Lost Alphabets of Desire and the Diaspora of Signs: The Paintings of Marc Leduc
Galerie Robert Poulin
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, August 2019
"In themselves pictures are beyond words, beyond concepts, beyond thought, they invoke the presence of the world on the world's terms, which also means that everything that has been thought and written in this book stops being valid the moment your gaze meets the canvas.”
-- Karl Ove Knausgaard, So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch 
“Art doesn't go to sleep in the bed made for it. It would sooner run away than say its own name: what it likes is to be incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what its own name is.”
-- Jean Dubuffet, “L’art brut préféré aux arts culturels” 
"The role of artist has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images. Today, when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time."
--Adolph Gottlieb, "The Ides of Art" 
I. Introduction: Of Snakes and Ladders
Have you ever played Snakes and Ladders? Not the contemporary bastardized version of the board game you can buy at any Dollar Store but its remote ancestor, the one that traces its origins back to ancient India, where it was known as Moksha Patamu. Historians believe the game was played as early as the 2nd century BC. Originally, allegedly, it was used in the moral instruction of children. The squares bearing the head of a snake were meant to be symbols of evil while those depicting ladders were synonymous with a given virtue. (The snakes notably outnumbered the ladders in the original Hindu game, as in real life.) The game emigrated to England under the Colonial regime in the 19th century and was named Snakes and Ladders. In this new incarnation it was largely relieved of its sundry moral and religious aspects.
Marc Leduc’s paintings are like games of Snakes and Ladders insofar as they are playful in terms of structure even as their staggered content has an indigenous darkness. They invite our engagement as viewers and cryptographers complicit in the making of meaning. But they are cast a long shadow. Indeed, they are laden with umbra and penumbra, if not moral probity – but they are also structural palimpsests with a full measure of luminosity and a painter’s life lessons locked inside their very microstructures. Leduc creates uniquely layered works that integrate collage, drawings, and written words in restless grid-like formations. He then coats them with wax as sealant and scrim and scratches enigmatic and possibly inchoate and profane messages into their surfaces that alert us to their affinity with art brut and hint at the expansive secret world of signification they harbour within.
Working for almost forty years on the border of art informel and art brut, Leduc has progressively honed a formal vocabulary uniquely his own. He has invented interior landscapes that, far from being hermetic or solipsistic, are porous, psychically rich, empathetically accessible -- and always compelling. Make no mistake: there is nothing naive in Leduc’s facture or his content. On the contrary, the work betrays a plethora of sophisticated ‘adjustments’ as it is being worked that are preserved in their painterly DNA, as if in amber, for our continuing perusal.
The work is very sophisticated in its mien. But the moody ambience of his paintings points to a dark and primordial nature and narrative constructs unassuaged of the artistic conventions that would only render them less fresh and captivating. Leduc dilates on time, memory and embodiment in paintings the depth structures of which are many fathoms deep. He encourages his viewers to take a proverbial leap in the dark: into the linguistic, pre-linguistic and palpable diaspora of signs.
Each letter, sign and gestural mark amplifies its neighbours in a way that transcends the dictates of logic or orderliness or structural orthodoxy, and the sedimentation of archaic motifs suggests a fraught processual history and a furtive endeavour of embedding and iconic embroidery. Indeed, the surfaces of these paintings read like a sort of transcendental scaffolding erected across the surface of the plane, a living language of paint. Subterranean doors and upper casement windows are thrown open upon an interior space that easily secures and rewards our imaginative projection.
Somewhere between the profiles of Indonesian shadow puppets, pictographs and the aforementioned Snakes and Ladders, Leduc casts his own semiotic shadow -- and makes his stand. The paintings’ infrastructure is ample if not sumptuous and seemingly open-ended rather than closed-in despite the hegemony of the grid. Supple and forever shifting across the plane, the lost alphabets of desire and need come alive in luminous, hypnotic array. Letters beget letters and marks beget marks in these archaistic tablets and achieve something like aura. Letters, we might say, that go nowhere, that is, not into words and not into sentences. But all of them nonetheless point inwards, into thought itself.
The structures are involute and transgressive and allergic to all overtures of stasis, however siren-like those overtures may be. They resonate. Their cartographic grids are anchored somewhere between memories and their referents, between the cerebrum and what is written and read on the walls of the street.
In a spirit of feverish industry and formal invention, without ever forsaking the minute precision of a dry mason that is his hallmark, Leduc builds brave new worlds. Brick upon brick, layer upon layer, like adept masonry work in construction, he works the paintings from all sides, privileging no single quadrant but ensuring a sense of radical equivalence among all quadrants of the plane. While the work shows a subliminal (in)formal influence of art brut, the truth is that Leduc is an artist of tremendous technical virtuosity who has had to “unlearn” much in order to plumb the depths of his fertile imagination in oil, wax and graphite with such sage attention and obsessive fervour. This approach guarantees the hegemony of the plane itself as one thing in one world. While its linguistic and referential integers morph and shift amongst the umbrae, and are repletely stratified, the plane itself is radically one holistic thing.
A journeyman painter for some decades now, Leduc has an instinctual relationship with his paint. His cryptic and seemingly unschooled profile renderings of a human head, and the scratched on ladders and other fragmented architectural tropes that constitute his vocabulary, betray an otherworldly legerdemain that has some precedence in Outsider art, crudely rendered yet hugely authentic in its mien.
This Sargasso sea of marks we find everywhere in Leduc never impedes free passage but parts on cue for the optic that finds its way in and through the partitioned plane with alacrity. Like Roman frescoes or Greek amphorae freed from entombment in shifting sands, the fugitive shapes and colours that slowly seep out at us in a seductively low-key but never mute palette of moody magentas, smudged charcoal and anthracite greys, muted browns and hints of midnight and cerulean blues lend a sense of perpetual twilight to the surface.
The use of encaustic lends the paintings a sumptuous inset quality in terms of sealing in and lending an antiquarian lustre to the proceedings, as though the application of the wax creates a semi-polished mirror in which the painting as a whole is reflected and “sees’ itself, as it were, invoking memory as alembic and mood.
In terms of iconography, the edgy treatment of human and animal figures in apparitional, diagrammatic clusters, invokes idioms of art brut and graffiti art and abstract expressionism but the clusters themselves are held just under the threshold of recognition, lending them an air of perpetual mystery.
II. Background and Process
Born in 1961 in Sept-Îles, Québec, Leduc first obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Université de Québec à Montreal (UQAM) in 1980. He later studied at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver (1984) and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design of Halifax (1985).
Leduc was a founding member of the Centre d’art et de diffusion Clark (Montréal), one of the best experimental galleries in Montreal. He is also a guitarist in the group Jérémi Mourand.
Leduc’s studio practice of four decades is exemplary. He is a creature of the studio, working from dawn to dusk on works that betray considerable stored labour. This devotion to an ethic of making confirms his maverick status, and his sensibility is shaped by working up close and personal with the minutiae of his wood surfaces. He blankets those surfaces with suggestive drawings. He then applies layers of ink and watercolour. This gradually accretes a pungent and far from loud or declarative surface – subtlety rules here and the chroma are held firmly in check -- that slowly reaches the threshold of full expression. He then coats the work and etches letters deep into the underlying wood surface. He then reinforces his gestural scarifications and other marks with paint. At a certain point, a painting has reached the threshold and is put aside. I have never seen one of these works overwrought or ‘plugged’. His instincts are sound.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that Leduc the painter possesses a shamanic intensity that has few equals in contemporary Canadian painting. As he oversees the direction of the work as a whole, as he navigates points of entry and egress, the wood support gives him a literal plane to walk upon as well as a sounding board as the work approaches closure. But at any given point he makes decisions and revisions that minutely finesse and fix the surface, activating its inner life with scratches, daubing and other ministrations.
Leduc’s paintings do not present themselves as objects but as thick dimensional palimpsests. They are porous and function as portals for the viewer. As we examine the work at close quarters, we enter it – and we are changed. This is a tribute to the expressive power of work the shadow play and penumbrae of which only serve to enhance its formal power.
III. The Case of Jean Dubuffet, FellowTraveller
Any casual examination of Leduc’s paintings reveals a deep familial and almost genetic relationship with the early work of Jean Dubuffet, which was itself profoundly influenced by the work of outsider artists. Dubuffet also found common ground with sundry French artists associated with the Art Informel movement.
Marc Leduc found sustenance and inspiration in those works with their characteristic thick coats -- I mean, their evocative, textured and gritty surfaces -- from the 1940s and 1950s. Dubuffet offered childlike images that critiqued the pantheon of high art in much the same way that Leduc’s paintings have always challenged the academy. He stands wilfully apart, just as Dubuffet did.
The beauty in his work, as is the case with Dubuffet, lies precisely in a limited but eloquent palette of dun hues and low lighting and the radical authenticity of the mark making rather than in pleasing gestural or decorative feints and parries. The emphasis on materiality and texture in Leduc’s work shares Dubuffet's resolute insistence on the Real.
Dubuffet studied and was nourished by the writings of Dr. Hans Prinzhorn, who dilated on the art of asylum inmates and that of children. Based on these observations, Prinzhorn stated that it is unmitigated savagery that is the truly primal instinct that leads to universal harmony, for it is precisely this instinct rather than any overt or dogmatic intellectualization that connects all living things in the lifeworld. This seems pertinent where Leduc’s paintings are concerned. He, too, wants to communicate universal truths.
His lateral and vertical arrays of marks remind us of Dubuffet's Apartment Houses, Paris (1946). The kinship lies in the fact that both focus on the nitty gritty of urban life, although Leduc is more drawn to the alleyways and dilapidated tenement buildings than to the main drags. The flattening of the pictorial space in Leduc mirrors the flattening between the sky and the protagonists in Dubuffet and has a decidedly childlike spontaneity and, one might hazard, a divine ipseity.
In his recent series, Leduc has departed somewhat from his layered palimpsests to explore the human figure, with the same gritty authenticity and the incorporation of an almost ethnographic component. Consider Bâtard for example, with its dominant figure of a bedridden Christ nailed to a bed, with his entrails voided from the body onto the floor plane in seppuku like fashion. Or consider his rousing series of heads, entitled Têtes. These are beautifully rendered and remind us of both Dubuffet and the contemporary American artist James Brown. They are a provocation. They are restless homunculi born of and in the fertile seedbed of the paint. The massive gravity of these heads seems to extend to the viewer, who is suitably impressed with the sheer weight of the world that seems to bear down upon them and shifts over to us.
The figural vignettes and reveries in these paintings seems seamlessly embedded in the overall field structure. Leduc’s work is profoundly improvisatory. It often seems that he is channelling a higher current above and apart, as Steve Lacy, the soprano sax savant, once told me of where his music came from. Leduc seizes and freezes the poetry of his gestures and the splendid spontaneity of his mark making under a glazed surface, as it were, with the application of wax, which also has the effect of softening the plane, making it seem more supple and endlessly pliable and permutable.
IV. In Pursuit of the Pictograph and Beyond
Leduc’s eloquent surfaces reveal another salient influence or fellow traveller: namely, Adolph Gottlieb. Gottlieb’s Pictograph (c.1945) and The Seer (1950) come to mind as relatable as we examine Leduc’s work.
In 1941, the celebrated New York abstract expressionist painter began a series that came to be known as ‘pictographs’. They are often highlighted by internal grid-like structures which contain a multiplicity of enigmatic integers. Leduc is as much a scavenger of images as Gottlieb was and where Dubuffet drew upon sources as eclectic as psychoanalysis, classical mythology, ethnographic art and contemporary art, he shows a similar long reach.
Over the course of around 10 years, Gottlieb painted more than 500 pictographs, which feature rudimentary grids enclosing, cubby hole-like, archaic symbols and restless compartmentalised signs. The subtle geometry and exotic subject matter is another area where Leduc and Gottlieb share common ground. But Leduc’s paintings are not pictographs. Still, his sunken grids generate analogous tensions.
In an interesting essay on the work of Gottlieb, Michael J. Landauer and Bruce Barnes discuss the labyrinth in his painting The Prisoners (1947): “Each viewer must ask, “Who is it or what is it that is at the centre of my labyrinth? What dark secret is imprisoned within me? What has been banished or repressed?”  Leduc’s work provokes just such questioning and brings into close proximity the chthonic world and the celestial world and marries them in paintings that effectively transcend quotidian reality in seeking holism and the underlying unity of all things. 
In Leduc’s work, a fascination with the rhythms of the street and the verities of art brut rules rather than the rigors of the grid format as a geometric endeavour per se. Like Gottlieb, his promiscuous use of symbols reveals a preoccupation with the workings of the unconscious mind. If Leduc’s iconographic and linguistic fragments share with Gottlieb a fascination with so-called primitive content, his palette, while distinct from Gottlieb’s, also shares a low-key suggestively earthy palette. The hues are applied in layers and smears and slathered with wax, bringing to mind the sedimentation and stratification of archaeological stages. Both painters make overt reference to the human figure, and the human optic. In Leduc, the eye is turned inwards, and what we see is rather like what we imagine the artist sees on the inner lids of his eyelids, like the images seen in a Phenakistascope.
V. A Painter’s Memory
To paraphrase Marshal Ferdinand Foch (1851—1929) a painter without memory is a person without a life. A painter’s memory remains sacrosanct. It is integral to both process and content. These hauntingly adumbrated surfaces are mnemonic palimpsests. What inheres there are evoked and implanted memories, but also the vital remembered history of the work itself: the many stages and scaffolding of its making.
Khoba Sysavane said:
“There is a certain mysterious quality to Leduc’s work. The letters that are so present in his work have many different perspectives to their placement into it. On the one hand, they allude to an existential crossword puzzle that contains hidden words that only a disconnected mind can solve. In other ways, the wooden background and the lettering are like a wall covered in graffiti by different people over time. A jumbled mass that becomes incomprehensible with the wear and tear of time eating away at the wall’s surface.” 
True, Leduc’s paintings are crossword puzzles of a sort. But, more significantly, they are embodied mazes in which the artist has secreted memories and forgotten and remembered same. These labyrinths harbour the fragility and resilience of a painter’s memories. It is here that he preserves them in the fullness of time so that they may be remembered. In other words, Leduc forgets in order to remember. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted that balance or adequation must be restored to memory. We should remember that while forgetting is the sworn enemy of memory, it is also deeply constitutive. In fact, "we shun the spectre of a memory that would never forget anything. We even consider it to be monstrous." 
Ricoeur distinguishes between two species of profound forgetting. The first forgetting is through the erasing of traces and the second is a sort of backup forgetting. When Leduc engages in creative erasure he is able to forget what has been seeded into anterior layers while remembering the painting’s immediate past. He then opens a window on how its future will unfold, allowing for the most unprepossessing of alterations. What he deposits Easter egg-like inside his honeycombed surfaces is left for us to find. It is directed outwards to us, his viewers, as primary data even as it evokes fugue states.
Ricoeur discusses the question of inscription and distinguishes three types of traces: written, psychical, and cerebral.  Written traces are a matter of documentary historiography. Cerebral traces are the province of neuroscience. Both of these traces are "external" marks whereas psychical traces issue from "the passive persistence of first impressions: an event has struck us, touched us, affected us, and the affective mark remains in our mind."  Psychical traces are deeply embedded in painting. They are deeply concealed alphabets of desire and it is precisely these traces, in their very immateriality, that make a diaspora of signs possible, feasible, thinkable.
The rich processual history of Leduc’s paintings, so fraught with signs, figural fragments, sundered words and such like, is impalpably mnemonic and extends to the viewer, and we are the final site of his remarkable paintings. The use of memory by the painter is profoundly participatory. His memories migrate and become our own.
A fitting coda might be what the poet wrote: “This is the use of memory:/For liberation - not less of love but expanding/Of love beyond desire, and so liberation/ From the future as well as the past.”  WM
1. Karl Ove Knausgaard, So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch (New York: Penguin, 2019), p. 233
2. Jean Dubuffet, “L’art brut préféré aux arts culturels,” in L’Homme du commun à l’ouvrage (Gallimard, Paris: 1973), p. 90-91.
3. Adolph Gottlieb, excerpt from "The Ides of Art", The Tiger's Eye, vol I, no. 2, December, 1947, p.43
4. Michael J. Landauer and Bruce Barnes “Labyrinth of the Shadow: History and Alchemy in Adolph Gottlieb’s The Prisoners” ARA Connections Issue 3, 2011, p. 32
6. Khoba Sysavane, “Marc Leduc” in Marc Leduc (Espace Robert Poulin, Montreal, October, 2012).
7. See David J. Leichter, The Poetics of Remembrance: Communal Memory and Identity in Heidegger and Ricoeur Marquette University e-Publications@Marquette
Dissertations (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Marquette University (2011) (Paper106.http://epublications.marquette.edu/dissertations_mu/106)
8. See Craig Staff, Retroactivity and Contemporary Art (London: Bloomsbury, 2018).
9. Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Fellauer (Chicago” University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 427.
10. T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets (London, Faber, 1942).
Marc Leduc is represented by Galerie Robert Poulin, Montreal.
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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.