Essay Sounds Woo Catalogue 2020. Jane Wallace



I am driving across a bridge at 5pm. The bridge connects a stony and cranium-shaped land mass to another, similar but an open plain, with rushes that bleed in so quick and so fast and amass in this configuration of navy blue lines, to sway and crackle in the setting light. At 5pm, the oncoming traffic is heavy. Inside my car, I’m losing my nerve. I am losing my nerve against the serpentine headlights of the oncoming freighter. Beneath the bridge is a body of water. With the rain of late, the body is swollen, risen to level with the bank. Now, the bridge and the water are two dark grey slabs laying on top of each other. These forms are about moving across, over the top of it all. It is a passage reconciled by the visual weight of the environment.

I am making a deal of the bridge because of the convergence of certain concerns: of motion and formal relationships between objects. A feeling of too-much, of losing one’s nerve over again, the damp catharsis of new shadows. The paintings of Marie Le Lievre exist at this same site. The site is a place where the balance of figures and colours can be resolved, but also where one can find spaces to hide and transcend. In the work, the careful mechanics of painting are what allow a transit to different states of consciousness. I think of Greville Texidor, who writes that the blocky cityscape of London is a place in which “one got a little coating of fog and forgot.”

The veil falls / the spires pierce the skin

To wade between the works of Le Lievre can be, to begin with, an exercise in zooming in and out. Like crossing that bridge in a fast moving car, it is important to look with motion in mind. In this way, our perceived closeness to the work is constantly in flux, and so is the scale of what is contained by the picture plane. Le Lievre’s works are rich and deep substances that you can plunge into. Maybe it is the proximity to the ocean. For a while, these fronded shapes were rock pools or seaweed or glassy slicks of oil seeping through the waves. Their edges have this curved or soft contour to them, so that the delineation from background and object is sometimes unclear or perhaps it is that you can be in both spaces at once— looking in and within, simultaneously— like liquid, gas, matter that leaches and spills beyond the bounds it has been given.

Baby, now we’re diving under.

The thing about paint is that it is not something you can ever truly control— it is always a medium with its own mind, swayed by time and temperature. To work with paint is to forfeit authority. In conversation with Aleksandar Hemon, Teju Cole noted that a dancer in mid-dance cannot think too much about her legs. The choreography may have been laid down, the body turned to circus, but ultimately, it is the spontaneity and unknowable of this mode that produces the real outcome. I think the same is true for Le Lievre’s paint application because the works materialise as records of her own motion on and around them. When things are in motion, they must appear to be controlled. The mastery of this, though, is that the appearance of precision has to reach an equilibrium with the possibility of it unravelling. For everything to be in place, for a while, is always a surprise. Painting is an art that is fundamentally about traces of activity that have been mediated by brushstroke and so, Le Lievre is constantly in negotiation with that which cannot be harnessed or predicted, a relationship that requires an acceptance of this reality as well. To be a painter then must also be a lesson in resisting alterity with the mysterious forces that preside over us— it is work toward being planetary subjects. In many ways, a planetary existence means accepting the inability to understand everything with certainty. Le Lievre’s works enable us to lean in to the heave of this feeling. When the sun sets across something vast and awful, and the spine feels that it will explode with ecstasy, this adrenaline is just about being in it, witnessing the gossamer between here and elsewhere thin and waver.

Roland Barthes wrote that “the inventory of shimmers is one of nuances, of states, of changes.” Shimmering might not always be a shiny activity, but something that fluctuates between different registers. The surfaces of Le Lievre’s works can be languid, where the oil paint is glossy and slow, and the light tricks the eye and the unreal emerges. I am thinking of the heavy air above hot asphalt, when the relentless stillness warps the horizon stack into matter that is porous and nebulous. It has only ever been an illusion that what the eye can see when it looks as far as possible is a vision that will never change; perpetual shimmer and transformation is all that we can rely on. The scratched undergrowth of other of Le Lievre’s works also shimmers though, in the same way that the texture of radio static occurs when tuning between channels. The narrative that emerges in moments of static can be idiosyncratic but beautiful, as a broadcasted weather report fuses with the wailing woman.

In the works, the scratching or drawing can seem obsessive. Sometimes these markings comprise a layered foliage in the work, or in other instances the lines are looser, beginning to disperse. There’s a clearing ahead. The physicality of this process can be understood as a kind of manual mantra or visual chant, in which the intimate and affective space of the mind is prioritised. Critically, the formal and painterly concerns of Le Lievre are not at odds with this intimacy, but facilitate it. By repeating and piling similar forms or gestures, the visibility of the self is enforced. When the volume rises, does the pressure of sound not become more real?

Affirmation is an important practice. In the summer of last year, I cut off all my hair. The hairdresser put a band of it down beside me on his trolley with the scissors and comb and mousse and straightening iron. Suddenly, a thing that was a part of me became foreign, a dead weight to assess my relationship against. By this, I mean that my own identity had to shift somehow to account for this new thing occurring outside and at odds with it. I think of objects a lot as this kind of cumulative substance that we cling to in order to be grounded and to know that we exist in the realities that we find ourselves. Debris loiters in handbags, in kitchen drawers, in medical clinics. A trinket-y compulsion to stuff and the inaudible hum it emanates fills in the gaps around the rhythms of life, and somehow, precariously, allows us to hold it all together.

I am saying all of this because of the essentially figurative nature of Le Lievre’s work. There are always discernible forms set against a pale background, but their legibility is challenging. They play a game of mimicry with the shapes and silhouettes that do actually comprise our environment— two vertical lines in place will recall a door even when no other detail is available to support that suggestion. Le Lievre has described this ambiguous matter as paraphernalia, figures that are resolute in their thingness, but whose signifying quality is halted just short. The word paraphernalia originated in the 17th century and denoted property belonging to a married woman that had not been relinquished as dowry. I think that the vestiges of possession and of owning something for oneself are still important here.

Speculum spatula pendulum fishhook stethoscope stencil dumbbell

These are things of rooms, of internal cavities. Alongside the phenomenological dimension of Le Lievre’s practice, a lot of the work occurs in interior spaces. Sometimes this is enacted through the framing of the work, where a Polaroid border can be a sill for looking through and past and waiting for someone else to wander by. The composition of the image is often formulated through an equation of watching and being, in a room with a table and our things strewn across it, even the parts that we hoped no one would retrieve right at the bottom. To be here, staring at you and the furniture is not an intrusive act though, but an invitation to a personal mess that belongs to anyone who finds themselves in frame. I read a poem about accidentally watching the neighbour’s television set through their kitchen window and I think about the comfort of shared domesticity, even if it is unwitting. These are paintings with space enough in them to carry on with life.

There’s another bridge that I have driven across at 5pm, in the flesh of the city, when the mist rolled in the way it did the night before, and the rear-end red of everyone stalling to get home washed the evening in crimson. I can’t see more than a metre ahead on the bridge, but I am breathing through it, finding my nerve, wincing as the red light turns amphibian green.

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