Paul Bureau: Ephemeral
Patrick Mikhail Gallery (Montreal)
June 1 – July 13, 2019
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, June 2019
“If painting doesn’t offer a way to dream and create emotions, then it’s not worth it.”
— Pierre Soulages
Any meaningful encounter with a painting by Paul Bureau requires patience, focus and sustained attention. That’s always been true of his work -- so thick its dimensionality, so pungent its chroma -- but is even more de rigeur now, when he offers three new deeply considered and immersive bodies of work: chromatic mass-form sculptures, huge works comprising myriad paint tube skins, and new paintings on custom fitted copper sheets.
Bureau has significantly flexed in this exhibition. He has put aside for the time being his signature thick crust monochromes. He has always been very experimental with the support and here it varies from unfired clay to cardboard, stretched fabric, and copper panels. The flattened oil paint tube is a conceptual guarantor of pigment’s pre-eminence, almost a conceptual object in its own right. The subtle colour-charts formed by them in vertical and horizontal rows show the artist’s range, and paint daubed directly onto the support fabric complements the chromatic array of the flattened tubes. These colour swatch paintings built from collating the accreted skins of empty paint tubes read as a necessary development in his practice, lending a sense of profound materiality very similar to that of his other paintings where the hatched chroma – the ground and the taches that activate its surface -- rules like a staggered sequence of raised semaphores in the private life of painting.
Bureau’s sculptures are a further affirmation of the sensuous presence and innate malleability of paint. These exotic and unruly objects resist taxonomy. One small painting that rests askew on top of one pigment pile is not physically attached to it and it reads as teetering on the proverbial brink. The sense of instability the artist cares for is carried over to the experience of the viewer for whom it is felt as deeply destabilizing.
The painted copper panels also mark a triumph of the material. Instead of the inordinately thick-coat oil surfaces on canvas, the copper hue that is ground and, to some extent, surface, is seamlessly integrated into the work as a whole and allows for the expression of a full measure of light. Unlike Joseph Marioni’s highly saturated paintings in which the canvas is shaped and gravity pulls the pigment down the plane vertically, Bureau in these panels seems to pull the paint sideways, building up lateral momentum and capturing light on the go. The application too, is different, as though slathered on and then trimmed off, and the trajectory of the paint has an ethereal quality no less somatic (because grounded in metal) than his earlier series of paintings. For Bureau, painting is, just as Soulages held, a continuing play of opacities and transparencies.
I should mention that Bureau belongs to the august lineage of Québec abstractionists that includes such stellar names as Borduas, Riopelle, Molinari, Tousignant and Gaucher. His work has a conceptual aspect that far exceeds theirs, yet his continuing iterations of the object-status of painting find a fellow traveller in a Claude Tousignant.
Colour in these paintings is simply everything: embodied colour, that is, dimensionally robust and mensurably somatic in its effects. Bureau is singularly adept at predicating colour on the thick palimpsest of the material as a sacred fundament of the painter’s practise. As much a devotee of thick coat surfaces as Milton Resnick and Eugene Leroy, Bureau conjures up chromatic fields that are well nigh narcotic in their effects.
Furthermore, chroma has a votive character here that speaks eloquently of the artist’s generous sensibility. It is a perfect offering that secures epiphany. Our carnal love of colour for its own sake comes into play, and because the oil paint in Bureau’s paintings has such pungent weight and somatic reach, we commune with the painter’s deeply syncretistic vision with alacrity.
Materiality is synonymous with the essence of manifestation. Its where the heart is and thus synonymous with exaltation. Bureau will often leave markers of the processual history of a painting in plain sight, whether by incising the plane with surgical precision to reveal the interior chromatic layered scaffolding (as in earlier work) or flattening paint tubes to emphasize the origin of their explicit materiality (as in the colour swatch paintings here). Sensuous, tactual and self-present, the surfaces and the depths are incarnate indexes that lead one back through the various stages of the painting’s development to the very moment of origin.
All Bureau’s new work (and this has been a continuing hallmark of his body of work over the years) discourages the viewer from assuming a passive or static attitude when standing in front of it. The sculptures require moving in and around them, just as the colour swatch compendiums and paintings on copper do.
As I have argued elsewhere, Bureau’s paintings are not auto-referential, hermetically sealed or solipsistic entities. They are provocations. They are incitements, catalysts. They are acts of faith. They encourage questioning and a slow, measured meditation is rewarded with small but telling epiphanies. The epidermis of coagulated oil paint is a carnal presence that has undeniable somatic wherewithal.
Why ephemeral instead of ethereal? Well, these works are both. One supposes that the artist is referencing paper items (such as posters, tickets what have you) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become true collectibles, like the flattened paint tube skins that are normally cast away but here inculcated back into painting itself as the worthiest of ingredients. Bureau brings brave new possibilities for abstraction into being, and boldly. He takes Soulages’ aforementioned remarks to heart, and his art is a way to dream expressively and create emotions in the language of oil paint. WM
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.