The Three Kingdoms


"Of Egyptian birth, Richard Deschênes writes his autobiography in giant hieroglyphics." I wrote that sentence, but I didn't know what I was doing. It was march of 1998 and I had taken it into my head to introduce each contributor to the eighth edition of La Revue des Animaux with a short sentence written entirely in a kind of automatic dictation, without regard for truthfulness or coherence. That one, I believe, I got just right. If I now had to put together a picture of this friend of ten years, I don't know that I could get any closer. This is of some importance, as there is a deep unity between the art, the man, and the way his life is playing itself out. The unity first appears in the aesthetical. Thin, of olive hue, with a close-shaved skull, his softening gaze counteracts the austerity of his presence. The same equilibrium is found in his home: gentle tones and soft light balance a sense of the small and understated, born of an economy of means. The arrangement of the place points to the same laws governing his whole pictoral universe. There is a certain restraint that leaves life room to unfold. Serene, the decor gives free reign to the moment at hand, and, in doing so, pays it a kind of homage.

Similar things can be said of Deschênes' painting, right down to its very method of development. Certainly, he likes to work slowly, with repetition - to work like a monk, as it were. It's also a way of life. "It keeps one from doing bad things," he says convincingly. The process begins with preparatory labours: assembling frames, mounting wooden panels - heavy, backbreaking toil, allowing escape from levity, to slay the beast with physical work. Then comes the moment of painting which, here, as we'll see, is not truly painting. It is slow work that loves its slowness. "What it's about, "he says," is taking one's time." Finally, through layers, through repeated trials, patterns take shape on the surface. Repetition is at the core of this process. Ornamental repetition, to be sure, but it is also a ritual repetition of the moment through the movement of the worker, who thus regains possession of his time. Work. Repeat. .... slaying the beast, taking back the world.



He may like his work, but he does not like paint. "It stinks," to hear him tell it. Little paint then. No color, or almost none. Seems he may have left his colors to Spain. Indeed, after his stay in Barcelona in 1991 , the vivid rainforest coloration of his preceding work vanished. Ever since, his work has seemed as though washed out by time, like the streets and houses in the Barrio Gotico. Color now passes through his work like a ghost, stopping to inhabit a few needy forms. Still, we are a long way from the sinister, the mortuary: the work is everywhere imbued with a life and organic growth of more discretion, and perhaps more tact, than his forests of old. Great ornamental patterns, the great presences that have animated his work since its inception, are doubtless the most elegant way to bring a painting to life. After all. broken down, movement itself becomes ornament.

All tonality found in Deschênes' work comes from fairly overwhelming repetitions of objects and forms. Some, relativelv unattached, keep their own iconic import; they are few in number. Others, arabesques and intertwinings of waves, fences, pipes and gratings, overrun everything. Undoubtedly, this pervasive foliage is of a piece with indecipherable traces of writing that recur periodically, as seen in the lower part of the work entitled 100 % Wool. There is something in this that reminds one strongly of certain forms of Islamic art. In this connection, it is worth citing the Dictionnaire historique de L'lslam: "We find ourselves in the presence of an art limiting its decorative inspiration to a subtle repetition of line and design. It asserts itself as devoid of all emotion, obliterating any message other than immediacy of pleasure, behind deliberately unintelligible patterns.'" Here, oddly, is a fitting key to our Egyptian's art - and to his art of living.

One must be careful, however, around the decorative aspect of Deschênes' use of ornament: it is misleading. Something far more devious is at work. It emerges with particular clarity in the upper panel of 100% Wool, where the pattern has taken the form of a grid evocative of the pixilation of binary images. The grid is superimposed on decorative metal grating. Where the two overlap, in fact, it literally bites into the grating. Beyond this dizzying grid·on-grate interaction of lattice, we witness the self·destruction of ornament. It all shares uncanny similarities with the decadent phase of Islamic tracery, where leading lines disappear "under a confused swarm of colorful splashes and grisaille effects." Evoking this phenomenon, Deschênes speaks of the shadowy spots of astigmatism, from which he suffers. Whatever it may be, it is a good bet much of art's intent is staked on similar, innocent patches of shadow.


Certain of the aformentioned elements in Deschênes' work escape from ornament or pattern. These elements - also repeated, but less so than ornaments as such - are detached from the background and retain their iconic value. In fact they are detached to the point of seeming to be foreign bodies visiting the universe of the painting. The created impression, that of collage, is not unrelated to a technique peculiar to the artist: the reproduction of certain photocopied elements, using charcoal. By this method the figures of an improbable catalogue of the universe materialize: diverse tools, fabulous animals, strange forms. The objects are nothing but disembodied effigies of the world we live in. So it is with the equine forms of Chevauchement typique and Cabine I. It is as if from the idea of a horse nothing remained but a mineralized trace, an icon worn out by reproduction, a captive, fossilized in memory. This impression - of remnants, traces - is reinforced by the aplat, the unified hue of the single plane in which many of these elements exist. The effect obtained is positively troubling and emphasizes the isolation of the forms.

Certain details in Giotto and Simone Martini produce a similar effect of detachment from the rest of the painting. For me the most pronounced case of this autonomy is found in some of Malevitch's later works, where the main figure is crossed by various colored elements which seem, in their flatness, to extend independently over the rest of the work. The detachment of Deschênes' figures reminds one of inscrutable hieroglyphics. Some recur so often, they are practically emblematic of the artist, as with that mocking monkey appearing in various forms throughout his work. Still, these elements evince no accessible significance beyond the direct effect of their presence. There is nothing behind that monkey, no mystery to unravel, no esotericism. Everything is there. "The immediacy of pleasure," is the key to this art - but it is a pleasure linked to introspection, to a contemplation inviting us to slow down. Animal. Vegetable. Mineral. The Three Kingdoms present in this art serve to humanly tie us to the world. Petrification of the most organic of the work's elements renders them kin to stone, that rock of ages, and brings them home to us. Do not the ruins of ancient Egypt inspire thoughts of a time of unity in life, art, and meaning? A perhaps unfounded reverie, but it is there and speaks of our desire that it be real. Without doubt, therein also lies the strange appeal of the art of Richard Deschênes.

Benoît Chaput (for the catalogue Richard Deschênes systèmes, published by Galerie Éric Devlin, 2000)