Confronting rhythms

Interview with Martine Ehmer, gallery owner

Your work evokes a certain Spanish style of painting. I am thinking in particular of Tapies, Barcelò or Manolo Millares. How do you consider yourself with respect to these artists?

It is a connection that is frequently suggested. But as far as I am concerned, I do not work with the material for itself but for what it makes one see and feel, in other words, time and memory. Starting from the painting material itself – acrylic and gouache – I have developed a vocabulary that evokes the work of time on a surface and I have adopted a process close to that of time itself: successive layers and deposits, covering and uncovering, scraping, abrasion, wear. A way of working as slow as time itself, and one that requires as much of the spectator: the same slowness, the same gradual familiarisation with detail, with the differences between nuances. And then, the forms, the signs I insert between the layers, rapidly this time, serve the same purpose: expressing time by confronting two rhythms, a long time of process and a brief time of the gesture.

Your palette is rich but relatively unsaturated. What is your relationship with colour?

Bright and highly contrasted colours can be read immediately but fade just as quickly. Time, and particularly slowness, are excluded from them. So I prefer less saturated colours, “earth” colours – shades of red, ochre, brown, black, grey – colours that speak of wear, patina, time that muffles and washes. And to give depth to this time, I prefer matt colours. In this way, once again, my painting does not impose itself on the viewer but offers itself progressively with all the preceding layers.

Your work is also characterised by compositions that sometimes seem unplanned. How much control is involved in the process?

To start with, I make a sketch of the masses and the main lines, and I decide on the colours. So I do have a sense of what the whole painting might become. But along the way, as the layers and abrasions follow one after another, the work takes on its own life, and at times it seems I only accompany it. Which part is decided and which part is random varies from one painting to another. It is an expression of play – or of paradox – between reason and instinct, order and chaos, or in more concrete terms, an expression of the undetermined character of the transformation of a material submitted to the test of time… and, in my eyes, of a salutary disorder.

Some contemporary composers, such as Morton Feldman, consider music to be “paintings of time”. What does this image evoke for you?

I like this image; when I am trying to guide the viewer’s way of looking at my paintings, I am tempted to make an analogy with music, with the immediate aspect of a main theme opposed to the slow and progressive discovery of arrangements, of secondary episodes. Feldman was himself influenced by the abstract expressionism of Pollock, Rothko, Kline, and by the subtle relations between music and painting. As a composer, he said, he worked with time and sound… and sometimes “he wasn’t even sure about sound”. As a painter, I work with material and time, and both have their place, as much in the way the work is created as in the way the viewer sees it. I also draw on another analogy, that of fire: you can glance briefly at a fire and then speak of other things, or you can sit and lose yourself in the slow transformation, starting from the first lighting, to the kindling catching fire, then the logs, with their movements as they burn, their arrangements created then falling apart. In my eyes, all the beauty of fire is there, in its slow and unpredictable evolution.

Could one say, then, that your work invites introspection?

I would prefer to speak of contemplation. The word “introspection” implies reflection. This is not what I am suggesting. Even though I find time an important dimension, since our individual and collective present is built on our past, and that it can be useful to observe attentively the traces of this past, which is often very complex. Confronted with the visual noise of our world, saturated with images and immediacy, I seek a space that allows one to see – and to feel – in calm and silence, time that flows, the past, which alone allows one to envisage a long-term future.

December 2009