Whitehot Magazine

Indigo Children: Françoise Pétrovitch at Helwaser Gallery

FRANÇOISE PÉTROVITCH, Sans titre (Untitled), 2022, Oil on canvas, 63 × 51 1/8 in, (160 × 130 cm)


BY KURT MCVEY September, 2022

“It is true that I am an artist, a woman, and I live in France,” offers Françoise Pétrovitch from across the pond, as it is, recently over email. Though translated from her original French, one can’t help but pick up a little playful sarcasm as it may pertain to the manner in which we, as critics and curators, now preeminently frame artists, often human, as political constructs, quite conspicuously ahead of the work itself. Earlier this month (September 15th) Helwaser Gallery, hugging Central Park on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, kicked off its Fall season with a solo exhibition from Pétrovitch titled, Indigo Children, a new-agey concept brought forth in the 1970s, which, though largely framed as pseudoscientific, appears to be becoming increasingly true. 

The concept seems to emerge from the self-professed synesthete and “ordinary person with extraordinary talent,” Nancy Anne Tappe, who started to recognize certain highly evolved traits in children during the late ‘60s, like increased empathy and heightened creativity and in some instances, paranormal, or what 21st century new-agers might call preternatural abilities, like telepathy. Tappe was also the creator of the term, Colorology, which is the study of personality through the science of color. One can’t help but step back and marvel at the cumulative Gen Z and perhaps more accurately and pronounced, the younger, creeping generation on their heels, already bathed in the digi-electric-blue glow of their smartphones and other ubiquitous screens and the shadows of a surrounding Indigo darkness, nevertheless social justice warrioring, TV show binging and Tik Tok dancing, while coping with looming hyper-object calamities. 

Françoise Pétrovitch, Mask, 2022, oil on canvas, 63 × 51 1/8 in, (160 × 130 cm)

“We see an artificial light, that of the smartphones that go along with us,” Pétrovitch concedes, alluding to her modest, minimal, subtly at first, but then quite moving collection of Oil (but inky, almost watercolor) on canvas paintings, now showing at Helwaser through November 12th. “This may be one of the interpretations,” the artist continues. “I also like that my work is open to different interpretations, that it echoes in different intimacies and stories. The white in my paintings comes from my drawing practice, where I keep the paper untouched for body light.”

Pétrovitch has two children, a 29-year-old daughter and a 25-year-old son, and states that they are quite aware of environmental and ecological concerns (“more than a concern in this respect”). “We all share these things together,” she says, “as we all live on the same Earth.”

Installation view, Françoise Pétrovitch, Indigo Children, courtesy of Helwaser Gallery.

There is something calming about the idea of Pétrovitch, in France with her family, painting, drawing, and doing other human things, French things, while her paintings peacefully haunt and play in an intimate New York gallery, one as interested in the secondary market as the contemporary, and standing seemingly apart from the megalithic canyons of Chelsea or the trendy, Saturday afternoon draw-bridge of Tribeca. (The gallery was founded in Paris by Antoine Helwaser in 1986. The Upper East Side location, located on Madison Avenue, opened in 2019.) Though words like subtle or humble come to mind when imbibing the artist’s work, it’s worth mentioning that Pétrovitch is not without an accumulating list of honors. Her works are included in many private and public collections, most notably the Pompidou Center in Paris; Aegon Art Collection, The Hague; and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington D.C., amongst others. Pétrovitch was the first French woman awarded the esteemed 2021 Daniel & Florence Guerlain Prize in Contemporary Drawing and this month, she became the first living artist to receive France's highest honor of a commission by the Minister of Culture to create a national stamp design. One can see in this stamp-worthy image, a boy, it would appear, androgynous enough for the new millenia, peaceful and curious, but forlorn possibly (like many figures in the artist’s work), gazing at a bright green gecko on his shoulder. The image also features what appears to be a trademark of Pétrovitch’s; a color swatch along the border, in this case, a gradient of blues, cluing the viewer into the importance of process, the journey, and recalling Tappe, a spectrum of the subject’s personality. 

France's highest honor of a commission by the Minister of Culture to create a national stamp design.

“Being a French artist,” Pétrovitch begins, “enables me to be immersed in European culture; to have access to the Louvre, major art collections and European architecture; to read in French…to be traversed by European wars and movements, which seem very present and very close to us at the moment. No doubt, I would be very different if I lived in New York. It's always very difficult to project yourself into some other condition, but I think art is universal. The notion of Beauty touches us all.” 

And like Beauty, ditto suffering. We as humans, a distinction we must return to predominantly to survive, share in many of its forms, and we attempt to empathize with the modes that may allude us due to our geographical positioning, our age, our race, our gender, even our own lack of empathy perhaps. Empathy can be a mask. So can virtue signaling. Social media itself can be a mask we wear; whether we choose to project and perform joy, happiness, and success, or whether we choose to illustrate our pain, reaching out into the aether for sympathy, attention, and healing. One shouldn’t have to point at Mask, 2022, to sew the seeds of a throughline that moves through each painting in the show. “With the mask, I duplicate the figures,” says Pétrovitch. “There is a face, but it is also a more universal portrait. It conceals and at the same time discloses a disorder. It talks about absence, withdrawal from the world. It may originate from the representation of carnivals (Venetian painting of the 18th century), [or] the theater.”

Françoise Pétrovitch, Sans titre (Untitled), 2022, oil on canvas, 63 × 51 1/8 in, (160 × 130 cm)

This is more than enough to set the viewer on their way. Indigo Children, at the absolute least, is a delightful excuse to take a walk through Central Park in the New York Fall, before or after reaching a destination that will leave said traveler with quite a bit to unpack-thematically, emotionally, psychologically, perhaps even supernaturally. The “disorder” Pétrovitch alludes to could be a number of things, not least of all Autism, or the newer neurodivergence, a mutated atypical, non-medical technological lovechild of ADHD, not to mention the untold collateral damage that COVID-19 and all its Orwellian-meets-Kafkian, industrial pharmaceutical fear-mongering had on Earth’s children.

Françoise Pétrovitch, Sans titre (Untitled), 2022, Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 × 39 3/8 in, (80 × 100 cm)

For the aesthetes as much as the synesthetes, painting could serve as the sole (or soul) subject. 21st century painting, at its best, it seems, now walks a tightrope quadrant of messaging and decoration; figuration and abstraction, and like French tightrope artist Philippe Petit, who gained fame for his unauthorized high-wire walks between the towers of the recently decimated, now phoenixing Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (in 1971) and of Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1973, as well as (and perhaps most famously) between the late-Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in this very New York City on the morning of August 7th, 1974, Pétrovitch takes us on a multi-generational, global (universal) human journey, riddled with equal parts anxiety, fear, patience and peace, all with a unique-and with time-a masterful, poetic touch. WM

All Images: A. Mole, © Françoise Pétrovitch, Courtesy of Semiose, Paris and Helwaser Gallery, NY.


Kurt McVey


Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.


photo by Monet Lucki


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