April 2020

By Peter Frank

Art exists in no small part to reveal what we can’t see and propose what we can’t imagine. At a moment in human history when foresight and imagination are in urgent demand, art that warns, solves, exemplifies, and/or predicts is at a premium. Françoise Gérard has long looked at the real world through filters of marvel and skepticism, credulity and doubt; now she enjoins us to see through those filters as well, out onto a world in flux.

Gérard comes to this anxious, even projective realism almost as a birthright. A native of Brussels, the artist grew up in the curious ferment of the postwar Belgian surrealist scene. This milieu, spanning the arts and philosophy, was not reliant on the proactive, ideologically charged French model for its intellectual foundation, but turned to a spirit peculiar to the region, a spirit that encouraged the fever dreams of Bosch and the haunting poetry of Magritte, among so many others. Emerging precociously into this discourse, Gérard early on cultivated a sense of the absurd. As she notes, “…paradoxes and illogical dualities have been a constant source of inspiration” – inspiration toward a corrective vision, that is, never a source for self-indulgence. Gérard upsets and restructures meaning in order to find new meaning more befitting the conditions of the day. She does not merely fantasize images, she posits them, making sure their rational and irrational turns bear narrative impact. As opposed to so many of her surrealist and surrealism-related compeers (Belgian and otherwise), Gérard, for all her pictorial lyricism, is not so much a poet of the paintbrush as a storyteller, giving accounts of troubling conditions in dynamic composition (or de-composition) and riveting detail. Especially working in series as she does, Gérard tells as much of the world to come as of the world that is.

It’s telling that the artist cites not only Bosch and Magritte as early influences, but Edward Hopper as well. Hopper’s is a different, but no less keen, alienation and foreboding, a truly American kind of horror vacui suited to a land where everything is bigger and/or farther apart. The evolution of Gérard’s art takes on this displacement, this enhanced spatial angst, upon her move to the United States. This is no surprise, considering she has lived mostly in the western part of the country, but still notable, especially in her focus on the fraught relationship between nature and humanity. Where her early pictures took their mises-en-scène in and around dwellings, more recently they have come to regard human architecture as part of the larger landscape – a larger landscape that is anything but domestic in spirit, and often threatens the stability of human endeavor, even of human presence. Gérard’s first American paintings carry over her European sensibility, depicting human (and humanoid) figures in closed spaces – not all interior, but all tightly organized pictorially and allowing relatively little depth of visual field. The figures themselves, invariably stylized, enact rites of passage, celebration, or mysterious process. The color is highly localized and the composition almost architectonic; curious or playful events unfold in incongruously stately fashion, like comedies of manners or well-behaved festivals.

When Gérard breaks away from the constrictions of her European style, her pictures lose their imposed sense of control, but not their compositional order. No longer emulating the “primitive” exactitude of Northern Renaissance painting, Gérard’s first works of the new century find her wielding a far bolder and more expressionist brush – and taking on a far wilder, more chaotic psychological tone in her choice of themes. She speaks of “archetypes” at work in the “Guardians,” a series of paintings in which dogs act as ciphers for human interactions with their surroundings. Some of these surroundings are naturalistic, others almost entirely abstract, but the dogs, to a creature, seem anxious and discomfited, unsure of their purpose as much as of their environment(s). Their reactions range from the befuddled to the fierce, but they are invariably pitiable. We empathize with them even as we might fear them, a doubled reaction Gérard encourages and critiques at the same time, noting that “… dogs are often cast in the role of children and presumed to be playful, obedient yet protective… [but can also] symbolize the outcast, or even death.”

Gérard’s reliance on the archetype amplifies in the succeeding series, “Fractured Dreams.” Coming from a more deeply personal place, these emblematic renditions of broken or decaying bridges, leading nowhere but necessary to cross, clearly symbolize the treacherousness of passages in life’s journey, while at the same time hinting of transcendence. These perilous crossings recur in human dreams the world over, whether as narrow footbridges unraveling underfoot or as railroad trestles gone missing immediately ahead. Gérard renders them explicit, floating in the least detailed of land- or waterscapes so as to emphasize at once their universality and the beguiling particulars of their construction – as if dreamt.

Gérard’s recent and current work falls under two rubrics but concerns itself with a single overarching subject: nature, its seeming fragility, and our actual human fragility in the natural context. That is, any element of nature is vulnerable, whether it be a plant or a person, but nature itself endures and evolves. The paintings dubbed “Forbidden Garden” depict smaller flora either growing in natural habitat or translocated for human enjoyment. These simple images – some of them the most straightforward in Gérard’s mature oeuvre – still have a wildness to them, a vibrant presence that enhances their metaphoric resonance: these unassuming flowers, no more or less delicate than we who fancy them, stand in, again, for us humans. The forest is ominous, the potted shelf is cozy, but life is short no matter where you have been situated.

A broader realization of what Gérard celebrates as “the momentous changeability of nature and its untamable qualities” manifests in the “Trespassers.” Here, the forest is seen for the trees, which represent nature as an almost spiritual force. In non-forest views, nature’s physical force is powerfully implied: in some of Gérard’s most complex, intricate pictures, she depicts what seem to be beachfront houses, seen from the beach itself, piled high with construction material. Is this material waiting to be assembled, or has it fallen off or out of the apparently damaged homes? The atmosphere is itself stormy, as if a tempest is about to strike, or is passing after having struck. Like the bridges in the “Fractured Dreams” paintings, the storm is a universal dream image, an archetype that also bespeaks challenge, endurance, and passage. But by filling the “Trespassers” with spatial as well as material detail, Gérard proposes that the storm (and its trail of destruction) is a reality as well as a dream – that nature will proceed with or without us, and our effect on it will change it not to its detriment, but to ours. With the “Trespasser” paintings, Gérard speaks of wanting to evoke in us “contradictory feelings of fear, awe, resignation and resiliency.” Her address to the issue of climate change is clear, but it is neither critical of humanity nor despairing of nature itself. Natural calamities are becoming more powerful and imposing, she admits, but nature remains nature and we remain human; our relationship to nature and its vicissitudes is changing only in degree. Our fears are the same as always, even as our coping mechanisms require adjustment. We dream the same anxious dreams our prehistoric ancestors did, and we will endure as they did, changed, perhaps, but unbowed – if we acknowledge those dreams and acknowledge that nature, like death, is greater than we are. Françoise Gérard is no longer a surrealist, but she still places her faith in the power of dreaming and dream imagery – a power that does not overcome adversity so much as habituates us to it. The projective realism of Gérard’s art, a realism that comes from within, is the realism that waits inside us to lead us forth.

Los Angeles

April-May 2020

Peter Frank is an art critic, curator, editor, and poet born in New York and living in Los Angeles.