Études pour coups fumants
Until June 1
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, May, 2018 (photos by Ivan Binet)
In the nine paintings Thibault exhibited at the Centre Elgar in Montreal, she demonstrated the casual authority of a gifted gestural abstractionist going about her business -- business that is at once radical in tenor and unprecedented in scope.
The largest painting Études pour coups fumants (2017, acrylic and aérosol on canvas, 213x305 cm.) is the standout here, a huge ovoid diptych which neatly summarizes Thibault’s many painting strategies while offering viewers a memorable epiphany.
In the left panel, s shadowy grid-like structure is overlaid with chartreuse halos, and a blocked off box of black strokings that look like they were laid on with a dry brush or a stick, very expressive and full of dark foreboding, the outer rim of the forest at dusk. Below is a huge willowy blue brushstroke that moves lazily from centre to left and down and over to the right, effectively a hasp joining the two panels. In the right-hand panel, a yellow opening wedge reads like a searchlight below which we glimpse sinuous shadowy shapes, like squid glimpsed frolicking under the surface of deep water. An adjacent white zone seems overlaid on some deliriously smudged markings, and a pink tache above weightlessly bears down on the proceedings with verve and brio. The painting is rapturously, sensuously self-present, and full of promise. It signals the sheer innovativeness of this painter’s project.
All the works in this exhibition demonstrate that Thibault is comfortable working with varying scales, and unorthodox formats, without nostalgically ceding anything to the shaped paintings of an earlier era (whether it be Paul Feeley or, for that matter, plasticien master Claude Tousignant). Instead, it seems that the unusual chassis-like supports are necessary, rather than incidental. The base frame proves to be the launch pad of choice for gestural feints and parries of a most beguiling persuasion.
Thibault imports markedly lyrical gestures and Op methodologies into paintings that are unlikely hybrids. They have none of the alienating perceptual tropes of classic Op but they can be jarring, if not dissonant, like late Coltrane licks. Intuition reigns supreme here. Colour has a vibratory character but is always held beneath a certain threshold. Chromatic tension is modulated but never suppressed by gestural delicacy. The shapes in these paintings are seldom identifiable, even if they sometimes remind one of structural tropes from the paintings of Fernand Leger in striking collision with those of Fernand Leduc.
Thibault is a real ditch digger of a surface maven, but those surfaces are meticulously worked through an interlocking network of progressive nuances and gradations and seem effortless in their facture. She has always had a rare knack for seizing upon radical gestures that act as counterpoint to fluid shapes within the overall spatial organization of her paintings. The two panels in a given diptych are spatially discontinuous – one might enjoy frontality, the other solicits the illusion of depth -- but they are seamlessly united in one chromatically fused statement of intent.
For Thibault, painting is clearly all about counterpoint – and catharsis. She pursues a chiasmic dialogue between surface, support – and the Real. Her paintings are objects that channel gesture and fuel dialogue at all levels.
These paintings on shaped supports became the perfect arena for Thibault’s most wayward, often elliptical, gestural propensities. Notably, they also move definitively beyond the issue of art and objecthood as outlined by Michael Fried and practised by a plasticien stalwart like Claude Tousignant in that they make that discourse itself seem somewhat archaic and dated. The issue of shape and the problem of the framing edge is now something we look back upon with a certain wilful nostalgia. But nostalgia nonetheless.
In paintings like Assemblage 5, (2018, acrylic on canvas, 109x152.5 cm.), Parades et ripostes, (2018, acrylic on canvas, 81x122 cm.) and Parades et ripostes II, (2018, acrylic on canvas, 109x152.5 cm.), certain fluid or staccato gestures echo the irregular shape of the chassis while others generate a destabilizing structural dynamic within it. In these strange environments, the gestural presence of the hand achieves the status of voice.
The radicality of Thibault’s work resides in several overlapping stratagems. Her nuanced gestures are strong enough to stand alone insofar as they never reach the threshold of saturation or surfeit. Her chosen formats seem native horizons and grounds for her markings, despite their unorthodox mien. Her pristine dovetailing regimen has few precedents.
To give the reader some idea of this painter’s thinking: Thibault was amused by the expression ‘smoking blow’, and started researching the term in the world of billiards, where it was formed by analogy with the expression "smoking block" which means a player’s striking a ball so hard that it causes a cloud of dust to rise over the table. This expression led Thibault to reflect on the limits of control of the gesture, and to successfully finish the ‘game’ of painting using a minimum number of shots. This sort of legerdemain, transposed to the paintings exhibited here, lies in the sudden movements that enable gesture on the plane and in the restraint and minimalism of the painter’s manoeuvres (in the sense of completing a painting with a minimum of ‘interventions’, and in leaving some of the canvas surface bare as a guarantor of planar reductionism), method and means.
With Études pour coups fumants, Nathalie Thibault convinces us that she is in a state of continuing creative ferment, as her recent works included in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s recent highly acclaimed abstraction show Entangled: Two Views on Contemporary Canadian Painting also revealed. (Études pour coups fumants was also first seen in that show.) Thibault is a painter whose restlessness, formal invention and propensity for experimentalism with the support have always been notable. In the paintings exhibited here, she shows no signs of slowing down, and the inordinate delicacy of her gesturality holds us tight within their ambit. 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.