Two shapes

Interview with Caroline Bricmont, Director of the Gaston Bertrand Foundation 

“My work is a means of conveyance between two imaginations, mine and the viewer’s, an invitation to travel, which is aimed at meditative and contemplative people, rather than at people in a hurry,” explained Denis De Mot in a previous interview in 2009.

Before conducting this interview, there was of course an initial phase involving the observation of the paintings. It is to say, getting impregnated by the shapes and colours, exploring a plastic universe and understanding the pictorial technique that has been tried and tested and still remains constantly open to new sensations. Yet, those techniques all rely on slowness, according to the artist’s leitmotiv: the slowness of the creative process, based on a patient work involving successive layers, multiple modifications and restarts, the aim of which is to allow the passing time to be seamlessly captured. Slow time sets the pace and some meditative magic can then operate. Is Denis De Mot aware of the change that has taken place in his works over the last years? Indeed, the pictorial tears have disappeared and have given way to the enveloping aether that characterizes his latest productions. Denis De Mot has always invited the viewer to immerse himself in his introspective world. However, whereas he used to do so through swirling lines of acrylic that came to scratch the sometimes stormy and crackled background of his canvas, the artist now manages to move the spectators in a more atmospheric way.

In preparation for this interview, I am back in your studio for the third time and you immediately show me the paintings of 2022, insisting on the change that has occurred: a new form emerged, as you tell me. Can you explain this?

For the last twenty years, I have always constructed my paintings according to the same principle: on a prepared and coloured background, I draw lines in acrylic, multiple lines that sometimes appear in clusters, as I did so over the past years. Then the drawn lines reappear, softened in their thickness after applying successive layers of gouache and proceeding to multiple sanding operations. Over time, a painter builds up his plastic vocabulary. However, the point of my process has always been about “bringing the gouache out and lowering the line”. Whereas my paintings always begin with an interplay of lines or shapes, drawn in acrylic, sanded, covered with gouache and sanded again, the gouache ultimately imposes itself and the lines follow my own will. My aim is to get the closest as possible to a flat surface, which I achieve by sanding down the coloured acrylic strokes so that only the eye of the observer still perceives a relief, even though there is none left. It is in fact a pictorial illusion. As a proof of this, you only need to smooth your hand over the painting: it is almost completely flat, although the eye is sending the opposite information to the brain.
For almost 25 years, the abundance of various shapes has obviously characterized my paintings. In fact, I use to say that my exhibitions are multiform since I display curved lines, whether they are softly rounded or tangled, as well as perpendicular or parallel straight lines that can be multiple or not, giving rise to constructed shapes… Through a constant process, the abundance of formal proposals thus characterizes my work. Since the end of 2021, though, I have noticed that a new formal proposal has emerged in my mind, and therefore in my paintings: diagonal lines, combined with vertical ones, now make up the graphic expression of a 2022 series of paintings. These lines can vary – diagonals to the left or to the right, large or small – and thus the new triangular shapes successively appear on the canvas, with their rhythm and dimensions varying from one painting to another.

What is the genesis of this new form and rhythm?

I had once approached this triangular shape before, in 2014, as shown in one of my paintings. However, I did not explore this shape further at the time. This first attempt must have remained buried in my mind before it now resurfaces for some unknown reason. Yet, I am convinced that my mind contains what I positively call waste. What I call wastes are in fact pictorial attempts that I very quickly abandoned, maybe because the idea had not yet germinated in my mind and I did not feel the desire to dwell on it, or also because this graphic design did not appear at the right time and some maturity of the gesture was still missing. This plastic approach needs to be further developed but it is not yet the right time. I am sure that this pictorial waste remains imprinted in my unconscious and that it circulates in the meanderings of my brain. It then resurfaces at one point, as if it had been caught in the caterpillars of a moving tank.

In 2021, while reviewing the paintings in your studio in preparation for the Gaston Bertrand Prize exhibition, I was particularly struck by a change that has occurred over the last few years: the line, the one that crosses the vibrating background of the painting and that has for long been like a signature in your works, has become broader. On the one hand, as can be seen in the works of 2019-2020, this line can still be a fine line, but it is multiplied in a denser way than before, by juxtaposing 4 or 5 impatient lines and thus accentuating the trace. On the other hand, as can be seen in the works of 2021, the line can sometimes be solid, with its width corresponding to the crushing of the brush. In both cases, the line asserts its presence through its thickness and robustness. How did you come to this new pictorial writing? Is this also a waste emerging from the past?

As far as that thick trace is concerned, I don’t think I remember any previous attempt, even though it is undoubtedly present. It is instead a pictorial quest. As always, the final line is made up with a succession of underlying juxtaposed acrylic strokes, but I felt like a variation. This variation first appeared by further multiplying the fine strokes, eventually producing this formal thickness. In other paintings, my approach was to use a broad brush to spread a layer of acrylic over the juxtaposed fine lines, thus creating a new effect. Indeed, the broad line covers the fine acrylic strokes but it does not completely hide them as, with a final sanding, the latter reappear to create a visual relief and colourful vibration within the robust line, giving an impression of uniformity when viewed from a distance. The pleasure of experimenting with new pictorial territories is certainly the source of this change. Although I am not working in this direction any more, it may still resurface at some point.

Let’s go back in time to look at another aspect of your recent work, but this time from a formal point of view. For a long time, undulations and convolutions of fine lines have characterized your work, sometimes with dense entanglements, like some kind of automatic writing coming from the depths, lively but not impulsive. However, since 2018, one can notice the presence of clearly angular lines. As we have discussed, the thin lines finally became thicker in 2019-2021. Whether they are white, black or coloured, these lines create a rigorous shape that is often laid on the rectangular or
 – since this year – triangular pattern. Can we say that your work has taken a more geometric tone?

You are not the first to say so. Yet, around 2017-2018, I was not aware of it, even when I looked more closely at my work. I guess the unconscious has some unsuspected strength… However, the formal simplification in my paintings is obvious. Indeed, I can see that more specific shapes have appeared, less hectic and numerous than before. Now that we are talking about these years, having the 2017-2018-2019 paintings in front of our eyes, the image of a funnel comes to my mind, wide at its opening and narrow at its exit. One may explore many avenues and then, as the years go by, narrow the range of proposals because plastic experience and habits end up imposing their imprint. In my own case, the more I paint, the simpler the shapes become.

Over time, the straight line has become dominant, even though it still subtly undulates: can this affirmation of the line be compared with the affirmation of your work as a painter after a quarter of a century of practice? Do you think you have gained confidence after years of painting?

Yes, indeed, the line is firmer and the gesture is undoubtedly more assured: a frank and direct movement. This has to do with the way I handle and hold the acrylic pot firmly in my hand, which allows me to spread the paint on the canvas quickly and confidently. I actually gained such confidence by working on the line year after year, which eventually allowed this wide gesture to thrive. My arm is more widely open than before and the amplitude of this movement prints its coloured line in a straighter way than it used to do when I started to paint.

The viewer can notice a greater control of the gesture, as well as simplified shapes and a fast writing that has become more temperate. Is this temperance resulting from life experience or some kind of wisdom due to the passing of time?

My reflection on time is always the same: I patiently elaborate my painting, I slowly prepare the background, but I quickly sketch the lines on the paper before patiently transposing them with charcoal onto the final medium. I need time before starting the pictorial creation as such. Through this method, I like to slow down the march of time, to hold back for a moment the inescapable passage of hours. Indeed, after years of practice, the gesture has become less hectic, even though it is still very fast because I like to draw in a single clear – and perhaps more assured – movement. There is an enjoyment in this impulse, giving birth to the efflorescence of an acrylic protrusion in one go. It is true that, with time passing, I have developed a greater concern for simplification: finding the right line, the right shape, without weighing them down. This is certainly due to a sense of the time that has passed, the time that has fled. Now, at the age of 67, can I indefinitely stretch the time? Perhaps it is actually a matter of wisdom…

We notice more refined and pure lines, with a greater place left to the soberly but energetically coloured void being crossed by these lines. In your recent paintings, it seems to me that there is a gentle mixture of calm and ardour, that a lively force peacefully and densely expresses itself over the medium. The tangle of lines that ran through the background of your previous works – with colourful and materialistic flashes – has become calmer; it has slowed down its rambunctious race to assert a both incisive and peaceful writing. What do you think about this interpretation?.

For a little more than two years, I have been experimenting with another form of writing. I keep working on it in parallel with the more recent triangle shape that we have already mentioned: on the furrows that horizontally cross the panel from one side to the other, ascending or descending lines now appear as streaks over the surface. In 2020, I had already adopted this vertical – and definitely incisive – movement in some of my paintings, but I am now fully exploring and declining it. It produces a variety of shapes: the squares and rectangles are open at the top and may vary in size, place, thickness and presence, while being reproduced over the vast and coloured surface of the painting. The energy is under control, the din has subsided and the formal foundation that stabilizes the space now invites the acrylic threads to unfold freely. The restlessness and turmoil that have long characterized my work have given way to a simple palpitation, with the vertical gush now resting on a more solid horizontal base. These two elements had to come together in order for the whole picture to function. The breathing of the void is made possible thanks to the stability of the foundations… You often find the essence of a painting in the voids, that is, in the spaces created by the lines or groups of lines. Another new feature is the interlacing, which amplifies the vertical momentum and consolidates the basis from which the lines can launch themselves without fear of breaking away during their flight. I build graphically flexible but solidly anchored knots, allowing the vertical lines to stretch freely. This graphic discovery has come to reinforce my idea that knots allow a greater openness, both peaceful and invigorating.

Let’s talk about the backgrounds: in recent years, although the materialistic approach is still present, we notice a greater sobriety in the coloured backgrounds. They have become more akin to flat tints, without, however, totally being so, insofar as the subtle colour shades, irradiating through transparency and successive pictorial layers, keep creating a fascinating depth. Are we closer to the sky, the sea or the abyss than to the earth and its cracks and scars, as your backgrounds previously used to look like? Does this change in the way you shape the backgrounds, tending towards some form of nudity, echo your desire for simplification?

For me, backgrounds have always served as a backing for the lines to flourish. I carefully prepare them so that the elements resonate at each stage of the process. A few years ago, I used to prepare the acrylic backgrounds vigorously, so that movements, ardour and pictorial accidents came to impregnate the various layers of paint. After several sanding operations, these accidents would show through with a certain roughness. However, for some time now, the application of the base coats has become less tumultuous and rough. The coloured appearances from the background, which used to break up the mass of colours, have become rare or even non-existent. The background has softened to offer a coloured uniformity, and the soft vibration is now resulting from successive layers of gouache. This is probably due a variation of my technique that goes hand in hand with my desire for simplification.

When you talk about “frank movement”, “opening the arm”, “successive sanding”, it seems to me that your painting is very physical, in spite of the slowness that you claim …

Indeed, the preparation of the background is a slow process, but I then quickly draw the lines before proceeding to the various sanding operations. The elaboration of a painting brings me two sources of elation. The first is the febrility that I feel while I am drawing the acrylic strands in a swift movement that characterizes the last few years, with the amplitude of my open arm literally falling onto the flat panel. It is indeed physical and exhilarating. The second relates to sanding: you have to press the tool on the panel, but not too much in order to avoid tearing the coloured relief. Then I repeat the process as many times as I decide to do so, until achieving the desired result. The number of sanding operations varies according to the inner alchemy of my work. In addition to the small rotational movements of the machine, which I have to hold firmly in my hand, I also have to contain its boldness so as not to damage what has already been done. The sanding process takes time, as well as being very precise since I have to work with finer and finer grain as I get closer to the end. It really implies a physical effort. Actually, as I give a lot of energy, it is both physically and mentally tiring. However, when I finally reach the last stage, I feel a delightful satisfaction in discovering the painting that is emerging from this patient work. The painting sometimes seduces me, coming to life under my gaze with its leathery skin. It is soft and shiny…

Does this work in the same way for all your paintings?

No, that would be too simple… and boring! Each painting is an adventure and sometimes the adventure does not go as planned. Over time, I have come to realize that these works are the most interesting ones. Faced with the unexpected evolution of a painting, I start to think a lot, then I grope and experiment on my panel, I change the main colour, I rework the areas that require me to do so, I change direction… I particularly like these paintings because their richness derives from the vexations they have endured. All that repair work eventually allows me to breathe more vibrancy into them. I often think that the same is true for people: those who have had a difficult life, enriched by their hardships and trials, happen to be the most endearing and engaging ones. If you take the trouble to look at them, they actually have a lot to offer.

October 2022