A Language of Possibility

Richard Deschênes is an artist with the spirit of an inventor and the disposition of a linguist. His ongoing project is the formulation of an infinite visual vocabulary resistant to stasis; a poetic language of memory and association, rooted in the personal and universal, inspired by history yet liberated from its authoritative tenets.

Deschênes considers language elastic and permeable, in perpetual flux and subject to circumstance and idiosyncratic interpretation. In all its forms it is a complex means of communication that traverses the physical and psychic and is necessary for survival at the most primal level.

There are richly layered historical and metaphorical themes embedded in Deschênes' work which are highly ambiguous. Specific meaning is elusive and intentionally calculated to resist linear and didactic narrative readings. Weighty references are balanced by a whimsical, open· ended playfulness. It is the adventurous cu riosity of the viewer and the act of looking which is of primary concern, leaving vast territory for the imagination.

100% Wool (1999) is particularly characteristic of Deschênes' approach to image-making. It is composed of two horizontal sections of scuffed, stained and creased unstretched canvas mounted on wood and arranged vertically. Countering the grungy green and checkered ground of the upper panel is the elegant form of an antiquated wrought-iron gate lightly coloured with a soft blue-grey wash. The lower panel is streaked with several quirky linear veins lightly painted. although ironically, given their lyrical quality, by dragging an old office chair with black paint on its wheels across the surface of the canvas as it lay on the floor. Two monkey-like figures painted in Deschênes' typically understated, washed-out tones appear to be casually strolling, in mid-air, across the veiled, murky surface. Several single black numerals in white circles are distributed, in no discernable sequence, throughout this lower section of the piece, further activating the rhythm of the composition. Remarkably, all of these disparate elements cohere into a dynamic and infinitely interesting whole which keeps the eye circu lating throughout.

As formally spare as this piece is, it is abundant with the key elements of Deschênes' vocabulary: personal histories, historical references, ornamental pattern, ambiguous iconography and a tension between fixed and random systems of thought. The information provided, and certainly the sombre colour scheme, evoke a solemn tone yet, there is a prevailing lightness of spirit. The monkies, somewhat of a trademark symbol for the artist, add an air of mischief.

Paper-Mill (1999) is substantially more dense in composition and atmosphere. Most immediately notable is the juxtaposition between the forceful size of the work and the intricacy of the coil pattern which fills almost the entire surface. The eye tends to follow this meandering coiled circuit (the pattern has been created by repeating an image photocopied from a plumbing catalogue) in a cross-surface journey with no apparent beginning or end. This visual trek is occasionally interrupted by several identical cylinder shapes placed at intervals along the panel. If by chance one were to correctly identify this mysterious shape as an antique papermaking pulp strainer, it may indicate a source for the work's title, but provides no clue or context for meaning, implying that it is the process of questioning and searching that matter and definitive conclusions are neither applicable nor desirable.

Although Deschênes has not set foot inside a print shop for years, he was trained as a lithographer but the time consuming task of producing editions did not suit his temperment. He much preferred to develop images further and with other materials, using each print as a matrix - of course, the ultimate violation of printmaking ethos. Out of the printmaking experience, however, he did develop an appreciation for the methodical, process-driven nature of that medium which has had a profound and lasting effect on his approach to the construction of an image-based language. Also, from this point in time drawing became his preferred medium for its material properties, strong graphic qualities and immediacy of expression.

Deschênes' affection for drawing, process and invention naturally led to an attraction to the mechanical illustrations found in early industrial catalogues and most importantly, Diderot's l'Encyclopédie of 1751-1772, a series of volumes illustrating in great graphic detail, thousands of the machines, tools and inventions of industry, trade and science. As literal as his drawings are, Diderot also intended his ambitious project to be an organizational structure for cataloguing the rapidly developing technological advancements of the day; a way to impose comprehensive order on an ever expanding knowledge of the universe. The full depth of Deschênes' enterprise, though, is revealed through a metaphysical aspect of his work which considers mechanics and anatomy analogous, a vision perhaps most powerfully expressed in the scientific and anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci.


The influence of Leonardo and Diderot is not readily apparent in Deschênes' work but scientific and natural history illustration have provided him with inspiration and a rich lexicon of forms valued as much for their ornamental qualities and visual sophistication as their metaphorical power. The straightforward and detailed style of these drawings, and the fact that they are drawings, is of equal significance. It is worth noting that, despite sharing similar characteristics associated with painting, Deschênes' works are primarily drawings with collaged surfaces salvaged from his older paintings and prints that he keeps stocked in his studio expressly for this purpose. This recycling process serves as an important archeological metaphor as well, and the stressed surfaces and ghost-like image fragments evoke memory and the passage of time.

Although rich with elaborate pattern, ornamentation and an inventive array of drawing techniques, the cryptic symbolism and lack of bold colour unequivocally prevent the works from becoming purely decorative. This does not necessarily mean an absence of beauty, although, it is gruff beauty that plays opposite a refined elegance and formal sophistication.

Cabine I (1998-99) may be the most conventionally beautiful of this series of recent works and it is also the most visually complex and difficult to read. First, the almost, but not quite square format is slightly jarring to the eye, an effect complicated further by a densely weaved grid of horizontal and vertical lines. Four skeletal horse-like figures have been overlayed on top of this screen and are barely visible, distinguished only by the contrast of their elegantly curving lines. The horses are fragile, stick figures that are referenced from diagrams for creating the wooden armatures for bronze equestrian statuary. Again, almost against the odds, Deschênes achieves a balance between opposites, between the regal posture of the horses and their primitive construction, between density and levity, between sensory overload and restful harmony. Contemplation of the work becomes an active and potentially infinitely resonant experience.

Deschênes' work reads like the open pages of a strange and fascinating encyclopedia with poetry and enchantment supplanting facts, statistics and historical bias. While he shares the human impulse to classify and make order of a vast and seemingly chaotic universe his viewpoint is more common to Eastern concepts of balance and harmony than Western notions of linearity and certitude. Each composition is precariously balanced between sophistication and simplicity, organization and disorder, meaning and ambiguity - a duality reflective of the rhythms of everyday existence. Richard Deschênes' images retain their openness within the space between these polar opposites. It is a fluid language - mysterious yet full of potential for discovery - in essence, a language of possibility.

David Liss (for the catalogue Richard Deschênes systèmes, published by Galerie Éric Devlin, 2000)