Joanna Fiduccia unravels enigma and invention in the work of this young French artist
'On ne saurait penser à rien', begins Eric Rohmer’s 1981 ﬁlm The Aviator’s Wife—‘One cannot think of nothing’. A tale of misapprehension, intrigue and invention, the movie follows the lovelorn François as he shadows a man he suspects is having an affair with his girlfriend. François meets a winsome truant along the way, and together they speculate on the man’s movements, their theories turning ever more audacious as the ﬁlm progresses. Like many of Rohmer’s ﬁlms, The Aviator’s Wife is a portrait of the vagaries and vanities of young bourgeois romance. It is also a reﬂection on the feverish narration of mystery, the follies of exposition and ﬁnally, the artlessness of a dénouement—all themes at the heart of Clément Rodzielski’s work. Admittedly, to claim that cinema is central to Rodzielski’s practice is somewhat unusual given the set of issues normally raised around his work. Sourcing images from the media and submitting them to various modiﬁcations, this young French artist pursues post-painting in the computerised, digitised world. Most criticism of his work, including my own, compares it to the digitally promiscuous imagery of artists like Kerstin Brätsch and Kelley Walker, and dwells on its relationship to reproducibility and circulation.
Yet when he began making art in earnest, Rodzielski was already a cinephile and novice ﬁlm critic and over the years his work has quietly rhapsodised on this ﬁrst love. From his use of vintage ﬁlm posters, to the titles of projects such as ‘Tonnerre sous les tropiques’ (after Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder), or his most recent exhibition at Sutton Lane, Bring Home the Oranges, (quoting ﬁlm noir director Jacques Tourneur), Rodzielski liberally references the silver screen. But cinema has a deeper impact on his practice: his work’s elusive components are brought together within the terms of cinema to illustrate how the moving forms of the past can illuminate the restive images of the future.
Rodzielski considers his ﬁrst mature work to be a series called Miroirs noirs (Black mirrors). Begun in 2006, it features press images of minor starlets—Elodie Navarre, Rebecca de Mornay, Deborah Kara Hunger, Mary Elizabeth Winstead—onto which he has laid shards of metallic paper before photocopying them. The light from the photocopying machine, forced to ‘stare down’ its own reﬂection in the foil, generates black triangles limned with eruptions of abstraction that simultaneously seem to pierce the picture plane and lie just slightly above it. Miroirs noirs recalls the invention, also known as ‘le miroir de Claude’, of 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorrain: a small black mirror encased in a box, which Lorrain used to view scenery in grayscale. The photocopier performs a similar task, that in this instance, substitutes Claude Lorrain’s grayscale landscapes with two-dimensional printouts. The machine’s confrontation with its reﬂection in the metallic paper summons up the absolute darkness one imagines in Claude’s mirror once the case containing it has been snapped shut. Yet the shallow black forms on the paper are the paradoxical products of a blinding quasi mise en abyme of the photocopier beam; though they appear like collage, they in fact record a relay of light. One could therefore speak of them as frozen projections or even condensed montage, interspersing the actresses’ faces with slivers from empty projections and holding up a mirror to the voids behind both.
Comparatively, the ‘ready-made’ collage also features in Rodzielski’s work and directly addresses his concern with montage. ‘Untitled’, 2010, consists of a staple bound magazine held open by four bolts that secure it to the wall at a 45-degree angle. The spread features two discontinuous images of what appears to be an amateur boxing match on one half and a dirt bike on the other. The centre seam between the two images suggests the splice between ﬁlm cells, a delicate crease more temporal than physical. Because of this evocation of ﬁlm, the accidental collision of these images in the gathering suggests deliberate, Eisensteinian montage. Yet the bolts, with their excessive, Tom Burrish display of machismo, playfully preempt the ﬁrst association one might adduce from it: a certain unbridled, layman’s manliness. They secure the pages to the wall, as if to assert their likeness to projections rather than paintings. Later versions of the Miroirs noirs have taken up the same strategy, and are now printed on paper that is plastered directly to the gallery wall, arranged side by side like ﬁlm stills.
Last January, Rodzielski presented Die Menschen ﬁnden sich in dieser Welt zum Leben in Galerie Chert’s eccentric Berlin space. The title is a line from a late poem by Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin, one of the works the poet backdated and signed as ‘Scardanelli’ after his wits had begun to desert him. The exhibition featured a series of 12 identical posters by Hermann-Paul from 1895, each one dappled with watercolours that drift melodically over the black-and-white illustration by Rodzielski. Alongside these posters was a small cartoon of a man loaﬁng below a palm tree. The drawing is an piece of juvenilia, from the days when Rodzielski was trying to get work as an illustrator, and it is also backdated—to 1871, the year Courbet chose to ascribe to his painting ‘The Trout’ (as the exhibition’s press release explains) so that its date of origin would coincide with the years he was incarcerated for his involvement with the Paris Commune.
The artist presents us with a triplicate backdating, each with its peculiar relationship to time. His paintings seem to revive Hermann-Paul’s posters, fulﬁlling the illustration’s potential to be reused—and also, of course, defaced—like a page from a colouring book. His own drawing is projected, outlandishly, back into the 19th century, where it extends its sympathy to the father of realism, ‘shipwrecked’ in the prison of Sainte Pélagie (pelagic fortuitously meaning ‘of or related to the open sea’). Rodzielski’s backdating is so improbable as to suggest he sympathises with Hölderlin as well, who declaimed before a collection of his own poetry, ‘I was never called Hölderlin, but Scardanelli!’ The desire to rewrite not only of the origin of an object but also of one’s own origins speak to the great fantasy of backdating: by controlling time, if only through misinformation, the advent of objects in it. No one thing has delivered this fantasy like ﬁlm, for each screening brings anew the arrival of images and narratives that can be replayed—and reborn—yet again. In a letter published in the French magazine Hypertexte, the artist writes, ‘The ﬁlm can always start again, start up again; it’s a recorded ﬁlm strip, that is its foremost singularity. And through this, it announces its chief disparity with the real: however, it’s on this point that they reconverge—because the beginning that returns is never the same. The experience of the end of the ﬁlm, of the entirety of the ﬁlm, has passed over it.’ Like Rodzielski’s watercolour brush, our impressions colour what, in material terms, remains constant in the ﬁlm loop.
Similarly ﬂexible in its relationship to time is Rodzielski’s series ‘Untitled (May)’, 2010. The French art journal May commissioned Rodzielski to design the front and back covers of one issue, but he missed the deadline and, as a result, the back cover was left blank. Rodzielski collected several issues and began executing small, abstract watercolours on the back covers. Their unassuming romanticism acquits him of his tardiness, cannily describing it instead in terms of his resistance to the cruel pace of magazine and commodity culture. His gesture is, in fact, a bit recalcitrant—making unique what was designed to be reproducible, but doing so serially, as though he were returning again and again to the initial commission, looping back to the beginning to fabricate again, belatedly, the same object.
Rodzielski has painted on more media than just May and Hermann-Paul’s theatre announcements. For an ongoing group of works, he buys vintage French ﬁlm posters from memorabilia stores and almost imperceptibly embellishes them by covering the backside of the folded posters with spray paint, in a nod to Simon Hantaï, before unfolding them, so that most of his minimal ‘painterly’ labours remain hidden from view. At ﬁrst glance, the ﬁlms advertised in the posters form a motley group: Eric Rohmer’s L’Ami de mon amie and La femme de l’aviateur, Raoul Walsh’s La Vallée de la peur, Arthur Penn’s Froid Comme la Mort, Jean Renoir’s 'Elena et les hommes', as well as Claude Pierson’s soft porno, ‘Interdit aux moins de 18 ans’, 'Julie et sa cousine', L’Ami de mon amie and Elena et les hommes treat romantic and sexual exchanges that parallel his liberal use and manipulation of media images; Pursued and The Aviator’s Wife feature protagonists for whom the main threat (assassins or adulterer) remains as obscure as the black shards of the Miroirs noirs.
The melodrama, eroticism, terror and mystery conveyed by the ﬁlms subtly telegraph the same elements in Rodzielski’s work. ‘Untitled (Julie et sa cousine)’, 2009, is a poster in red and yellow, printed only with the title, age restriction, and the word ‘couleurs’ in white. A red form with the contours of a derrière occupies the top half of the poster with a certain ﬁgural reticence that only heightens the poster’s eroticism. It is the eroticism, precisely, of the unsaid, which is everywhere in Rodzielski’s enigmatic or faux-naïf works. However, the unsaid or the intrigue, do not exclusively occupy the sensual aspects of Rodzielski’s work. In 2008, he began work on a project he would call ‘SPECTOR’ after the record producer Phil Spector, who at that time was to be retried for the murder of the young actress Lana Clarkson. In 2003, Rodzielski had read about the scandal in the French paper Libération in an article that mentioned a piece of incriminating evidence found at the scene of the crime: an ‘objet plat, blanc et de forme irregulière’ (a ﬂat, white, irregularly-shaped object). A week later, after many musings during which he told me this ‘ﬂat, white object’ began to resemble for him a ‘pure work of art,’ the artist learned that this object was a ﬁngernail. He writes, ‘Once I learned the whole truth, did this mean that all my propositions were invalidated? Yes, surely, because it was in the end nothing more than a ﬁngernail. But this ﬁngernail, which, for some time, seemed far from being that ﬁngernail... still holds within it the mark of everything it necessarily is not, but which had been the subject of a good number of my dreams.’ If Rodzielski referred to the ﬁngernail as a ‘pure work of art’, he did so not only because of the Libération description’s superﬁcial relationship to tropes of modernist abstraction, but because of the nail’s capacity to gather and retain thoughts independent of its reality, thoughts that outlive the resolution of the mystery.
In The Aviator’s Wife, François learns the stranger was not a paramour but an ex-boyfriend; in Libération, Clément learns the object was a ﬁngernail. Just as François and Lucile’s imagined narratives constitute the movie, so does the space of hypothesis opened up by Libération’s vague description, constitute for Rodzielski, the work of art. The work is thus conceived as what could be. This, as he wrote to me, is what art shares with revolution—the deﬁnition of revolution being ‘that nothing preexists it in the space of acts (of political action), and the very deﬁnition of the work of art being that nothing preexists it in the space of thought’. Rodzielski continued, ‘There is no art if there is not an inﬁnite sadness that says that art is still missing’.
What does the object become, then, when it is named and when that name is art? And what happens to that inﬁnite sadness? Perhaps, Rodzielski muses, art is no longer art, but remembers the moment when it was. It is a melancholic thought, one that suggests the loss felt when cinema stopped being sorcery (which happened almost instantaneously), and could henceforth only produce thin illusions of time or bodies and tales incessantly resurrected. Cinema shares this with images today: they are not only everywhere, but everywhere in movement, unmoored in space and even in time. Rodzielski temporarily arrests this ﬂux of images, detaining them in a space of enigma and invention. Spector now has 18 years jail time remaining, thanks in part to a ﬁngernail—roughly 36 times longer than Courbet spent at Sainte-Pélagie, thanks in part to a 200 meter tall column. When it comes to seeing his art, one hopes that Rodzielski has all the time in the world.
Joanna Fiduccia is a writer living in New York. Pierre Leguillon and Clément Rodzielski, Theatrino/Palermo, Renwick, New York, 19 November–8 January