Atelier Paul-Emile Rioux, exhibition ongoing
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, May 2020
“We are not the stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.”
― Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society
The artworks of Montreal-based Paul-Emile Rioux are unprecedented not only in terms of what they depict with such startling clarity, but also by the daunting scale of both their ambition and their achievement. In all his work, he posits dark entanglements that draw the viewer inside constructs that readily seduce the imagination. Like parabolic equations, these are constructs in which all the variables are squared and constituted from what seems a virtual infinitude of component parts that perpetuate themselves. But the works are not segmented. They are seamless in facture: they are fused in unlikely wholes that radically exceed the sum of their constituent parts.
Rioux thinks outside the grid of conventional thinking and explodes sundry conceptual orthodoxies in his camera-less artworks. Indeed, his methodologies and immanent set of concerns have more in common with the frontline -- and theoretical playground -- of new physics than with digital art making per se.
This artist assumes vantage points that are startling and often unforeseen. His images test our commonplace assumptions -- and their several contexts -- with a view to overturning our prejudices and preconceptions about just what it is that we perceiving and, for that matter, our wider purview on the surrounding reality itself. But how much are we, the viewer, implicated in the making of meaning?
The function and constitutive role of the observer is crucial in our understanding of this artist’s work. It is the observer who is the crucial reference pole and collaborator in the making of meaning. Rioux has always made the viewer the interpretive linchpin of his process. He wants to disabuse us of the notion that our blinkered perspective on the Real has any objective validity whatsoever. Instead, he playfully subverts that perspective with red herrings, fey geometries and unsettling visions.
Rioux’s images are like bright lures the embodied eye cannot resist. His abiding love of paradox rules and he has all the skills of a perceptual psychologist. In the middle ground between observation and representation, he works the fertile soil of category mistakes and if-then conditionals with diligence and brio.
It is important to note the daunting rigour of Rioux’s approach to his material, and it is something very much like the scientific practice of replication. If something works in one series, he will try it again in another series and under different circumstances to see if it still works there or better. And, well, it often does.
In a recent collaborative project called “It from Qubit”, researchers in both fundamental physics and quantum information theory argued that space and time coalesce from the dark quantum entanglement of tiny bits of information.  This beautifully mirrors Rioux’s own working process and emerges from the depths of his artworks themselves as their overarching theme. Those post-digital artworks spring up from a proverbial matrix of consequential pixillations – say, equations, rather, or even algorithms -- that endlessly embroider a universe and enwrap the viewer within their resilient web as ultimate reference pole. Not a web of sleep and dreams, mind you, but one of terrifically enticing waking visions.
In this regard, consider his provocative recent Geons series that I reviewed earlier in these pages. Here, as in so much else of his work, Rioux seizes on ideas and theories that seem to harbour imagistic potential for him, and then sets out to realize them in images, in much the same way that Jasper Johns once claimed that he dreamed of painting an American flag and then went out to purchase the materials needed to make one. The constructs he builds seem to have arrived from a future tense.
As I noted in my previous monograph on the Geons, there is a metapoetic, immanently subversive logic in positing objects that may or may not exist -- and one that magnifies the artist’s liberal poesis, carrying it far beyond the limits of Bauhaus, surrealism, what have you into the dimension of the para-digital image. The dark entanglements that obtain between the objects in Rioux’s tableaux refer to a phenomenon Einstein once famously described as "spooky action at a distance”. Quantum entanglement arises when two particles are inextricably linked together irrespective of the degree of their separation from one another. Not physically connected, they still share information with virtual simultaneity.
It has been vigorously debated as to whether geons are “stable" entities or not. In Rioux’s work, we may be sure that they inspire consequentially disruptive images, although they seem at first very stable. Indeed, Rioux’s brilliantly imagined habitations are believed in large part because they seem so unavoidably real. They resemble real things these are things that we have never physically encountered or examined, even at a remove, before. They have aspects that we are convinced are there but not available yet for our inspection. They are ‘completed’ in ad hoc fashion, as it were, and, perceptually speaking, are always on the go.
Rioux wants us to recognize what we are bringing to the table as we seek to understand his unlikely geometries. He wants to render the observer’s role in the constitution of his artworks as primary. He reminds us of what the American physicist John A. Wheeler said:
“Nothing is more important about the quantum principle than this, that it destroys the concept of the world as “sitting out there,” with the observer safely separated from it by a 20-centimeter slab of plate glass. Even to observe so miniscule an object as an electron, he must shatter the glass. He must reach in.” 
He must reach in. The exhortation is relevant to Rioux’s project. He instructs his viewers to “reach in” -- and reminds us of Parmenides’ famous contention that the outer reality is identical with the thought that recognises it. It is the viewer who is complicit in constituting Rioux’s unprecedented apparitions. For his artist, perception is no passive process but a dynamic, evolving, genetic act.
1. It from Qubit: Simons Collaboration on Quantum Fields, Gravity and Information, Simons Foundation online at https://www.simonsfoundation.org/about
2. John A. Wheeler, From Relativity to Mutability in The Physicist’s Conception of Nature (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1973), p. 244. 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.