The art concept PASSAGES

By Jean Couteau

15 March 2006

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The cross­roads of abstrac­tion and fig­u­ra­tion, and of pho­tog­raphy and painting.

J-Phillipe’s Balinese Window to a Brotherly Soul

By Jean Couteau [1]

The eye is first drawn to the soft-hued drip­pings of color spread over the paper sur­face. Blots appear here, a gravel-like tex­ture there, vague shapes stand out and then melt away. An impres­sion of calm and peace emanates from the work. It is "abstrac­tion" at its best: a lan­guage of purely visual emo­tions expressed through what looks like a nat­ural color world. Yet, as the eye rests longer on paper, another reading reveals itself, this time fig­u­ra­tive: from behind the pastel wash colors appear the vague, yet finely drawn con­tours of a "clas­sical" Balinese vil­lage scene, both hidden and revealed by the color sur­face. Our emo­tions, awak­ened by the abstract side of the work, are now guided toward the visual enjoy­ment of an idyllic land that hap­pens to be Bali.

It is in the uncanny encounter – and bal­ance between – the worlds of abstrac­tion and fig­u­ra­tion that J-Philippe finds the field of his inspi­ra­tion.

This is no easy endeavour. One of the classic prob­lems encoun­tered by any painter is how to manage line and colour. Is he going to let color orga­nize not only space and com­po­si­tion, by also the shaping of objects and char­ac­ters, or will it follow a rhythm of forms deter­mined by a graphic struc­ture? Reciprocally, can the drawing line retain its autonomy of _expres­sion when its space is “in­vaded” by color? How to achieve a bal­ance? In J-PHILIPPE it is def­i­nitely color that struc­tures the painting. The work is pri­marily abstract; its main pull is the color com­po­si­tion. The scenes super­posed on the color sur­face always follow the basic rhythm of the latter. The drawing line is ever dis­creet, smoothly inserting the Bali theme into a pre-existing mood of the soul. But the intent is never descrip­tive. It is the mood of the soul that dom­i­nates the work. "If I don’t like the wash sur­face I have made," says J-PHILIPPE, "I just don’t carry on. I don’t draw any­thing. I leave the work unfin­ished."

Another classic issue artists face is that of "rep­re­sen­ta­tion". What ought to be the part of the imag­i­nary, of the spon­ta­neous and of objec­tive reality in an art work? If abstrac­tion has its own, usu­ally color-driven "logic", fig­u­ra­tion calls in real­istic and sym­bolic ref­er­ences. In this regard, what can be imi­tated, and what should be "invented"? What about the "realism" of a pho­tograph? To which extent does it reveal "reality" – or the pho­tog­ra­pher’s "eye"? This ques­tion is of no small impor­tance in J-PHILIPPE ’s case, as his draw­ings are based on pho­tographs. Yet, there does not seem to be any problem. His pho­tographs are of very high quality – as those exhib­ited with the paint­ings demon­strate. Their inser­tion as draw­ings enables the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of scenes and phys­ical atti­tudes that are un-thought of in ordi­nary fig­u­ra­tion. Last but not least J-PHILIPPE does not strictly "dupli­cate" pho­tographs, but rather "bor­rows" images from them. There is thus an enrich­ment of rep­re­sen­ta­tion: in the pho­tographs, what he shows is a "selected reality" that becomes an "invented fig­u­ra­tion" in the paint­ings.

A "sen­si­tive" answer to the problem of the encounter of genres, J-PHILIPPE’s paint­ings are exactly at the cross­roads of abstrac­tion and fig­u­ra­tion, and of pho­tog­raphy and painting.

What about the fig­u­ra­tive con­tent? Advocates of con­tem­po­rary art will surely crit­i­cize the artist’s themes: "Bali. Exotic," they will say, without even looking closely at his works. And crit­i­cize it for being the post-colo­nial appro­pri­a­tion, by a for­eigner, of a world ill-known to him. Yes, indeed, but isn’t there still beauty in Bali, which few artists reveal with as much talent as J-PHILIPPE? And why should an artist delve into the pol­i­tics of con­tem­po­rary art if his sen­si­tivity takes him "out­side" and makes him a “marginal” in the modern world. Doesn’t he have the right to find Balinese vil­lage life more coherent and bal­anced than modern life? Doesn’t he have the right, too, to ignore in his work the con­tra­dic­tions and ugli­ness of daily life and ide­alize the aes­thetic and social cohe­sive­ness still found in tra­di­tional Bali?

At a deeper level, J-PHILIPPE’s paint­ings are every­thing but exotic. Exoticism is basi­cally a "misun­der­standing". It under­lines the out­ward dif­fer­ences of a cul­ture, as if these dif­fer­ences rep­re­sented its core, whereas they are simply details. With regard to Bali, exoti­cism hovers around cer­e­monies, offer­ings and the like, all that has con­tributed to the island’s par­adise image. But this is not what inter­ests J-PHILIPPE. The char­ac­ters he rep­re­sents in his works do not sur­prise us by their "oth­er­ness", but instead by the inti­macy they emanate. What he sees in them are ordi­nary bodily ges­tures and a sense of togeth­er­ness. Innocent humans as we all should be. This per­cep­tion of Bali as a land of inno­cence is very per­sonal: J-PHILIPPE does not compel it on us, but instead reveals it, as if little by little, as the back­ground of his color wash. The main quality of the artist here appears, beyond his style and tech­nique: his sen­si­tivity as a man of faith, open to other men and Humanity as a whole.

J-PHILIPPE is not your nar­cis­sistic kind of artist, obsessed by his own work and self. You may meet him many times, yet he will never talk about him­self, and never even hint he is an "artist" with a "mes­sage". He will let you, or others, do all the talking, speak of "art", "expres­sion", "con­cept" and what­ever. But, unknown to all, back in his house in a field not far from the vil­lage of Mas, near Ubud, what will he do? He will enter his small lum­bung (gra­nary) work­shop, shut him­self inside, take a drawing pencil, open his com­puter and alone, launch him­self into the world of his dreams, per­sonal, inti­mate, sen­si­tive, like the works soon to emerge under his hands.

Discretion and sen­si­tivity is indeed the golden thread of J-PHILIPPE. He did not come from France to Indonesia through tourism – to "dis­cover Bali"; nor did he come attracted by eco­nomic oppor­tu­ni­ties – to work. He came instead pro­pelled by faith – to serve. Born to a Catholic family and a grad­uate of the reputed "Ėcole Boulle" – an art and craft school owned by the City of Paris– he came to Bali in 1991 as a faithful young Catholic lay brother, eager to develop a craft school set up in Gianyar by the Catholic com­mu­nity at the ini­tia­tive of a French priest, Father Le Coutour. Once in Gianyar, and soon in Mas, he found in the vil­lage life around him a quiet atmo­sphere that suited his own med­i­ta­tive, highly reli­gious soul. He saw in people around him brothers behaving like brothers, and living in a land where reli­gion is still asso­ci­ated with com­mu­nity life and togeth­er­ness.

The great thing about an artist such J-PHILIPPE – straight, hard­working and dis­creet- is that it is almost cer­tain that he will remain unfazed by fashion and that his future works, what­ever their stylistic evo­lu­tion, will con­tinue having the stamp of sen­si­tivity that is the man’s main quality.

Please note

[1French sociologist, an eminent art critic, specialist in the painting of Ubud, installed for thirty years in Bali.

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