It may seem paradoxical to conjure the pleasures of colour when introducing Stéphane La Rue’s famously minimal and formal work. Founded on the materials used, his propositions make few concessions to the gestures and seductions of painting. It is not a question here of isolating the essential aspects of his work (surface and form), but of drawing the gaze to a seemingly minor aspect which may become more apparent once the composition is established. Just as forms attract one’s attention, it seems to me that colours, whether applied on the surface or inherent to the chosen subjectile, offer to both the senses and the mind fertile ground for contemplation and thought, affording them a susceptibility to reasoning and reverie. This space, which seems saturated with calculation and reason, gives rise to the effects of freedom, play, and mobility characteristic of works in the making, precarious and animated.
His compositions are exacting — austere, precise, calculated to the millimetre. It is this spareness that determines their particular attraction and relevance. Counting on the essential, his works present themselves with a pertinence, truth, and vividness that attest to the artist’s commitment and demands the same of the spectator. Modern painting has persistently demonstrated that painting represents itself, a view reinforced by some current artists who faithfully explore this statement of the obvious to the detriment of the illusion of illusion. Such is the paradigm in which La Rue’s thought evolves, as it deals with the capacity of art to reflect on its means, its tricks, its results. His painting is concerned precisely with the process that leads to its realization; it invites us to participate and enjoy the result, as precarious as it may be. Indeed, despite the sense of stability resulting from his geometric forms, the artist lends them a quality of movement that leads mind and gaze to other outcomes.
From the moment it came into existence, painting affirmed its illusory nature, its capacity to represent. The lessons of Butades and Zeuxis have been learned and discussed over and over again. And while the variety of subject matter is infinite, the means of expressing them are not: raw or prepared surfaces, flat blocks of colour or glazes, impasto, sfumato, controlled and free gestures, drips, marks left by brush, spatula, or finger. With these few resources, modes of representation and styles have proliferated, and painters have reflected on the possibilities. La Rue, concerned with the same subjects, interrogates nature, the conditions of existence, and the limits of painting, while constantly renewing his resources.
The choice of support and its form are La Rue’s first interventions in the work. What appears self-evident at first nonetheless plays a central role in the outcome, as the subsequent development of the work arises from a symbiotic relationship with surface qualities. The colour of the materials has already been selected as a potential support for particular colour applications. Colour is defined from the outset by the choice of support, whether constructed or cut. Along with the grain of the wood, canvas, or paper, its initial colouration is a critical element that must be brought out and highlighted. Its capacity for reflecting light in a particular way contributes to the final composition. Pale colours — sand, beige, bistre, chamois and brown, and also white — are integral to the work and have a decisive function in its composition. Canvas weave or plywood finish are chosen for their ability to bring life to the subsequent painted form. Veins, light and dark, still reverberate in tune with movements revealed by coloured parts of the surface.
His first productions relied on the power of the paintings’ corners to structure the work: Sans titre (2003), for instance, and the Blancs d’ombres series (2004). These points of tension and anchorage could, with a slight movement, reveal the surface, bring it to light. Then, with another clearly delineated colour exposing a part, the canvas is brought to life, not only through traces left from the application of acrylic but also through the interval between the two coloured forms. Colour — material, density, gesture — merges and establishes a relationship between surface, colour, and depth.
Even when realized as a solid expanse, the colour draws attention to space and volume. One brush stroke applied near another signals a distance, suggests separation, inscribes depth. By juxtaposing ever darker, more saturated colours with pale surfaces, La Rue accentuates effects of perspective and volume, lending the paintings a sculptural quality. This approach is more obvious on segmented surfaces (from 2009 onwards), sometimes organized in pairs or with mirroring effects that open out in the space. Wood is the favoured support here. Plywood, already offering a shiny, undulating finish, is feted with smudges of graphite powder or light washes.
In a recent piece (Mouvements, begun in 2010), La Rue relies on the qualities of paper. The line is traced by means of a fold that also suggests a form, models the surface, creates angles. The sheet is discreetly animated by this array of juxtaposed sections revealed by light and shadow. Where the lines meet, a form appears, born of this subtle fold in the page. Colour coalesces at these points of junction. Varied tones of applied water-colour accentuate the effects of transformation, tension, and balance already inscribed in the white of the page. Compositions are then assembled, suggesting a different architecture.
The ever poetic colourations accompany gradually more suggestive, effervescent surfaces. Forms and colours are intimately connected and enable a structure that fully ensures the evolution of the painting.
[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]