Academic journal article Text Matters

Thurnauer: VT and Vi, to Paint in the Second Person

Academic journal article Text Matters

Thurnauer: VT and Vi, to Paint in the Second Person

Article excerpt

The museum installations of paintings by Agnès Thurnauer (first Angers, now Nantes) are a making manifest of one of the most important organizing principles of her work: its persistent approach towards, its adaptations of, its conviviality with, the canonical art historical genres, motifs and gestures of the past.1 Her paintings are often in part like recitations in a female voice of those authoritative male formulations that have acquired the status of pronouncements on the scope and agenda of western art practice. In her subtler, more sceptical, and more playful tones, which have changed the emphasis, the accentuation, and most importantly, the inflection of these resonant statements-once so mobile and mobilizing but now a little stiff and uncooperative-she has opened up a new space for the woman artist. Equally importantly, she has opened up a space for the critical viewer of a field in which the historical contexts for these acts of painting have been lost, in the repetition of tornoff shreds, bits and pieces of the original embodiments, fragments that have been inserted between quotation marks and launched on a separate career of their own. Thurnauer reminds us that the perception of art is often clouded, shrouded even, by an atmosphere that is filled with these particles we breathe in without thinking, without remembering that they were once created out of nothing, that there was a time before they existed; that they might have been conceived, and performed, and perpetuated, to very different effect.

Thurnauer is an historical artist in a post-historical situation, restoring a sense of perspective to these relics of a lost history, these parings and clippings that have been caught up by the hot air of publicity and now float in a kind of timeless dimension. But although her work is always posterior to the history of art it is also anterior to it, and in this doubleness it is not timeless but folded back on itself. In her short text "Aujourd'hui Lascaux," Thurnauer describes her studio practice as taking place in an environment equivalent to that in which the history of art is anticipated and inaugurated while being wholly reconfigured and transformed:

Lascaux is the place I happen upon in my work, when I hold myself back in the face of what arrives on the canvas, when what is revealed there is all questions, uncertainties, sudden illuminations. Lascaux is where I am when I'm in the studio, in this space closed off from the world, where all silences and all noises alike reach me amplified to an extreme, more naked and much clearer even than at the point of emission. There, everything can be heard, just as everything can be said, through painting. (133, my translation)

This return to the imaginary moment before the creation of all painting- all that has survived and been recorded, all that is now part of the history of art-is the situation of the contemporary artist enabling the work that has never been seen before: it is separated from Lascaux by 17,000 years, but it mirrors, in a "sudden illumination," the same moment. The artist carries the knowledge of art history forward to the present, but that present is also the point before the inception of an alternative history, one that may be precipitated by her work.

This fascination with the historical achievements of art, in the very act of imagining how differently their messages might have been formed, how differently they might have been "heard," is behind the artist's continuing preoccupation with the "matrices" that she has been working on for the past several years. These resin casts of alphabetical letters are the building blocks of language, but they are disposed in arrangements that make no linguistic sense; they exist in a state before grammar and syntax have been imposed, before even a recognizable language (French, English, Italian . . . ?) has been chosen for them to be part of. Their capacity for the endless combination and re-combination of elements corresponds to that of language itself. …

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