Whitehot Magazine

Magister Equitum: Nomadism and the Ceramics and Drawings of Jean-Pierre Larocque

Jean-Pierre Larocque 'Cheval et cabane #03' (2018) glazed and enamelled stoneware (42'' x 32'' x 19'').

Jean-Pierre Larocque

Galerie Robert Poulin and 1700 La Poste, Montreal

March 22 - July 7, 2019

By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, August 2020

 “…But the nomad is not necessarily one who moves: some voyages take place in situ, are trips in intensity. Even historically, nomads are not necessarily those who move about like migrants. On the contrary, they do not move; nomads, they nevertheless stay in the same place end continually evade the codes of settled people.”

-- Gilles Deleuze, “Pensée nomade” [1] 

“The nomad’s identity is a map of where s/he has already been; s/he can always reconstruct it a posteriori, as a set of steps in an itinerary.”

-- Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects [2]

To call Montreal-based artist Jean-Pierre Larocque a subversive nomad is simply to register the truth of his status but to identify this sculptor as a “Master of the Horse” is not without its own measure of elegance and probity. [3]

In both ceramics and drawings worked, as they are, with his signature feverish ministrations, he channels equine ghosts with remarkable specular fidelity. Alongside or astride horses are compelling portraits of what seem Bedouin nomadic tribespeople with Richard Corben-like physiologies and decidedly Proustian appurtenances. [4] 

Larocque has achieved enviable international renown for his innovative clay sculpture and for a longstanding drawing and painting practice. Using charcoal and clay, he builds portraits that do not seem fixed in any one place or time, hence escaping context and closure. But they remain wholly open to the infinite as they make their slow and inexorable passage through Time.

Larocque is no craven devotee of representation for its own sake. He is an inveterate experimenter. He thinks and draws by methodological addition and subtraction. He sculpts through a bevy of materials and textures that acquire dovetailing resonances along the way towards completion. He is interested not in achieving a ‘perfect’ order of representation but an approximation that makes what he sculpts impervious to the temporal and spatial limitations of a given subject, somehow investing each endoskeleton, every ligature, with enlivening life’s breath. His passionate intensity in shaping his clay into touchstones of the nomadic life is always deeply felt.

This artist has a long and salutary history when it comes to working with a stoneware clay. Indeed, from his first clay sculptures of the human head to his latest equestrian visions, he has made sundry technical innovations whiling honing his formal vocabulary. He has worked towards something like verisimilitude while preserving a sense of ambiguity, flux and numinous presence. Texture secures its own truth here: each mark and manipulation, however furious or modest, can be felt across the whole body sensibility of the viewer like a kind of transcendental, embodied braille in real space.

Jean-Pierre Larocque 'Cheval et cabane #05' (2018) glazed and enamelled stoneware (42'' x 32'' x 18'').

His epic distillations of Equus in several series of sculptures are intrinsically interesting. Tirelessly layering thin slabs of clay as though cladding the bony, cartilaginous skeletal remains of the vertebrate itself, alert to the vagaries of fate, necessity and and circumstance, he palpates the material until it yields semblance and spirit.

As his pieces reach the threshold with a sensuously prised wealth of textural detail in the matrix, he relentlessly pushes the materiality towards an ever-higher state of definition, accreting a dimensional aura through tiering strata of coloured slips through a series of multiple low firings. The hands-on labour of working the clay is preserved in the surface like a holy reliquary of the tactual, registering the continual kneading of the material and the serendipitous result of that close haptic engagement.

Larocque is an artist who values intuition above all else. As he minutely works the thin layers of his clay, he waits until the piece achieves voice and amplitude and something like overarching grace.

Consider British painter George Stubbs’ wonderful equine anatomy illustrations (1724-1806). Those drawings are clinical miracles of observation, obsessive in their mien and based on his own extensive dissections of horse carcasses. They prefigure his equine portraiture with its wealth of expressive detail and anatomically precise rendering. From the ceiling of his barn in the village of Horkstow, he strung up a group of horse carcasses from the rafters and, over the course of a year and a half, peeled off layer upon layer of equine tissue to reveal the morphology of the animals’ innards.

One might suggest Larocque works in the inverse mode, but with no less telling results, piling on layer upon layer of anatomical details in the round. Stubbs’ frontal, lateral, and posterior views became the basis of his book, The Anatomy of the Horse: including a particular description of the bones, cartilages, muscles, fascias, ligaments, nerves, arteries, veins, and glands. The treatise has been hailed as a seminal work of artistic and scientific merit. It’s incidentally a proverbial handbook for appreciating the sheer gravity of Larocque’s sculptures of horses that reach right back 3,000 years to nomadic horse culture in the eastern Eurasian Steppes, in the geographic vicinity of modern Mongolia. 

While he works the clay into forms that please his hand and eye by virtue of their sensuous self-presence, he is also working the margins of the liminal. His sculptures of nomads and noble horses seem to house spirits that whisper at us from the outer edge of the numinous, where fugue in-between states and psychic energies circulate and abide. It is not the equine in itself that preoccupies this artist, but the equine as an implicit nomadic integer, noble and ennobling.

His horses bridge centuries of notable equine depictions, bringing us right back to the prehistoric cave art of Lascaux, the frieze of the Parthenon in Athens, the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the relief of the Apadana at Persepolis. His horses are porous embodiments of all that is mind to say. Their endlessly gestating morphologies speak to past, present and future.

Jean-Pierre Larocque 'Grand tête #08' (2018) glazed and enamelled stoneware (42'' x 23'' x 25'').

Larocque’s work is celebrated for its technical virtuosity and an uncanny facility with the handling of clay and the making of marks. The depth of his knowledge allows for the possibility of mutagenesis in the process. I mean genetic mutations in the material depictions themselves, as a hard-won reward of working so closely and intimately with his chosen medium, and folding these into the finished sculpture as valuable discoveries made along the way. Porous and riven to better receive imaginative projection, they are grounded in morphological flux. 

In Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's utopian project sketched out in A Thousand Plateaus (1987), they invoke not just a romantic ideal of Bedouin nomadic peoples – but of the root origins of the word itself – and something far richer. [5] Their discussion of the despot in Anti-Oedipus (1977) pivots on their dilation on it as a latent state of being, meaning virtual rather than actual. [6] The figure of the nomad stands for the power of the virtual, or ‘the war machine’, as they put it. Nomads are not integral to the state but always come in from outside, sometimes furtively, sometimes on a war footing, threatening its authority. The nomadic betrays a tendency towards deterritorialization and a spirit of critique that is highly resonant for Larocque’s ongoing project. His sculptures are a-centered and deterritorialised and the very process of their making itself reveals a fiercely nomadic predisposition. 

In this regard, Rosi Braidotti, Professor of Feminist Studies at the Faculty of Arts at Utrecht University and Scientific Director of the Netherlands School of Feminist Studies Research and the Center of Expertise on Gender and Multiculturalism, developed the idea of the “nomadic subject”. [7] Her nomadic theory outlines a modern subjectivity in a state of epistemological flux, in a perpetual process of becoming, not being. For Braidotti, nomadic consciousness consists of assuming no permanent or fixed identity as a form of political resistance. 

Her engagement with technoscience is a linchpin of nomadic theory, which deterritorializes the established understanding of what constitutes the human, along with our relationship to animals like horses, etc. Avoiding an OCD-like focus on trauma and melancholy in contemporary political thought, Braidotti promotes a radical politics of affirmation that has the potential to become its own generative life force. She says: “Nomadism is a qualitative shift of consciousness, that makes you inhabit the positions of power so as to change it.” [8]

Consider Larocque’s psychical nomadism in his series of horses carrying houses on their backs. The houses suggest sedentary life and chattels yet they are transported on a horse and represent nomadism as a core subject. As Deleuze suggests in the above epigraph, they may not move; nomads, “they nevertheless stay in the same place and continually evade the codes of settled people.” This is not a matter of existential evasion but of ecstatic communion and a strenuous denial of taxonomy in Larocque’s work.

Here are some of the artist’s finest paradigms of the nomadic life. They, too, engage the politics of affirmation and personal freedom. They, too, evade the codes that would straitjacket meaning and limit immanence. Larocque’s approach is based on a process that is also a proverbial aesthetic of becoming. Braidotti speaks of it as the practice of “as if” which she defines as “a technique of strategic relocation in order to save what we need from the past in order to open up ways of transforming our lives here and there". This is beautifully stated and bears on Larocque’s ceramics and his process: a sort of ongoing relocation, rethinking and reparation.

Jean-Pierre Larocque 'Tuile #03' (2012) glazed and enamelled stoneware (17'' x 14'' x 3'').

They seem preternaturally animated, hatcheries for something organic inside just waiting to burst out. There is a suggestion of hidden depths. They are like ancient Egyptian canopic jars that preserve the viscera. They further remind me of Tang dynasty tomb figures in which there are a surprising number of naturalistically rendered horses with exquisitely detailed trappings.

He conjures eloquent ghosts out of mute clay. They speak insistently in several voices of time lost and time regained, the sanctity of place and an implicit nomadic imperative. As we have seen, Larocque’s art is profoundly nomadic. It is also interrogatory and even apotraic (in intention, at least). 

Larocque is no Deborah Butterfield (which is not to disparage the latter in any way but to signal the gulf between their respective oeuvres). Butterfield is a more conventional sculptor and lateral thinker working through accretion more than subtraction. Her work in bronze is cast from found wood and sticks, and her horses are invested with sundry emotional states. One does not reference Butterfield when in the presence of a Larocque horse, but one does remember the name of Theodore Géricault, the influential French painter and lithographer. [9]

Like Géricault, Larocque lifts his horses out of history, inscribes them with signs of vitality and sets them free from taxonomy and the order of hierarchies to graze on present and future   grasslands of the imagination.  Géricault studied horses all his life. His stay in England in 1820–21 inspired a group of works that treated horsemanship and sport. Apparently, he modelled this work on traditional English equestrian portraits although there is nothing traditional about his work. Consider his White Grey Arabian Horse (before 1824), The Head of White Horse (1815) or Horse in the Storm (1821), which celebrate equine majesty. 

One might suggest that this artist deifies the figural while reifying the nomadic. This is also the case with his works on paper. Those haunting collations and collocations of faces and profiles speak ineluctably of the human fact, nomadic clans, chiasmic dialogue and they are coloured with restraint and exquisite draughtsmanship.

Jean-Pierre Larocque 'Untitled #12' (2019) oil on paper (67'' x 49'').

Like the sculptures, the drawings are incandescent icons of process in which both accretion and erasure rule. They are ambiguous and are rife with empathy and avowal. The heads and profiles are tightly packed in, suggesting that, for Larocque, community, communication and communion all have primacy. They bear all the weight of the world without being brutalised by it.

The sculptures, in their mummy-like regalia, also invoke the burden of history without being trapped within it like insects in amber. They are, as Deleuze once averred, talismanic trips in intensity. Sundry effigies of horses and spectral images of horses inhabit the oneiric space of the drawings like worthy revenants.

Enlivened by movements backwards and forwards, as it were, the works’ myriad activating feints and parries trace the artist’s attempt to build sculpture while breaking free from orthodoxy and constraint into a space of overwhelmingly reflective freedom. In looking at his sculptures and drawings, I am reminded of the passage in Proust with that final indelible image of the Duc de Guermantes perched atop the ever-growing stilts that we all must wear in this life. As Proust said:

“So, if I were given long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail, even if the effect were to make them resemble monsters, to describe men as occupying so considerable a place, compared with the restricted place which is reserved for them in space, a place on the contrary prolonged past measure, for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch the distant epochs through which they have lived, between which so many days have come to range themselves—in Time.” [10]

Larocque’s nomadic protagonists resemble those giants, those temporal nephilim, if you will, as they come down to us anonymously from the remote past to our present and forwards into an unknowable future. They stride forth as though on giant stilts, as Proust said, through all the illimitable vistas available to them in time.

Magister equitum. “Master of the Horse.”

There can be no finer appellation or more fitting accolade for Jean-Pierre Larocque’s stellar and timeless achievement.


1. 'Gilles Deleuze, « Pensée nomade » in Nietzsche aujourd'hui, Paris, UGE, coll. 10/18, 1973, p. 174.

2. Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects (New York, Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 25.

3. The original Master of the Horse (Latin: Magister Equitum) in the Roman Republic was an office appointed by the Roman dictator. In addition to commanding the cavalry, he was the dictator's lieutenant and deputy, whether at Rome or on military service in the provinces.

4. Richard Corben is an American illustrator and comic book artist best known for his comics featured in Heavy Metal magazine.

5. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

6. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus ((Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). 

7. Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects (New York, Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 25.

8. See Rosi Braidotti in “On nomadism: Interview with Rosi Braidotti” at this URL (http://www.euroalter.com/2010/on-nomadism-interview-with-rosi-braidotti/)

9. While perhaps best known today for his masterwork The Raft of the Medusa, which won a gold medal at the Paris Salon of 1819, Theodore Géricault achieved fame for painting his preferred subject: Equus, the horse. Géricault was a passionate horseman and his death at the age of 33 was caused by a riding accident.

10. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Vol. VI, “Time Regained”, (New York: Modern Library, 1999) p. 532. WM


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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