Interview with Art Critic Yves De Vresse

To fully grasp its subtlety, perhaps we need to approach the work of Denis De Mot from underneath. The surface, after all, is not the chance result of simple abstraction, but rather a slow stratification aiming at saturating with emotion a visual space determined as much by the painting’s format as by the underlying design, and painted with large, energetic, controlled gestures, subsequently covered up. We could speak of a palimpsest, if the artist considered it his role to reveal its meaning, its signification. But quite the opposite is true; these are paintings that call on feeling more than on reason. In this sense, I find that the work of Denis De Mot resembles the Great Work so dear to the alchemists. By reason, of course, of the slow succession of operations to be performed in a certain order and precise manner, and therefore requiring of the artist a deep understanding of his materials and techniques, but also – and maybe all the more so – because of his tireless transformation of matter itself. The stroke traced in acrylic gets repainted in vast fields of gouache which, tirelessly sanded down, reveal as they harden fossilized designs and accidental crinoid forms. This deeply humanistic work – humanistic because its aims is transmitting an emotion – takes place in time. We need to make time for time, and Denis De Mot is in no hurry. Fortunately.

Denis De Mot, correct me if I’m mistaken, but I seem to perceive a kind of nostalgia at the heart of your work. Do you consider this plastic experimentation, aiming as it does at revealing traces and signs buried under successive layers of your painting, as your personal search for lost time?

True, at times I can be pretty nostalgic. In particular when I listen to the music that nourished my adolescence and childhood. But maybe it is because time escapes me that I mean to create it, multiply it, in each painting, and thereby accomplish in some small way the Promethean dream of mastering it… But this is not the whole story; there is also the question of expressing the complexity of things, events, human nature. Of expressing the dimension of “time” which creates and amplifies that complexity and leads to this pictorial succession of events, of successive acts of covering and unveiling which in the end allow a sort of abstract portrait to appear, one that needs to be read slowly, in stages, from the most visible to the most buried… a little like a human being, with the traces that time leaves visible or sometimes causes to reappear.

Have you ever, at any particular moment of your evolution as a painter, considered painting from a viewpoint other than abstraction? Were you ever tempted by figurative art?

Not really… When I started painting, I used as my models fragments of objects or characters which I transformed or painted in colors different from reality. But that was only a device preparing me for abstraction. For me, representation is quickly exhausted, and blocks the viewer’s recourse to the imagination. I want viewers to immerse themselves in my painting – which also explains the larger and larger formats of my work – and to give free rein to perception, emotion, imagination. My painting addresses the emotions and the body more than the mind, and nothing should limit the viewer’s freedom of feeling. Whence the absence of titles. If I may allow myself a somewhat bold comparison with music, figurative painting is to abstraction what a song of Georges Brassens is to a guitar solo of Neil Young. The former engages the mind by way of the word, while the second is pure sensory vibration and makes you shiver with emotion. Personally, I try to paint how Neil Young plays the electric guitar… but that is undoubtedly an unattainable goal!

For a while now you have been using larger and larger formats. Yet you begin your work with little sketches, used to define what you call the skeleton of your paintings. These drawings are interesting because they prove, as if that were necessary, that your work leaves little or nothing to chance. Could you pursue a career as a draftsman alongside your painting?

I don’t consider myself a draftsman. The forms I place in my paintings are there to attract the gaze, to evoke an initial vision, and then make way for a slower, more meditative gaze… between the lines. The preparatory sketches basically serve to construct the formal aspect of the painting: bodies, lines, (dis)equilibriums, etc. Afterward, this formal component is inscribed on the actual surface in a rapid, gestural manner. From there, the painting is developed in a more intuitive and organic way, through a series of successive acts of covering/unveiling.

Let’s talk about this rapid gesture that structures your paintings. Why this gesture and this rapidity when you invite the viewer to proceed slowly?

The gesture, because I like to involve myself, to physically inscribe myself, in the process. And I want it to be quick in order to create a tension, to reveal by its very transgression the painting’s slowness.

As an admirer of Jackson Pollock, you share with him a preference for working on a rigid, hard surface. Pollock only stretched his canvasses on their frames after painting them right on the floor. Could your own work be imagined as easel painting?

With difficulty (though a small part of my work does sometimes involve the support being placed vertically). First of all because I find it easier to work on large surfaces when they are laid flat, on a big table or on the floor of my studio, and secondly because the layers of gouache which I superimpose on the “skeleton” are sanded down, and this step, or rather these successive steps, are only possible on a rigid support… A canvas would not hold up. This is why I work on Forex panels, of demonstrated stability.

The aspects of technique and craft are important for you. Pierre Soulages used to say, The artisan knows where he is going, not always so the artist. It seems to me that you are nevertheless an artist who knows where he wants to go, even if you do change your mind along the way. What are the factors that sometimes lead you to move away from the initial project?

I know more or less where I want to go, but the process itself is more interesting than whether the result conforms to my initial idea. Every painting is its own adventure; it has a starting point, a development and a conclusion. The starting point is determined (sketch, skeleton), but while I visualize the conclusion (the final result), I know that in reality it will be, in fine, a little different. Along the way, with every event added or taken away, with every step, my perception evolves, and decisions are to be made. Sometimes I realize the painting is heading in a direction I dislike, either because of its formal aspect, or what is expressed by the successive layers of gouache, or maybe because the chosen palette of colors is not functioning as I had hoped. If so, I can erase those forms and create new ones… or change the palette, even in the middle of the process. When this happens, older layers may reappear in little touches from under the newer ones. In general, I distance myself from my initial project only marginally. Sometimes, however, the change of direction is more pronounced, more radical. In both cases, approaching the conclusion is what gives me the most pleasure.

The chromatic sophistication of your work is often achieved by a technique of stratification and successive layers, alternating different materials and techniques. Yet you do not use transparent layering. How do you achieve this result?

I think it is due to the characteristics of gouache… and also to the way I work. There is clearly a strong element of experimentation in the search to master this part of the process: at last you obtain a certain result, and then you keep on developing your technique. But you are the one who spoke of alchemy – should an alchemist reveal all his secrets?

You attach great importance to the format, but also to the limits, of a painting. What is the significance of these unfinished and sometimes rough edges?

In general, a painting will end up being hung on the wall, often a uniform and typically light-colored surface. I like a painting to be visually integrated into its environment, and I try to avoid a too brutal transition between the painting and the wall that receives it. I want “something to happen” at the meeting between the two surfaces, for the elements to create a connection. When you look at a painting, I suppose this is not right away the most noticeable aspect. You focus on whatever first attracted the gaze. With time, however, you become interested in what is taking place between the forms, in the empty space… and on the edges. So the edges are not unfinished; on the contrary, they are given their full importance.

We spoke, regarding your work, of the metaphor of time. I find this pretty expression to be only half satisfying: if we restrict ourselves to the dictionary definition, I do not get the impression your work is trying to explicate an abstract concept. On the contrary, I get the impression that your goal is not to dispel the mystery…

To explain time, no. But to explore it… And this I can do only through its effects, the traces it leaves, the layers it deposits. In this sense, it would be better to speak of metonymy. The goal is therefore not to dispel the mystery but to voyage within it. A voyage full of doubts, of questions, but also a source of astonishing joys!

July 2016