Mise En Abyme (De Cajas Chinas)

Jean Baptiste Bernadet

“For, methinks, the understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly
shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external
visible resemblances, or ideas of things without: which, would they
but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it
would very much resemble the understanding of a man, in reference
to all objects of sight, and the ideas of them.”

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690
Book II, Chapter XI, paragraph 17 “Dark Room”.

The exhibition Mise en abyme resembles an enclosed landscape, calling to mind John Locke’s description of the camera obscura as representative of human understanding. French artist Jean-Baptiste Bernadet’s paintings are like so many small openings onto the outside world. Locke says these openings represent the extent to which man can understand the world, and the ideas he forms about it. In a similar fashion, Jean-Baptiste Bernadet’s pictorial works suggest a world, but especially express an inability to precisely define and apprehend this world in its totality.

For his first exhibition in Spain at the Casado Santapau Gallery, Jean-Baptiste Bernadet shows three groups of paintings, each representing a different punctum (from the Latin punctum: a small distinct point, a sting). Demarcating the field of vision, the punctum extends from the punctum remotum, the farthest visible point, to the punctum proximum, the closest.

The first group of paintings, entitled Carlsbad, comprises large format canvases with multiple perspectives. In the absence of a focal point, the eye loses itself in the indefinite space of these contradictory images, as if in a dream or hallucination. This feeling is reinforced through the use of bright colors and shifting perspective. The imprecise scale of these paintings suggests we are dealing with a punctum remotum. Viewed from afar, these canvases evoke a vast landscape, but a multitude of smaller scenes appear upon closer examination, as in New Mexico’s Carslbad cave, where small landscapes are revealed by the colored spotlights inside the cave, itself constituting a vast landscape.

The small format series Punctum is a counterpoint, acting in diametric opposition. Symbols rather than figures, each painting represents a fixed, open eye. These canvases, loaded with paint – almost sculpted, are as sharp and pronounced as the Carlsbad series is unstable and shifting. Like a mirror, they send the spectator’s gaze back out, whereas the Carlsbad canvases act as bottomless pits. Here, the spectator experiences the punctum proximum. Viewed up-close, they lose all spatial qualities, becoming pure painting, with no image-subject other than the paint itself.

Finally, there is a third group of medium-sized paintings entitled What Happens Here Stays Here. Like blind mirrors, their slippery surfaces are marked by subtle clues reflecting studio practice and suggesting a layer of air of some sort: a sfumato as da Vinci employed it to intensify depth in his landscapes. Situated at the halfway point between the two other series, the punctum here is intermediary, indefinite. These paintings are in some sense the spatial benchmark of the exhibition, the neutral zone that comparatively pushes the Carlsbad series away from us and pulls the Punctum series closer.

Jean-Baptiste Bernadet was born in Paris in 1978. He has lived and worked in Brussels since 2000, and was artist-in-residence at Triangle Studios in Brooklyn in 2012, APT Studios in Brooklyn in 2011, and Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas, in 2010.

His solo exhibitions include, among others, Marfa Book Company, Marfa, Texas (2013), Saks in Geneva, Torri in Paris, Renwick in New York (2011), the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, Maes & Matthys in Antwerp, Baronian_Francey Gallery in Brussels (2010), Les Filles du Calvaire in Brussels, Chapelle des Calvairiennes in Mayenne, France, Galerie Xprssns in Hamburg (2008), and Konsortium in Dusseldorf (2007).

Since 2001, he has participated in many groups shows, including Toomer Labzda Gallery in New York, Angstrom in Dallas, Texas, Klemm’s Gallery in Berlin, Villa Noailles in Hyères (2012), Artorama in Marseille, 8 rue Saint Bon in Paris, White Flags in Saint Louis, Missouri (2011), WIELS in Brussels (2009 and 2010), Galerie Crèvecoeur in Paris (2009), Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tourcoing (2005), Galerie Catherine Bastide in Brussels (2004).

Upcoming projects include the Young Belgian Art Prize at Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, and a collaboration with American writer John d’Agata on the book On Knowing Not, forthcoming this year and published by Karma in New York City.

Mise En Abyme (De Cajas Chinas)

Jean Baptiste Bernadet

Jean-Baptiste Bernadet was born in Paris in 1978. He lives and works in Brussels since 2000, and was artist-in-residence at Triangle Studios in Brooklyn in 2012, APT Studios in Brooklyn in 2011, and Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas, in 2010.

Each of Jean-Baptiste Bernadet’s paintings returns to painting from a singular entry point: a burst of evanescent colours onto the field of the canvas; riddling a year of birth and a course year with metallic residues; stymieing an advertisement for diamonds with black spray; black and white paint brushed and quickly effaced, etc. These constitute so many entry points, which are not without an ironic and reflective dimension, as Bernadet appropriates the codes that make up the history of art and painting, both in its relation to the image and to the act of painting. Each painting appears as an attempt to appropriate painting, to make it one’s own. Appropriation here is not about the simple reproduction of an act, image or code but instead about a subjectivation that entails their displacement.

Since it entered a crisis and was subjected to multiple postmodern interrogations, painting has in fact been incessantly revived and displaced, inevitably raising the question of the possibility, or of the obsolescence, of defining it. This strategy of circumvention of the pictorial medium, placing a sort of assumed melancholy on a desired object that refuses or resists its being named, has been applied by several generations of artists, from Raoul De Keyzer to Josh Smith, passing through Martin Kippenberger and Christopher Wool. Bernadet’s work takes up this theme anew and approaches it through a twofold economy.

The first economy runs according to a logic of expenditure, in the sense that Georges Bataille gives the term. The splendour of styles characterising the artist’s production, the brushed effect, the unfinished effect, and the speed of execution of some of his paintings (that is, of his ‘provisional paintings’, to use to Raphaël Rubinstein’s expression) attest to this logic of expenditure, where production has no other utility or function than to arouse a form of pleasure, and sometimes of loss, of painting, in the manner of those lines, strokes and layers that, in many of his paintings, seem to contradict one another. The second aspect of this economy entails a no less essential question about the history of recent painting, as well as of history and of fiction. With the great modernist narratives entering into crisis (Lyotard), Bernadet’s painting seems in fact to be striving to reconsider a form of narrativisation in painting, via a means of abstraction. As the artist himself indicates, ‘All my painting is addressed to someone’.

This mode of address works via the inscription of phrases conveying a wittingly pop and sometimes disillusioned dimension. But it also consists in the painted act that conveys and unfolds a story (one about a painting’s realisation and the multiple acts of tensioning involved in creating it), as well as the very arrangement of such paintings in space, which suggests a form of their fictionalisation whereby the apparent incoherence of styles, acts, materials and canvas effects addressing the spectator comprises part of the painting’s narrativisation, one that is non-linear, broken and strewn with gaps.

Raphaël Pirenne