Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / In enlisting the stretcher itself and other materials not customarily used in art as part of a painting’s aesthetic content in addition to the traditional media on the canvas, the avant-garde Supports/Surfaces movement echoed the popular ferment in 1960s and 1970s France that challenged the rigidity of political norms. It was a compelling concept, visually acknowledging in a rather literal way the validity of both structuralism and deconstruction. Now 86, Claude Viallat, a leader of that movement, is still painting every day, presiding over fabric as an “arena for action” and exalting iterative process over image.
With his latest work, in a quietly radiant show at Ceysson & Bénétière on the Upper East Side, he presents colorful patterns resembling camouflage on fragments of military tarpaulins. While society might try to hide war in plain sight, this suggests, it cycles through civic life and demands attention on a generational basis. If this is a nineteenth-century notion, the twentieth century plangently confirmed it. So far, the twenty-first century has hardly repudiated it. While grommets and strands of rope are reminders of the tarps’ erstwhile function, they lack customary stretchers, hanging loosely and perhaps intimating the world’s extraordinarily tenuous state.
In the mid-1980s, Andy Warhol, with his series of repeated camo patterns, illuminated the subliminal currency of war even in the precincts of life that were essentially at peace. But it remained an obtusely soporific presence, like wallpaper. Warhol’s slick, silk-screened patterns were a form of visual droning that captured the cynically blasé character that wars apprehended at safe distances acquired. More recently, camouflage has become a precious fashion, its original purpose obscured and fetishized beyond irony.
Viallat’s integration of paint and actual military gear returns immediacy to the society–conflict nexus. And well it might. Prospects of consuming war did not disappear with the American evacuation of Saigon in 1975, the end of the Cold War in 1991, or the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, any more than they did on VE-Day in 1945. A very hot war is at Europe’s doorstep, and it could well spill into its interior and beyond.
Viallat does appreciate beauty and nods to the possibility of refuge, if not salvation, in art. But the military remnants that undergird his deep, vibrant colors and seductive optics confirm that the beauty he appears to have in mind is the grimly pastoral sort that Britain’s Great War poets tragically contrasted with their plight in the trenches. If he subverts the tarps’ use, he does not elide their purpose. In Viallat’s hands, Supports/Surfaces embraces political reality and crucially recognizes that beauty can be fragile and existentially futile. He remembers and he worries.
“Claude Viallat: Recent Works,” Ceysson & Bénétière, 956 Madison Avenue, New York, NY. Through October 22, 2022.