Rina Sherman
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Pierre-Luc Bartoli, Comptoir, 2009
Technique mixte sur toile
(Huile et acrylique), 204x176 cm

Pierre-Luc Bartoli

Figuration in movement

Pierre-Luc Bartoli expresses his vision of the world and the human condition by depicting moving instants on canvas, more often in large formats and at times as diptychs or triptychs. In his quest for a resonant fusion of form and content, seeking to redefine theme and technique, the artist creates a world in which people, objects and volumes evolve in instants of stopped motion. Through a recurring choice of low light scenes, he displays a sumptuous palette of somber tones subsumed in folds and bursts of color. Bartoli strives to reflect cutting edge imagery of the here and now, extending his pursuit beyond the present of his immediate surroundings. His is a painting of the instantaneousness of the brush stroke; between the image he portrays and the image that transpires through the matter itself, it expresses evolution rather than progression.

In his Paris studio, the artist reflects on his work: “I try to communicate through emotive facts by capturing the essence of movement. When all has come and gone, the only timeless element that remains, is the poetry of movement as portrayed by instinctive emotions. Ideas come to me through sensations; I do not paint anything willfully but wait for a feeling to come to me, and only when I no longer think about it as an idea, I start painting. However, that being said, I also know that the rational is always present, seeking to impose its dynamic. In my work, it transpires in the representation of themes of our times. We live in a period of continual motion and incessant accumulation, which is reflected as a constant in my work through a number of thematic treatments: the endless stream of movement in the underground, the presence of ever-changing figures at social gatherings and the amassing of knowledge human beings undertake in their lives. Movement is the unifying element of the various explorations in as much as it incorporates past, present and future. The idea emanates from a sensation that becomes so powerful that it finds its way onto the canvas. The emotion is there first, then the idea takes shape, as a possibility to strike a balance between a hint of narration, which provides sense to the image, with the rational barely underwriting the actual painting of the image.”

A number of interacting yet independent themes emerge from Bartoli’s growing body of work: the age of accrual in which we live, presented by one or more figures set amid various arrangements of piles of books; social life depicted through gatherings in bars, parties and banquets, with an extended series on smokers; and the passing of people in the underground corridors of the Paris Metro, represented by a series of triptychs. Underlying these threads of expression is the closeness to the subject matter that pervades the artist’s work. Bartoli achieves this impression of propinquity through an almost cinematographic approach. In his representations, figuration embodies a present that hints at what could have preceded and that could possibly follow the image depicted on the canvas. Bartoli’s use of uchronia, brings into play a sense of what if that suggests both a plausible past and a possible future in his treatment of imagery. He achieves this by positioning his characters and volumes in configurations that generate points of mobile tension. These peaks convey a sense of continuity that seizes the attention of the observer through an effect of immediacy. But no sooner the formal is set out on Bartoli’s canvas than irrationality takes over to reinforce the image and make it more direct. By overturning the rules of representation, he circumvents rational choice, and hence draws the viewer into his personal style of expressive figuration.

Pierre-Luc Bartoli creates with bold sweeps of graphic darkness in which the painting seems to be pushed in different directions in an effort to expand the imagery to its limits. The somberness is juxtaposed with backgrounds and highlights of dominating tones; amber, ochre, burnt sienna, bright turquoise, matt pink, applied in strokes, smearing one layer over another, creating at times an effect of three-dimensional relief, either blending or contrasting sharply with the strokes of darkness. While an immediate ominous mood emerge, the use of light through color in both thick layered and transparent veiled textures, creates an effect of luminosity in his paintings, as if to say that life and human beings are imperfect and be that as it may. Technique is at the service of feeling. In Bartoli’s work, both figure and setting convey the extreme moods of either the artist, the subject or the place. The scope of expression is achieved through a greater or lesser degree of distortion of the various elements, through paint applied in dynamic, stylized gestures and the use of one or two dominant shades of color. Nothing is static; figures and shapes are arranged almost abstractly, pointing out, pushing ahead or leaning back, placed together precariously or intermeshed with their surroundings, resulting in modular open-ended compositions with an illusion of mass in which the characters and volumes defy the protocol of movement and the conventional organization of space.

A review of Bartoli’s painting from 2004 on reveals both continuing threads, such as the ongoing cycle of Smokers, and the opening of new avenues, for instance the Paris Metro triptychs and the more recent bar counter series. In 2004, Bartoli focuses on the portrayal of near monochrome news kiosks and libraries; man in relation to a world of constant information overload. In 2005, the artist adds one or two colors of which lemon- and straw-yellow to his representations of books and libraries, and his observation shifts to scenes in bars, often with pianists as a centre of his focus. Toward the end of 2005, he starts including groups of women enveloped in cigarette smoke, Les fumeuses, a theme that he continues to explore with men and women as subject matter throughout 2006 and into the beginning of 2007. During this period, he also paints people around banquet tables and gathered at art exhibition openings, people moving through the corridors of the Metro, painted in black, white and ochre, first on smaller canvasses, progressively moving onto larger formats, expanding his format to include a series of large format triptychs in the Metro (195 x 130 x 3). As from 2008, Bartoli returns to a flamboyant use of color seen in some of his earlier works, contrasting fluorescent tones with dull shades of orange and pink. His continued interest in night scenes is portrayed scenes at cocktail parties and as from 2009, of bar counters and in pubs, using the ever-present television screens as a single source of light reflecting bursts of color on random arrays of glasses. These genre scenes are depicted in pale shades of orange and brown with deep blue or pink backgrounds.

When Bartoli looks at the omnipresence of information and the efforts man deploys to accumulate and manage the data overload, the transpiring dynamic is that of the fragile equilibrium man strikes between always wanting more and his innate limitation to absorb more than but a portion of the ever increasing flow of facts and fiction. In a series of monochrome paintings, books are stacked in random piles, threatening to topple over with nobody present to keep them up. Shelves of casually arranged books cover entire walls, creating the impression that someone placed them there hastily and left. Piles of newspapers occupy every available space of small news kiosks. Amid this unruly flow of information, at times a single central figure grasps a book or reaches out to prevent a pile from tumbling down. At other times, a central dominant figure is accompanied by one or more figures placed at various points along the jagged lines of books vanishing into the distance and reaching out toward rows of shelves or handing a book or a newspaper directly to the viewer. The various horizontal, vertical, diagonal and circular rows and shelves of books and newspapers converge to the point at which the significant becomes insignificant. The abundant repetition creates a graphic effect that evokes the disarray of man confronted with surplus information that haunts his understanding of the living and of cognition. From a series of monochrome treatments with hints of matt pinks, stark blues and lemon- or straw-yellow providing highlighted edges and relief to the whitish backgrounds the artist moves on to further explore his subject matter by extending his palette of colors to the use of bolder dominant colors. The stacks of books come to be reflected by a saffron-yellow color or placed in an orange background, as opposed to the lighter background colors of the earlier treatments.

Bartoli next turns to painting people, at parties, exhibition openings and other social occasions, or in the Paris Metro. One striking visual element here is the way he places the heads of his figures. Always at a slant, the faces of his characters constantly direct the eye of the viewer to another figure or volume of the painting, once again, as if to suggest movement through that which precedes and that which is to follow. The paintings are in monochrome, often with the single lemon yellow or dense orange, saffron-yellow and amber tones breaking through in reflections both in the characters and the background volumes. The moments captured project an instantaneity calling on the viewer to be present, to share in the sociability, albeit that the artist often seems to be absent from the gatherings he depicts rather than participating in it actively, however close his position of observation may be.

The distancing effect is taken a step further in the smoking women and bar counter and pub cycles. Here, Bartoli shifts his point of view; he places himself above or slightly below his subjects. Painting them from a high angle position he accentuates the diagonal lines in the tilt of the faces of the smoking women and other guests. The heads are now hanging backward or to the side, looking up, as if both suspended in time and caught in movement. The smoking figures are afloat in wades of white smoke echoing the lavish flow of hair of the women. Rarely facing the viewer, indistinct faces with unfocused gazes drift in anonymous frames of time and space, as if transcending the realm of material life. Whilst death does not seem to be far in this series, the figures seemingly accept being transported into a world of otherness, their faces beaming with sensuality as do their elongated white fingers as they reach through the sinuous clouds of smoke flowing from their mouths. Bartoli’s use of color is becoming increasingly bolder; whilst the basis of his paintings is still monochrome, the dense yellow and stark orange highlights and backgrounds are more deeply and more violently applied in the smoking women, as are the green and juxtaposing blue settings of the bar counter pub scenes, providing the artist with an expanding graphic and color register.

In his more recent works, the Metro triptychs painted in 2006, and the bar and cocktail cycles, Bartoli strives to bring together the diversity of expression and the techniques of his previous stylistic and formal explorations into a coherent whole. The pieces are majestic, one flowing into the next, as does one scene of a film into another, endorsing the artist’s continued quest to capture moments of movement in time and space. In this way, Bartoli’s strength in creating dynamic sensations is reminiscent of cinematographic techniques; that of the proche hors cadre by means of which what happens just beyond the frame becomes a part of it by force of suggestion. Here the impression of what could have happened just before and just after the portrayal is taken a step further in that each scene suggests the life of the characters beyond the reach of the painting as such. The illusion of continuity is achieved both by means of the continuation of a gesture from one painting to another and through an increased dynamic of movement awarded to figures individually as well as to group scenes. The sensation of movement is further enhanced by the use of strong black vanishing lines highlighted with vigorous copper- and flaxen colored strokes in the architectural rendering of the space through which the figures are progressing, each on his own trajectory and yet linked by the unity of gesture in the composition as whole. As in his previous work, the space in which the characters evolve takes on a personality of its own through the graphic treatment in the form of bold horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, reminiscent of his book series. Arms are extended, hands are reaching out, faces are tilted, eyes filled with expressions of austerity and mouths gaping open. Movement is taken a step further; as in the pub scenes, bodies are at the ready, leaning forward in various postures of haste, this is man asserting his place in post-modern society with all its attributes: stark spaces, speed and clamor. Bartoli’s search to capture the instantaneity of the moment is especially visible in the series of painting of cocktails and pubs. With a hand reaching out, a television screen evoking strokes of light reflected from rows of glass without drinkers, creating both a synthesis of the research announced in his earlier work and a threshold from which to embark onto avenues of future explorations.

Whilst the artist’s painting techniques have developed and varied over the years, his most recent style shows the use of mixed techniques of oil and acrylic. His painting consists of several superposed coats of thin and rough paint. He works in various layers of acrylic, followed by an application of colorless painting medium before adding oil paint and in turn white spirits. From this accumulation of strata, he rubs or scrapes away certain areas in order to create his volumes. The result is a translucent effect of movement created by a combination of reflection, texture and relief, appearing not by addition but through that which is subtracted. From here form emerges from matter without a fixed point of departure, drawing the viewer into the artist’s questioning of his world. There is an underlying tone of melancholy and graveness in the interim answers that he provides in the form of paintings, yet there is both an acceptance of the limitations of human beings and an innate optimism about all things regarding this thing called life. This duality, encompassing both sadness and joy, should not surprise the viewer, for Bartoli is a native of the southern regions of France. Member of a large and closely-knit Corsican family, he grew up in the bright light of Aix-en-Provence and arrived in Paris with a single intention: to paint, and painted he has!

Bartoli prepared himself for painting in a number of ways: he drew, he sketched, he painted a series of gouaches and he looked at the work of other painters. The fact that he exercised his hand before taking to the paintbrush stands out clearly in his craft, in the mastery of his drawing technique and in his effective use of color, be it in his monochrome or color works. The artist uses the movement of his figures as a means of expression of which he is an observer in the sense that he records what he sees. In his paintings, movement emerges from the form of the bodies he paints, as can be seen in his triptychs, which work both as individual images and as a continuous composition. Bartoli’s painting is set in a continuation of the figurative tradition, the principal motivation of the image being to evoke a sensation through capturing the movement in a gesture or the expression on a face. Haunted by the notion of movement, through the years of exploration and experimentation, Bartoli has brought into play a distinct brand of motion and a unique use of graphics, placing his painting in the tradition of a certain figurative expressionism. To him, movement embraces the essential element in his work, an attribute that can be found in the expression of artists such as the nineteenth century cartoonist, painter and sculptor, Honoré Daumier, the French painter, Gen Paul, and the contemporary Spanish painter, Miguel Barceló. In Bartoli’s paintings, the bodies are often placed both centrally and as frontal figures facing the viewer directly without any interface, a technique associated with the cinema as well as photography. Despite the old world atmosphere in some of his paintings, such as the smoking women and the bar scenes, Bartoli’s work has a modernist feel to it. The way in which the figures lean over or are lined up turn them into dynamic, almost abstract volumes. Their gestures, often reaching out, leave their movements open-ended creating an illusion of light and space that continues to exist beyond the frame of the paintings. The artist’s palette is a somber mélange of blacks and whites with the intense use of stark colors breaking through the dark lines, but the paintings are nevertheless luminous. The essence of Bartoli’s expression is perhaps to be defined by this sense of luminosity that one is left with after having reviewed his rather dark collection of paintings. This may be the artist’s vision of the human condition; it is gloomy and yet light is never absent, as if to suggest that a lightness of being is always to be found.

Rina Sherman
Paris, November 2009