Diana Quinby

Nouveaux rebondissements
Exposition personnelle du 20 mars au 24 avril 2021 à la galerie Bernard Jordan, Paris

Philippe Richard New Beginnings

    At the corner of the Rue des Haies and the Villa des Hautes Traverses in the twentieth arrondissement of Paris, not far from Philippe Richard’s studio, the outside wall of a small, rent-controlled building is regularly graffitied by young people in the neighborhood and then painted over by city employees. For a few years now, a game of cat-and-mouse has been going on between the graffiti artists and the city employees who have to repaint the wall. Successive layers of spray-painted graffiti and large swathes of beige-gray paint have built up over time to produce an urban artwork that’s constantly evolving. Each time the city employees repaint the wall, the beige-gray color that they use is never quite the same. The wall has thus become a stratified patchwork of multiple shades of beige-gray and spray-painted scribbles. Walking by this wall one day, Philippe Richard noticed how much the young graffiti artists enjoyed their game with the city workers. Right in the middle of a broad strip of beige-gray that had just been applied for the umpteenth time, the words To repaint had been spray-painted in dark green, and a bit further over, in red: Again.

    Philippe Richard decided to use the photograph that he took of the wall that day for the invitation to his show, New Beginnings (Nouveaux Rebondissements), at the Bernard Jordan Gallery. The idea for this show came to him as he was reorganizing his studio and taking out paintings that he had put aside, paintings that were unfinished or “aborted”, as he says[1], and even paintings that he thought he’d finished several years ago. Taking a fresh look at these paintings, moving them about in the studio and then contemplating them one next to another, he realized that he could continue working on them. He could repaint them, again.

    Philippe Richard’s approach to painting can be described as an ongoing process of covering up what’s already on the canvas, of continuously repainting and starting over. The artist says that he’d like to be able to work on just one painting at a time, but he’s never able to, and he goes “from one failure to the next”, forever creating “new problems that have to be resolved” with each new canvas. Looking at his paintings, it seems that his irrepressible desire to experiment with as many different combinations of shape and color as possible expresses first and foremost how much he loves to paint. Circles, dots, cross-hatchings and interwoven sinuous lines, all painted in vibrant colors, entirely cover up and spill over the edges of his canvases. Concentric shapes, interlocking geometric shapes, or biomorphic shapes reminiscent of microscopic cellular organisms invade the pictorial space, overlapping and bumping into each other across the surface of the canvas.

    No matter what Philippe Richard paints, the common denominator underlying all of his work is the joyful and rigorous investigation of the formal qualities of painting. How does one go about solving problems of color and spatial organization? How can movement and depth be created on a flat surface? These questions have led him to explore sculpture and installation, to make site-specific works in which color escapes from the canvas, the surrounding walls becoming an extension of the pictorial space, and brightly colored wooden constructions playfully reconfiguring the exhibition space. Painting on canvas nevertheless remains essential to Richard’s artistic practice, the rectangular format being a space that imposes limits while remaining open to endless pictorial possibilities.

    The process that leads to the completion of a painting is long and made up of several transformations of the pictorial surface over time. “When I look at one of my paintings in progress, says the artist, I visualize in my head all of the different formal possibilities. They’re linked to my psycho-emotional state, my capacities, my feelings and my experience as a painter.” As the painting progresses over time, it becomes a compilation of visual events, and the successive traces of each of these painterly events remain more or less visible through the outermost layer of color. For instance, one painting largely covered in pink is punctuated with oval openings that provide a glimpse of what’s happening underneath, somewhat like a latticework window. In another work, a monumental canvas largely covered with interconnected biomorphic shapes painted in dark gray and overlaid here and there with bright colors, dots and cross-hatchings, the notion of “covering up”, or “repainting”, is explored with daring and humor. The swarming grey shapes appear to invade the pictorial surface like a mass of mutating cells that extends out to the edges of the canvas and almost entirely engulfs the background.

    In his studio, Philippe Richard doesn’t work on his paintings hung vertically on the wall. He lays down his stretched canvases horizontally on trestles. This way, the liquid acrylic paint that he uses won’t drip, or at least not too much. Furthermore, as he’s painting, he can move around the canvas on all sides to avoid working from a single, fixed viewpoint. This freedom of physical and visual movement can be felt in his paintings in that they all convey a sense of perpetual movement across the pictorial surface. Looking at his work, the gaze is constantly searching for a visual anchor within the proliferation of lines, shapes and colors, all of which appear to be held together in a fluctuating state of tension and equilibrium.

    Philippe Richard says that when he begins working on a new canvas, he “never knows what he’s going to paint. At most there might be a feeling for a new direction, or a question […].” Starting points come from multiple sources such as scientific imagery, Celtic art, African or Aboriginal art, and of course from painting throughout Western art history. His paintings are undeniably linked to Abstract Expressionism, to Hans Hofmann’s notion of “Push and Pull”, and to the gestural layering of Joan Mitchell’s canvases. He readily cites Shirley Jaffe, Jonathan Lasker and Bernard Piffaretti as artists with whom he shares many painterly concerns. His process of “repainting” also calls forth the work of New York painter Amy Sillman, who proceeds, much like Richard, by continuously reworking and transforming the pictorial surface. For Sillman, painting requires deciding and rejecting things, it requires reversing and remaking things to finally feel surprised by what’s happening on the canvas[2].

    It's precisely this feeling of surprise, or of visual astonishment that fascinates Philippe Richard. “When working on a painting, he says, I’m so absorbed by my subject that sometimes, in fact, the solution to a problem comes about by chance. I don’t mean by luck, but rather by the way the brush is laid down on the canvas, and things happen without me being fully aware of it.” Even though the artist is deeply concentrated when he’s working, things can take place on the canvas that escape his control, such as the way a touch of color is set down, or the way a contour line appears to quiver, and these pictorial events can alter and even unify the entire composition. It’s as if the eye and the hand were working together, and the artist only becomes conscious of what’s taken place on the canvas afterwards, when he looks at his painting hung on the wall. Philippe Richard knows that when he “manages to put his will aside,” unexpected things can take place. That’s what he’s looking for in the painting process without really being able to look for it, and it’s what stimulates him to paint and repaint, again.

Diana Quinby

[1] All of the quotes are taken from Karim Ghaddab’s interview with Philippe Richard, “Aimless Paintings”, in Philippe Richard, sans titre (untitled), Bernard Jordan Gallery, Paris, 2015.

[2] Studio Visit : Amy Sillman, 2014 : https://www.icaboston.org/video/studio-visit-amy-sillman.