A Return to Humanity with Claire Tabouret
by Anne Marie Taylor
For most “art people” there’s a certain vocabulary and set of art-historical references one brings to the table when viewing art, which may discourage its reach toward a more universal understanding. These references form cryptic puzzles that make up the information one is meant to meditate on through an object of iconography. Form, color, composition, context: they can become self-referential in a sense, for they’re built on ideas with which we’re familiar, putting the work in danger of becoming art for other artists. It’s a great challenge to extend beyond the boundaries of art-making, and to speak to issues of the present while keeping an open door for inclusion.
Claire Tabouret, a Paris artist now living and working in Los Angeles, is well known for her paintings of landscapes and portraits. Her interest often lies in the ambiguity of person and place, historical figures, and the suspended narrative in which she reveals just enough to give an impression of a moment alluding to the character of her subject.
I first experienced her work in person at her recent solo exhibition--at Night Gallery in Los Angeles--titled Eclipse, where she presented new paintings and monoprints of figures and landscapes. Some depicted silhouettes and celestial imagery of a surreal aesthetic, with figures donning suits and bowler hats, placed in vague landscapes of a single dominating color. Horses, palm fronds, and attire resembling that of eastern origin reference the exotic, all of which, portrayed in a traditional medium, points to an antiquated genre of image-making, but felt surprisingly contemporary and moving.
The subjects of Tabouret’s individual portrait paintings include historical figures such as artist Agnes Martin, writer Robert Walser, and explorer and writer Isabelle Eberhardt. As the exhibition title suggests, these figures are ironically known for willing themselves to be unknown, and our grasp of their obscurity is directed by the ways in which Tabouret fills in the blanks, re-presents them as figures of the now: a resurrection, as it were, of the stories and histories of past lives.
Storytelling may be one of the deciding factors of what separates mankind from the rest of the natural world, as a way to pass on knowledge, learn from mistakes and set up the next generation for future successes. A return to storytelling in art is a return to humanity, and a revived necessity to abandon frivolity in art may assuage our fear of the complexities of our current state of uncertainty in the world. With so much at stake, it’s difficult to advocate for self-indulgence--not to be equated with “the absurd” or “nonsense” which have different functions altogether--in practice.
Tabouret’s large paintings of grouped figures took a more ambiguous approach than the embellished individuals. There’s an emphasis on people of a similar age or gender, homogenizing the figures into a singular social context, calling to question the positive and negative repercussions of what happens when people are placed into groups. In the context of the exhibition, the artist gives more power to individuals over the collective in the clarity of their voices, suggesting that the reflective work one does privately can have a greater impact on change in the world. At a time when the political and social groups with which you identify are highly scrutinized and the “band together” mentality is promoted (and if anything, absolutely necessary), this was an unexpected position and an empowering one at that.
The medium of course influences our thinking, as there are thousands of years of reference when looking at portrait and landscape paintings. All painters have the problem of a loaded lineage to grapple with, in that finding a new way of making in the constraints of the medium is exceedingly difficult. In recent years there’s been a resurgence of interest in painters, many of whom echo a similar aesthetic of synthetic colors, loose geometric forms and an investigation of the components and history of painting.
On the contemporary timeline, there is a necessity for this kind of practice, however tongue-in-cheek it may be in expressing a self-awareness of an extensive past and using that to its advantage; it’s become a visual language of our time, a dialect. But there is a point where art history and human history diverge, and exclusion develops. It seems that Claire Tabouret’s works are equally self-aware of the history of the genre in which she’s working, but the emphasis is on subject and story, not artist and trajectory of practice.
As a benefit in Tabouret’s exhibition however, the familiarity of the medium absorbs many of the initial questions one has when approaching contemporary art, allowing us to focus on and consider the story of an individual or place, and how they’re depicted with a certain palette or gesture that says more about the subject than any photograph; the guidelines for looking are already there. Does this propose a problem of limitation for the well-seasoned viewer? Probably, but the message shouldn’t be dismissed.
With this in mind, looking at the depiction of Isabelle Eberhardt in The Wanderer, one would notice that unlike countless portraits of figures on horses in history, this is a woman whose eyes are obscured, and we view the horse from behind. Her body and clothing blend into the landscape, shrouded in mystery. Eberhardt lived an unorthodox lifestyle, denouncing her social privilege in Switzerland to immerse herself in North African culture. Essentially she disappeared into it by learning Arabic, converting to Islam, and dressing as a man. Claire Tabouret’s use of anomalies of the genre accentuates the progression of past to present. It’s not necessarily a complicated work in its delivery, but it couldn’t function as successfully in another form.
This genre, with all its limitations, pushes forth the agenda of storytelling in a way that connects us to humanity through the convergence of past, present, and future, because it directly relates to the very fact of our existence. Ideas are recycled and old modes of working become new in a different context. At a time in our lives when any action or non-action is considered a reaction, it’s interesting to see that many artists are looking to the stories of the past for guidance and inspiration. There's consolation in the idea that no matter the circumstances of the past, we continue to take steps forward.
Claire Tabouret's exhibition Eclipse at Night Gallery ran January 27 - March 4, 2017