Whitehot Magazine

Irreversible Insanity: Eric Lacombe’s Psychotic Realism

Eric Lacombe, Anomalie 11, Mixed Media on Canvas, 60h x 62w in

Eric Lacombe Booth Gallery, New York, NY
September 16th – 30th, 2017


…psychotic illness…is a defence organization relative to a primitive agony….The underlying agony is unthinkable.                                                                                                                                        

 - D. W. Winnicott, “Fear of Breakdown”(1) 

Eric Lacombe has set himself an enormous task, and he has accomplished it with extraordinary energy and insight: his art thinks unthinkable agony, “the primitive agony” that signals the “breakdown of the ego,” as Winnicott says, more broadly the disintegration of the self due to the failure of the “facilitating environment,” the primary one being the mother, the secondary one being society. This “original agony” is “carried round hidden away in the unconscious,” and Lacombe has used art to make us conscious of it. All his paintings and drawings are “soul portraits,” that is, images of the inner life of insane people—irreversibly insane, as the harsh, macabre, insistent texture that forms and informs the faces in his paintings and the bizarre complexity of the interrelated lines in his drawings suggest. These inner faces are in effect your inner face—literally “in your face”:  mirrors of your inner insanity, the so-called “psychotic core” we all have, the irreducible insanity at the core of our being.  We overlay it with our sanity—our pretense and assertion of sanity, despite the insane, inhumane, unfacilitative environment we often live in, what critical sociologists have called the insidious indifference and manipulative pandering of capitalist society—to survive in it, and sometimes to flourish despite it. The brilliance of Lacombe’s work has to do with his uncovering and picturing of the seemingly unpicturable and hidden psychotic core in all of us.  

Eric Lacombe, Anomalie 2, Mixed Media on Canvas, 116h x 89w cm

Lacombe’s turbulent, relentless painterliness—nihilistically black, with eruptions of luminosity, collage fragments adding to the sense of disintegration, the sense of a self falling apart as it collapses into the hellish depths, sometimes regressing to grotesque bestiality, as the predatory hawk-like look of some of the faces suggests—conveys irremediable and with that irreversible suffering. The irrational animal appears when one loses one’s rational self and with that one’s civilized humanity:  primitive agony is charged with raw energy, the instinctiveness that drives Lacombe’s gesturalism.  It inhabits an “abstract expressionist” space of its own, even as it conveys the disaster that the self has become.  The faces in Lacombe’s drawings are mournful, sad-eyed, despairing, rather than aggressively morbid and ghoulish, as the faces in his paintings are.  They are also more recognizably human—their human features are more subtly and carefully detailed, rather than signaled, as they tend to be in the painterly portraits.  Intriguingly, almost all of the faces in the drawings are of women, in striking contrast to the faces in the paintings, which seem to be all of men. The surface of the drawings is less harsh than the surface of the paintings, however intense and busy both are.  Dare one say that the drawings are tender-minded, the paintings tough-minded, to use William James’s distinction? Or, because Lacombe is a man, is he harder on himself—assuming that the painted portraits show him plumbing his own horrifying unconscious—than he is on women?  The discreet lines in the drawings have a more sensitive presence than the bristly abrupt gestures in the paintings. Taken together, the male and female portraits suggest the psychic bisexuality of all human beings, at least according to psychoanalytic theory. They suggest that Lacombe is unconsciously aware of his own doubleness. 

Eric Lacombe, Anomalie 4, Mixed Media on Canvas, 100h x 73w cm

Lacombe calls his works “anomalies.”  An “anomaly,” the dictionary tells us, is an “irregularity,” an “abnormality,” a “strange condition.”  Certainly his faces suggest that his figures are in an abnormal, strange—self-estranged--state of mind.  Talking with Lacombe at the opening of the exhibition, I asked him what was the meaning and purpose of the handwritten little notations on the wall accompanying each work.  He said they were an abstract code to the concrete work, suggesting, as I thought, that the work followed a certain script or formula—that it was not as spontaneously made as it seemed to be, although the drawings seemed carefully constructed, each line carefully placed, unlike the paintings, where the gestures seemed randomly placed, even as they formed the face. I asked Lacombe to explain the code to me, to show how it related to the work, and he responded, with a humorous smile, that the relationship was anomalous and irregular (if I understood his hesitant English clearly).  In other words, the code and the art didn’t coincide, suggesting, to me, that the abstract code was a defense against the primitive agony he experienced when he made the portraits, the primitive agony he projected into the portraits.  Clearly they are a testimony to a courageous self-analysis. WM   


            (1)D. W. Winnicott, “Fear of Breakdown,” Psycho-Analytic Explorations (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1989,90)


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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