perfectly free, perfectly free of any other contingency. The only difference is that I have been to museums, I have opened books, I have heard people talk… So it’s not easy to keep that intensity and that tension.”
When he entered art school in Rennes in 1990, Xavier Noiret-Thomé, like many others of his generation, had a passion for “low culture” (graffiti, comics) and
for French Figuration Libre (Robert Robert Combas) and its American counterparts (Jean-Michel Basquiat). Art school was disorienting. That was where the discovered the work of Eugène Leroy. At first, he found the painting hard to take, then he fell in love with it. On leaving the school, in 1995, he went on a residency at the Domaine de Kerguéhennec (the Atelier), and there he befriended Denys Zacharopoulos, who was the director at the time. It was with Zacharopoulos that he met Leroy, but also Herbert Brandl, whose painting, which shrugs off the straitjacket of modernist ideology, has been an important influence on his own approach. His eyes were also opened to the painting of Gerhard Richter and Per Kirkeby, who represent two extremes of the contemporary pictorial scene. In 1996, XNT took the Master’s at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, painting texturally rich oils that were strongly influenced by Leroy. He then began a series of portraits of friends and a self-portrait which he considered overloaded and turgid. That was when he discovered chrome spray paint in a home decoration shop, a product very different from the sprays available before. This new product, whose effects would be manifest in street art a few years later, inspired a genuine about-turn in his art.
“When I got back, I covered my portraits using this spray. These portraits that failed to exist became monochromes through which there merged faces that before then had been disembodied and even unlifelike. As a result, my friends even recognised their picture! It was like a transubstantiation.” XNT had just made his first Chrome Monochromes. “For me, this is the ‘absolute’ monochrome, because chrome is at once a material (a non-colour) and a reflection (all colours are reflected in it).”
This iconoclastic gesture (which obviously recalls the use of spray paint by graffiti artists) was the founding act of a new manner but, above all, a new form of conduct. The tabula rasa effect of the chrome freed the painter from his overly subservient relation to his masters and predecessors.
“With this very iconoclastic act I put a distance between myself and Leroy’s painting (in the end, it was not my way). Ultimately, I am attracted to abstraction and the monochrome as well as to the figure. I like Mondrian, Malevich, Manzoni, and Klein as well as Picasso… There’s iconoclasm throughout my painting. At the same time, I think you’ll never get anywhere if you don’t escape from respect and veneration. It is by non-respect that you can change the picture.”
Once XNT had accomplished this liberating act, the nature of the difficulty changed. By this action he opened up the possibility, not of drawing a line through his influences and ideals, but, on the contrary, of accepting the protean plurality of his choices by bringing them together uninhibitedly in his painting. The iconoclastic nature of the action paradoxically forced him to accept his basic iconophilia. His work is thus full of nods to the vocabulary of the painters he admires: Picabia’s pasted-on objects, the Mondrian grid, Magritte’s faux wood, Malevich’s crosses… XNT especially loves artists who confound the formal categories of art history and aesthetics. For him, Malcolm Morley and Philip Guston are the great exemplars of this mindset.
“Nowadays Guston’s ‘second manner’ is being rehabilitated, so much so that his ‘abstract” period is being forgotten. But for many years that manner was violently rejected, which means that he listened to his inner voice and didn’t follow everyone else. I could have gone on making my ‘abstract’ paintings – in fact I was doing very nicely with them. But I realised that I was becoming stifled. I had the feeling I was really in the wrong place. That I was manufacturing my paintings. I broke my toy because I didn’t know what to do with it anymore. I listened to my inner voice. I came, and came back to the painting I do now. Obviously, people didn’t understand. I reclaimed a freedom that I’d lost by getting into a history that was interesting but ultimately wasn’t my own.
Nothing seems to connect the “pizza paintings” and “Brol paintings,” which extended the adventure of the Chrome Monochromes, with the paintings affirming XNT’s links to tradition, both Japanese and Western, unless it is an ineradicable ambition to fit together the opposing, if not mutually adverse dimensions that exist within his own personal background. “The whole history of my painting is a history of conflations and juxtapositions. I see the history of painting as one big family portrait, but a blended family – complex, alive, full of secrets. A bit like in the films of Claude Sautet. Or rather, a Sautet script directed by Quentin Tarantino.” XNT has never cared to choose between Matisse and Monet, Matisse and Picasso, Pollock and Newman, or Richter and Polke. Art history likes to put painters in opposing pairs (think of the Poussin/Rubens, David/Delacroix, antitheses that still implicitly structure the official reading of the art of our times). “It’s not about choosing this or that person, that’s much too reductive. I don’t like things that are frozen, chapels, let alone dogma.” For XNT, the challenge is to follow your true inclinations, to be as close as one can to what makes you what you are, whatever the fashions and trends of the moment. “When Pollock, a creature of air, paints his drip paintings on the floor and puts them up on the wall, the paintings levitate, but when the earthy Cézanne paints apples on a coarse cotton cloth, they are inexorably drawn to the floor. You always paint what you are.” Like Odilon Redon, one of his favourite painters, XNT “chooses not to chose”: “What should I do with all these loves? Today, I am trying to make all my loves coexist… My series form rhizomes. It’s not linear… I try to sustain all that (and fit it in) over
For what XNT has taken from Eugène Leroy is not the style, but an appetite for painting, almost a gluttony. Hearing him talking in front of his paintings, you understand how his work is infused with references that are like as many necessary stories helping to construct the story of each piece.
“When I see this monochrome [Enola Gay is the name of the plane that dropped the first atom bomb on Japan] I think of Hokusai, and then of the war against Japan. I think of Hiroshima, which sends me back to the Americans. The masking tape obviously recalls Mondrian, but there, they are like ghosts (the flashes of the nuclear explosion, perhaps!) There is this white square like the Japanese flag but without the rising sun. I like to think up all these stories in my studio.”
XNT’s painting is like (hi)story painting. His pictures are like crucibles fusing art history and art stories, as well as politics and fashion. For XNT painting is all about ghosts. The ghosts of painting and the ghosts of history always haunt his work, and are completely intermingled. The artist has a great talent for shifting the registers of material and imagery. His work is phantasmagorical in the strict sense, in that it has to do with the art of bringing forth phantoms. His Chrome Monochromes are of course emblematic of this spectral process: the fact of covering paradoxically causes the figure to come forward from the back of the painting. Painting here operates in the domain of apparition, understood not in some mystical sense but in a sense that involves a process both material (“Painters, like writers, are smooth talkers and alchemists. They show you shit or zilch and they’ll have you believe it’s gold. And you believe them, because they believe it: that’s the secret”) and historical. In this respect, XNT’s collection of postcards can be seen as his true palette: “For me, paintings are objects. That’s why I have a big collection of postcards. And postcards are objects. They are ghosts of paintings, but they exist in reality as objects.”
XNT’s painting is also all about vampires. When he talks about the process of transubstantiation in his monochrome paintings, he emphasises the vampiric processes that are the heart of the act of painting. XNT considers Goya, Velázquez, Manet, and Picasso as the “great vampires of painting.” Life, we know, is a long flux, a cycle, permanent movement linked to a long, slow irrigation system. And as art is part of life, it is in the system. You just have to connect with the arteries.” A painting from 2003 is emblematic of this position. “Master and Servant is the title of a Depeche Mode song from the 1980s; at the same time, bow ties in restaurants, it’s not the clients who wear them but the waiters… You can people I admire in this painting. The light bulb is Philip Guston, the bow ties, René Daniëls… Borrowings are essential in my painting. If I borrow, am I subservient to History or am I making it my own and becoming the ‘Master’? Who is the master and who is the servant in this use of references?”
Xavier Noiret-Thomé subverts the opposition between “mastery” and “servitude.” More than mastery, in fact, painting for XNT is a matter of sovereignty. The sovereignty of the painter is the affirmation that he necessarily comes along after everyone else; that his fundamental singularity is nourished by the plurality of voices, gestures, materials and manners that went before him. And for XNT, being a painter in 2012 means being a painter after photography and cinema, after Duchamp’s readymade, after Minimal and Conceptual art; after Philip Guston and Sigmar Polke; but also after pop music; after Auschwitz and Hiroshima… But it is also to be a painter in the age of electronic music, of video games, of the Internet; in the age of globalization and the aberrations of financial capitalism.
In 2010, XNT made a series of paintings entitled “Débâcles.” “There is a painting by Monet that I love, La Débâcle sur la Seine.2 It’s about the thawing of the river, in fact, but for me it refers to war as much as to the bâclé (botched) aspect of a piece of work or an activity. These are paintings that I make on the floor. I have a bucket full of Chinese trinkets and charms, and coins, which I throw on the wet paint.”
These “debacles” (a word which here resonates with the idea of collapse, fleeing the field, routs and others forms of crash, but also this breaking up of the ice in the thaw) are allegories of Xavier Noiret-Thomé’s painting generally. For if he sees his art as a kind of “dance of phantoms and ghosts,” it may also be seen as the place where the traditional artistic system of oppositions itself comes apart. XNT’s art occupies the field in a way at once figurative and abstract, iconophile and iconoclast, high and low, contemporary and untimely. His “Débâcles” celebrate both the ruin of aesthetic dichotomies and the eternal return, the permanent re-enchantment of painting.
 The remarks by XNT are from a conversation with the artist in his studio in Brussels.
 The Thaw on the Seine.