Through the Looking Glass: Semiotic Exotica in the Art of Paul-Emile Rioux

Paul-Émile Rioux, City Landcuts - Vision of a Urban Territory - Abstract Cityscapes, 2020. © Paul-Émile Rioux.

Note from Jonathan Campbell

My father James, who passed away last year at the age of 64, wrote on art for over forty years: monographs, articles, reviews for so many exhibitions, published in every leading Canadian art publication as well as international venues like Frieze. He started writing for Whitehot in late 2017 and went on to send in 75 articles here over the following years. Unlike with the typical quarterly schedule of a print magazine, at Whitehot he was given the freedom to write when he liked, and he loved nothing more than to write. 


"Topology is destiny."

Mark C. Taylor 

By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, March 2022 

Montreal-based artist Paul-Emile Rioux renders space in terrifically innovative ways, not unlike a born painter up to his proverbial knees in paint. But Rioux is not a painter. Nor is he a photographer per se. His artworks are born and calibrated on the computer. You might not conclude that by looking at them, but these chameleons seem to capture haunting refractions of the Real with poetry and panache. In this corpus, Eugene Atget meets Jerry Uelsmann head on and sparks are ignited simultaneously across the conflicting and intersecting domains of the temporal and spatial, imagistic and architectural, metaphorical and literal.  

In his extensive body of Landcuts images (comprising the interrelated The City, Downtown and The Suburb sequences) and subsequent series like the Geons, Rioux broaches a powerful critique of the culture of appearances even as he builds future worlds of tiered signs that may seem purely utopian and exhilarating on first viewing but which may in fact harbour the dark heart of an unnamed and unnameable dystopia. The ambiguity and continuing tension between darkness and light is both salient and enlivening.

As we stand on the liminal threshold of these Landcuts, they lay a cunning trap for us. We are seduced into projecting within their infinity grids as potential inhabitants of gated neighbourhoods in the sky. We may perceive them as auguries of total colonization like the semaphore-like living quarters of the super-intelligent ants in Saul Bass’s cult film Phase IV (1974). They colonise the inside of our own heads with alarming stealth and thoroughness. Here is a strange garden variety of Mandelbrot fractals, Mobius strips, Fibonacci sequences, infinity loops -- all under the same roof. It is never very long before we are submersed in the undertow and swept away into uncharted depths.

Paul-Émile Rioux, Digital Clift - Green Forest Aerial View, 2020. © Paul-Émile Rioux.

Rioux’s works are allied not with antecedents in art history like Surrealism, Dadaism and Hyperealism, but rather with the iteration of simplicity upon which all modern computing is based. The monolithic and mutable integers that populate these works – geometric structures not unlike skyscrapers but simply vast in number and scale -- emulate the extraordinary computational power of electrified binary numerics.  

Rioux’s palimpsest-cities are endlessly modular, mutable and distributable. The interplay of integers in the Landcuts calls to mind Mark C. Taylor’s seminal notion of “combinatorial play” as developed in his The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture. [1] Taylor held that networks adhere to organizational schemata radically distinct from the rationalized grids and hierarchies that enjoyed virtual hegemony from the Enlightenment through Modernism. For him, and also for Rioux, the network is both substantive and emerging, interconnected at all levels, a structure and a paradigm. Networking here uproots and energises the grid. His declaration that “Topology is destiny” is also a latent truth in Rioux’s work in which self-replicating and endlessly interconnected, layered urban grid systems have mimesis and geometry as unifying tropes.  

Rioux’s images are real exemplars of sophisticated combinatorial play and employ sundry devices from 3D models of topography and other sources found on the Web. Indeed, the “cut” in “landcut” is a piece of land that the artist frames, constructs, and grows by blending it together with other cuts taken from landscape photography, product shots, those 3D models of topography, all reinterpreted through digital techniques and upon which he has superimposed his own overwhelmingly supple surfaces. Here is an urgent deconstruction of the inner city understood as a legion of signifiers, not as a singularity. His synthetic landscapes are profoundly multiple and destabilizing.  Its multiplication, which is geometrically fractal, betrays the underlying architectonic such that the contour and scope shape of the city is no longer generated by static architectural tropes; it is now generated by a flow of images in permanent evolution, a relentless linearity that points towards infinity. 

Rioux’s cities are inherently a-centered and wholly detachable cartographies, animated by a restless circulation of interior states of becoming, and ruled by the short codes of critical late Modernity. The monolithic integers in these works are forever on the move, allergic to both stasis and the status quo, and are remarkably close to rhizomes in the sense that any cohering structure is a point necessarily connected to each and every other point, in which no location may become a beginning or an end, yet the whole is heterogeneous.  

Paul-Émile Rioux, City Landcuts - Vision of a Urban Territory - Abstract Cityscapes, 2020. © Paul-Émile Rioux.

Notably, Rioux disdains Photoshop, perhaps because he finds it archaic and unwieldy. He is reaching beyond, into multiple techniques that will allow him to express all that is mind to say. He integrates myriad photographs, topographies, drawings and 3D software routines and uses them like so many paintbrushes to build palimpsests that interrogate and inform, and endlessly seduce and delight the eye. He takes us beyond cinema and photography into a purely digital realm wherein fractal geometry and sundry fey anamorphoses rule the whole of regulated, inhabitable space. 

These constructions seem paradoxical and alien upon first viewing and are subjected to this elaborate form of free fantasy mental play at any and all moments of observation. It is no exaggeration on my part to suggest that Rioux employs eidetic variations in his process and he further encourages us to emulate this practice in assimilating his work. Again, eidetic reduction is a proven phenomenological technique in the study of essences. Its sole purpose is to identify the basic components of a given phenomenon. To enact the eidetic reduction requires a methodical examination of the essence of a mental object with the intention of identifying the salient and necessary invariable components that make the mental object what it is. This reduction is performed with the intention of removing what is perceived, and leaving only what is required. In order to ‘solve’ digital objects that seem so alien and unforeseen, as in Rioux’s seminal work and at least on first viewing, such a methodology becomes crucial.  

His toruses, crenellated rhomboids, infinite palimpsests of cityscapes and myriad squared earth segments seem to auto-replicate and mutate even as we perceive them. They multiply with what can only be called an intense order of cellular, almost algorithmic abandon. In this regard, his latest works arguably trigger the recognition-by-components theory, a process proposed by Irving Biederman in 1987 to explain object recognition. [2] According to this theory, our ability to recognize objects bolstered by our skill at separating them into constituent parts as geometric icons. This recognition-by-components approach works equally well when used to assemble much more complex objects and this relates to Rioux’s procedural methodology in the lab to configure his Geonics. He does not draw by hand, he ‘seeds’ images in a judicious selection of 3d imaging software programs that then organically grow and multiply. Rioux was inspired less by his forerunners and peers than by the pioneering work of French mathematician Bruno Delean whose Live Picture software represents onscreen images as equations, rather than aggregates of pixels, and works at breakneck speed, even with most expansive graphics files. 

Paul-Émile Rioux, City Landcuts - Vision of a Urban Territory - Abstract Cityscapes, 2016. © Paul-Émile Rioux.

In effect, the free play of fancy variations on our part – as developed by the celebrated phenomenologist Edmund Husserl – as work of the imagination is integral to the constitution of Rioux’s remarkable images. [3] The task of methodological imaginative variation is to seek out possible meanings through the employment of imagination. In assimilating Rioux’s consummately strange work, he encourages switching and inverting frames of reference, instituting polarities and reversals, and adopting divergent positions, assuming different roles and rules, and alert to Necker-cube like spontaneous reversals of depth, sudden inversions of profile and perspective.

In his recent series, he has essayed remarkably holistic images: seamless, dimensionally expansive and layered formal wholes into which we readily project and are thus complicit in their constitution. These built cities, geometric constructs, and ‘squares’ of earth’s land masses are all endlessly beguiling and potent projection zones. Rioux demonstrates a highly sophisticated order of combinatorial play, image manipulation, implicit conceptual models and extant geometries. He employs sundry devices from 3D models of cartography, topography, higher mathematics and geometry and other sources harvested from online sources and available utilities to enable his Landcuts, Geons and subsequent Squared Earth series, Rioux experiments with sundry maquettes in order to determine and calibrate the final results. The resultant semiotic palimpsests are based upon set-building exercises and the systemic deconstruction and reformulation of geometric shapes and are modular in the sense argued for digital objects -- meaning they are made up of objects put together to form still larger objects, and so on. One is encouraged to crack the underlying code, as it were, of Rioux’s objects with alacrity, as he incites the unconscious mind of the observer to decipher his work in ways undreamt of by Austrian-born British theorist Anton Ehrenzweig. 

The methodology of displacement in Rioux is crucial; he makes us see what’s in the present as if we were looking at it through a peephole in the future. Take the Geons: the shapes themselves seem like emissaries from a future tense as in the scene with the alien spacecraft at the beginning of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus film franchise. Vast pyramids perch on one sharp point. Rhomboids are half-immersed in liquid hydrogen. Ellipsoidal ships fill the sky. They inflect the present with a wilfully strange and seductive efflorescence and induce a certain startled wonder in viewers. It is as though Rioux’s art is already in and of the future, and we are seeing it for the first time in the present. 

In art, as in physics, the viewer is not a passive recipient of perceptual wealth but plays an integral role in its constitution. Think of one of Rioux’s works as the template for a truly engulfing experience, one undergirded by a holographic principle that projects the future. If you can do so, you will come close to the heart of his project, and perhaps understand better something of the scope and grandeur of his project, for that process embodies and delineates the true promise of his body of work; namely, ecstasy and communion. WM


1. Mark C. Taylor, The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

2. Irving Biederman, “Recognition By Components: A Theory Of Visual Pattern Recognition”, in Psychology of Learning and Motivation

Volume 20, 1986, pp. 1-54.

3. Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, Dorion Cairns, trans. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960), p. 70. 

James D. Campbell

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.

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