The Inter-Worlds of Painting

Christine Buci-Glucksmann

Tears, cuts, fragments, swathes and fluxes of thick paint in rhizomes: the series of fourteen paintings by Pia Fries plunges us into a world of hybridised pictorial energies. A world of a kind of post-abstraction that has abandoned the homogenous purity of modernist pictoriality in favour of new models that are cartographic, diagrammatic or made up of interlacing curves – a whole pictorial syntax based on multiplicity or, as here, a constitutive duality of origins and materials.

For what we have before us is a dialogue between the facsimiles of the astonishing naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), who at the age of fifty set off on a two-year journey to Surinam, then a Dutch colony, to observe and collect botanical specimens of flora and fauna. These were later published as Metamorphosis insectorum surinamernsium (1705), a book much admired by Carolus Linnaeus. In these crucial years for natural history and for the classifications distinguishing between organic and inorganic forms, her plates seem to function as the archives of an entire period and of tropical nature. In fact, Pia Fries has already used these traces of an ordered past in her Schwarze Blumen (2005), in which black floral forms and painterly logic intertwine and mix so closely that they are joined in the same cosmos. Here, though, they are deliberately torn and fragmented, like the ornamental second skin of a bookish palimpsest, covering the neutral smoothness of white on wood.

And so, between the semi-figurative levels and the ribbons of paint, here and there we come upon a butterfly, a flower with its straight stem, a shell, a pictorial blue snake winding round floral motifs, or a solitary lizard or insect. Here, nature becomes citational and abstract, as painting morphs into coloured abstracts, in the intermediacy of the tear. This is not simple collage of the kind practised by Robert Rauschenberg in the 1960s, more a “post-collage” syntax in which the “real” universe of flora and fauna functions as a kind of secondary Vanitas, evoking past times in the flash of the present.1 Drawing on the Dutch tradition of frontal Vanitas paintings, in which the bouquet of flowers is already prey to some small insect, Maria Sibylla Merian composed her plates like an artist. Torn and distributed in flat spaces, all their “intermediacies” divided, fold, unfold and multiply space. Between Surinam and Germany, between Gerhard Richter and David Reed, between the surface effect of bits of images and the true-false volume of paint worked with all kinds of manual instruments, from rakes to spatulas, these fourteen paintings take us “between worlds,” as Paul Klee would have said. Klee himself had the experience of being between two cultures, when his discovery of Tunisia combined with the culture of the Bauhaus. But he also worked in between two pictorial worlds; his figurative calligraphy dialogued with abstraction, rug-form or architecture. For every inter-world proceeds through an inter-cultural practice that affects the pictorial and transforms it from within, as is the case with Fries’s work.

True, as early as 2001 in Dimrock, and in 2003 with Les aquarelles de Léningrad, Pia Fries used silkscreened images of crepe paper and of her own painting, thus confronting two different mediums in the manner of Warhol and Richter. Here, though, she is using not silkscreens but facsimiles of a virtual book, of which all we can see are the violated pages. This work thus puts the emphasis on what the Japanese call “the semi-formal.” Not form as a full ideality, nor the formless in Bataille’s sense, but a semi-form of fluxes that are unfinished or fixed, of traces of instruments and gestures and the marks of materials. Hence this pictorial topology which telescopes past and present, memory and painting, in all the possible interactions and networks that evoke our increasingly globalised universe. It is as if, in these richly humorous worlds put together by Fries, a lizard could dialogue with a lizard in paint, a flower with an abstract stem, and a bright blue butterfly could gather nectar in a little pictorial “pond.” Not to mention the hybrid, almost surreal crab, with painted legs. Lines, knots, strata, impasto thick or stretched, winding bright and mixed colours – all these modalities in which line is no longer a contour but “passes between things” – take on a new plasticity in which the natural and the artificial enter into a dialogue and enlace.

For that is the particularity of postmodern painting; it creates a new kind of flatness, be it Leon Steinberg’s “flatbed,” which integrates both information and images, or the Deleuzian “plateau” with its strata and rhizomatic forms. This plane is complex and multiple, impure and extended; it does not evacuate the world but integrates it. Rather as the modern metropolis is now a heterogenesis of layers of information and blocks of space-time, with their multiple connections, characteristic of what Rem Koolhaas calls the “generic city,” the picture plane has developed new artefacts linked to the flat multiplicities of an itinerant geometry, inspired by chaos theory and fractals. Fluxes replace structures and forces forms, as in the prescient painting from 1996 entitled Water. In such a fluid, rhythmic space, in-between areas are both voids and passageways, with their false frontiers and zones of indiscernibility.

Such are the fourteen paintings by Pia Fries: spaces of flat multiplicity, transfer-planes where the becoming-line of the pictorial folds engenders an abstraction that is more additive than subtractive. For the botanical fragments are definitely there, with this pleasure and truth in detail that characterise Dutch art, which approached the microcosm as macrocosm, the better to show the world in a pearl, as in Vermeer. Quotations or references to faraway tropical worlds, they function as the equivalent of an ornamental plane. When we consider the degree to which modernity has excluded ornament, ever since the turn of the twentieth century in Vienna and Jugendstil, and to the extent that Adolf Loos condemned it as a “crime,” we can better gauge the impact of these botanical presences, as the signs and marks of a beauty that is perhaps lost.2 But Pia Fries is neither nostalgic nor melancholy. Her work tends, rather, to pursue what Marcel Duchamp called a “beauty of indifference” made of distance and coldness, albeit a very colourful one. Here “difference is an operation” and arises from inter-worlds and an abstraction that is more haptic (touching/seeing) than optical, but always at a distance “from.” For even if the paint is thick and given relief, graduated and mixed, the aim is to lighten space, and to embody a gaze that I have described as “Icarian” – the cartographer’s gaze from above. A gaze that is a trajectory and itinerary, unfolding the world as it draws it, and magnifying the inflections of painting.

For that is no doubt the paradox of this new series by Pia Fries: by playing on two worlds, two forms and two mediums, she does not add anything, yet she does, more than ever, make manifest the surface effect of pictoriality. This paradox was noted by Daniel Arasse with regard to Holbein’s Dead Christ: in the detail, “the iconic brings forth pure painting.”3 Rather as Matisse, at the end of his life, “cut” into colour in order to achieve the decorative quality that he had always advocated, here, cutting is a tear in the polysemy of the action. We tear to discard or create; we tear up paper, posters of fabric. But the tear is also what characterises the new geometries of the broken and the jagged: fractals, from fractus, frangere: to break, shatter. Manmade, the folds and precise curves of the tear also evoke nature, which creates these motifs that have fascinated many an artist, from Leonardo to Goethe or D’Arcy Thompson: the meanders and spirals of flows, air turbulence, the spraying fall of water, the geography of a coast. And indeed, these semi-formal forms, these fluxes and arabesques, are found throughout the painting of Pia Fries and its post-organic geometry. But in this series, the iconic introduced what in the sixteenth century was called varietas, even if irregular, or even eccentric, as in Mannerism. Against the double primacy of the geometric and the pure inorganic, artefacts assert a third world that is shared by art and architecture, that of the flexible, the an-exact, the curve. All these becomings make it possible to experience multiplicities and networks.

Difference is then in the service of a “combinatorial multiplicity,” as Greg Lynn has written, in his defence and practice of this fluid logic of connections.4 Abstraction then becomes abstract, the pattern and code of all secondary syntaxes, in which the random and the complex coexist. For whatever the degree of mastery required, the tear implies mental and gestural drawing over chance. Rather as archaeology as understood by Michel Foucault creates “spaces of dissent,” Pia Fries practises a kind of archaeology of the painterly gesture, showing its traces, memories and all the organised and distanced debris and ruins of a partially lost botanical past that is suddenly resuscitated in a conscious ambiguity. For where does painting begin and end in this matricial image of the cosmos?

In his critique of the linear time of progress in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin saw “the constellations of time” as forming an “a-present” that makes it possible to conceive, all together, past and future, progress and catastrophe, the prehistory and post-history of a form (cf. the Baroque). Interlacing plates from the seventeenth century, from a world that witnessed colonisation, with her own painting, Fries creates one possible form of this “a-present” – an “a-present” with a very feminine form of freedom, expressing the Kunstwollen that Aloïs Riegl attributed to all ornament treated as a “style,” be it volute, spiral or arabesque. Such is the pictorial challenge taken up by Pia Fries in this series: to make abstraction into a stylistics for our present, by evoking a virtual world lost in the real of an “aesthetic of the diverse” (Victor Segalen), which hybridises the extreme lightness of drawing with the neutrality of white, in the extreme density of the painter’s act.

  1. Cf. my “Les vanités secondes de l’art contemporain” in Les Vanités dans l’art contemporain, Paris: Flammarion, 2005.
  2. On this question, see my Philosophie de l’ornement. D’Orient en Occident, Paris: Galilée, 2008.
  3. Daniel Arasse, Le détail, Paris: Champs Flammarion, 1996, p. 272.
  4. Greg Lynn, Folds, Bodies and Blobs, Brussels: La lettre Volée, 1998, ff. 87.