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Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the shuttering of many stores and businesses in New York, it is still possible to discover something unexpected that might lead you down a path of reflection you did not plan on traveling when you started the day. This is precisely what happened when I went to see the exhibition Vicky Colombet: From the Floating World, at the Elkon Gallery (October 9, 2020 – April 9, 2021).
From poetry to music to painting, artists working in different mediums have engaged with the work of other artists. By this, I don’t mean taking someone else’s recognizable image and turning it into their own brands, as Roy Lichtenstein famously did many times in his career.
Nor am I thinking of Pat Steir’s engagement with Chinese ink painting and the subject of the waterfall, though this body of work and Colombet’s recent paintings both share a preoccupation with dissolution and — more importantly — diverge on the subject of time.
Rather, I am thinking of an encounter that goes beyond style, as in Jack Spicer’s book of poems After Lorca (1957), which included an introduction purportedly written by the Spanish poet who had been murdered by the state in 1936, or the various works that Jasper Johns has made over the years in dialogue with the work of Edvard Munch.
For the past three years Colombet has been engaged in a visual dialogue with the work of Claude Monet, particularly his well-known paintings, such as “Bras de Seine prés de Giverny, soleil levant” (Arm of the Seine near Giverny, rising sun, 1897) and the foundational work of Impressionism, “Impression, soleil levant” (Impression, Sunrise, 1872), both of which are in the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris.
I mention this because the exhibition Colombet / Monet: Painting Like the River — the third in the the Unexpected Dialogues series — is currently at Musée Marmottan Monet (October 14, 2020 – May 2, 2021).
Invited to respond to the work of artists in the Marmottan’s collection, Colombet chose Monet. In an interview with the French literary critic Marianne Alphant included in the Marmottan exhibition catalogue, Colombet stated:
[…] In Monet you have this extraordinary mixture of simplicity and sophistication. Most painters are sensitive to the passing of time, to the fact that things are ephemeral. They create pictures, images, in order to stop time. Monet isn’t trying to stop it; he is in time, in the wind, with time, with the wind. […]
By titling her New York exhibition From the Floating World, Colombet connects this body of work to the Japanese belief that everything is transient and one must live in the moment, while remaining detached from material needs and desires (Ukiyo). The moment the artist lives in is the act of painting, beginning with the grinding of the pigments.
As the child of a French father and Filipino mother, Colombet spent a lot of time in the Philippines, India, and Southeast Asia. Later, while living in Paris, she studied in the atelier of Henri Dimier (1899-1986). In La part du hazard (The Role of Chance, 1984), a film portrait of Dimier working, director Patrick Bokanowski frequently shows the artist insisting that the goal is to have the paper “be aware of itself.”
In her work, Colombet seems to have joined Dimier’s insistence on revealing the nature of one’s materials to the Buddhist belief that the world is that which disintegrates (lujjati ti loko).
None of this occurred to me when I first saw Colombet’s paintings on my computer screen, as their surfaces appeared topographical and rough-edged. I imagined that I was looking at materially heavy paintings, akin in that regard to the work of Milton Resnick. That impression was quickly corrected when I saw the paintings in person, which are absolutely smooth, like glass. That contradiction between sight and corporeality was the first thing I noticed. Slowly, other nuances and variances made themselves apparent.
These paintings — and this is perhaps true of all good and great paintings — are apprehended at different tempos, from the immediate impression to a longer period of scrutiny to, finally, the time when one reflects upon what has been seen.
Colombet’s paintings reminded me that there are artists who use paint to achieve something and artists who paint. She belongs to the latter group. Her paintings are clearly the result of a process that is connected to her contemplation of the world and the relationship between materiality and transience.
The other thing that struck me, particularly while looking at two square paintings, “Sunrise after Monet #1457” and “Sunset Series #1451” (both 2020), is that the real looking begins after we see the similarities between the work of Colombet and Monet, which includes comparable palettes and a preoccupation with the elemental world of water and light. Once the connection has been made, we must begin seeing the differences, of which there are many.
While the horizontally striated, blue surfaces of “Sunrise after Monet #1457” and “Sunset Series #1451” evoke moving water, especially from a distance, the gaps between the irregular bands of paint are marked by particles of pigment, which become more apparent when seen up close.
The paintings have two vantage points; we should see them from a distance and then pore over their surfaces. Not only are the surfaces absolutely flat, but they show no evidence of brushwork or the artist’s hand. While the striations orient our viewing, I learned from Colombet that the paintings were done on a flat surface.
The recognition that something solid is changing and disintegrating seems, to me, to be the subject of these paintings. As much as they evoke moving water and light on their rippling surfaces — states of flux — they are also abstract paintings that have little to do with any of the art movements and stylistic tendencies that have developed in abstraction since the rise of Abstract Expressionism.
The painting are not gestural, geometric, or stained. Everything is the result of a highly individualized process, which suppresses one component associated with authorship, the artist’s hand. In fact, the hand seems to have been completely removed from these paintings, which positions them on the opposite end of spectrum from Monet’s work, where the hand and touch are always present. The paint has been applied to a flat surface that is sanded down to achieve absolute smoothness. As the paint dries, it adheres to the surface in different ways, ranging from a band of color to a trail of dust-like particles.
“From the Floating World Series #1446” (2020) recalls hoarfrost and cracking sheets of ice. As with many of the exhibition’s paintings, the palette of blues and greens quickens the viewer’s connection to water and ice, to an unstable world in which impermanence and change are the constant conditions.
What deepens Colombet’s vision is the way the materials manifest themselves in her work. In the paths of particles strewn across her surfaces, one sees palpable evidence of mutability and disintegration. In this regard, each painting displays its own vulnerability and precariousness in an understated way. Rather than trying to stop time, Colombet’s work embraces time’s unavoidable pull toward chaos.
I am struck by the fact that Colombet’s paintings resemble no one else’s and that they do not adhere to the illusion that time can be stopped and permanence achieved. Rather, she invites us to be open to the chaos, fluidity, and dissolution we encounter in her work. Looking becomes a contemplation of mortality without regard for the individual. What we see is the beauty of the world’s indifference to our existence.
Vicky Colombet: From the Floating World continues at the Elkon Gallery (18 East 81st Street, Manhattan) through April 9.