Hiding the forest
by Richard Leydier
I begin writing this text on Palm Sunday, which celebrates Jesus Christ’s arrival into the city of Jerusalem. There are myriads of paintings and frescoes depicting that scene from the Gospels, in which the prophet, riding on a donkey (perhaps not the most triumphant pose), is acclaimed by a crowd that, as he passes, spreads cloaks and tree branches on the ground before him. Occasionally, someone would climb up into an olive tree to get a glimpse of this man that everyone was talking about. In the same way, for his “Electric Ladyland” exhibition at Maubuisson Abbey in 2019, Julien Colombier covered the floor of one of the rooms with paintings that the visitors could walk on.
Julien Colombier’s new works are the next step in an innate path that he has been following for several years. His motifs, both vegetal and mineral, have been colonising an ever-growing array of spaces, whether in the form of murals or drawings mounted on canvas. The plants grow like a jungle, a rainforest with a hot and humid climate favouring inexorable growth and extinguishing any attempt at domestication.
This is how I have always regarded Colombier’s works—as fragments of uncontrollable freedom. Admittedly, at first glance, they are contained, framed by the edges of the painting, which is more than ever “an open window on the world”. But it is not hard to imagine the plants spreading beyond them. There is also the question of the depth of his work. Palm fronds, leaves, and foliage obstruct the field of view. They are, in a way, the tree that hides the forest. Trunks and leaves accumulate and overlap endlessly. They manage to fill the space completely in a manner that brings to mind the modernism of Clement Greenberg. These new paintings, by stacking layer upon layer and drawing inspiration from the wall that still bears the remnants of previously painted works, assume a “painting within the painting” strategy and accentuate the saturation effect. The multitude is disorienting; such that we lose all our points of reference. Swept up in the avalanche of images, we can no longer tell up from down. Are we looking at the lower branches or the canopy? Is that a glimpse of the sky behind the foliage or is it the forest floor? The forces of gravity are upended. Stones float in mid-air like the rocks on James Cameron’s distant planet Pandora in Avatar. Colombier’s works are a portal to another world. A long-lost ancient world.
It may be the world of fairy tales, where the forest comes alive with unsettling sounds when night falls. As a possible source of inspiration for his current jungles, the artist mentions Maurice Sendak’s legendary book Where the Wild Things Are (1963); a seminal work of children’s literature, on a par with those of Tomi Ungerer or Roald Dahl. I have often read it to my children at bedtime. The story and the drawings introduce the power of dreams and night-time, like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo. In it, a young boy’s bedroom is gradually transformed into a forest that leads him to a parallel universe; an island populated by friendly monsters.
It also makes me think of “Jack and the Beanstalk”, a tale probably written in early 19th century England. There too we have a plant that shoots up overnight (as they will in dreamland) and leads young Jack to a fantastical world where—good son that he is—he goes in search of riches to bring back to his impoverished mother.
It is quite possible that the stones and the plants symbolise the two hemispheres of the same brain, like the two inseparable aspects of a personality: rationalism and imagination. Although the fact that the stones refuse to obey gravity would seem to suggest that the forces of the imagination have got the upper hand over the organising power of reason.
I searched through art history for precedents to Julien Colombier’s paintings. The ancient frescoes in the Nymphaeum of the Villa of Livia, preserved in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome, feature a trompe l’oeil garden. It is one of the most beautiful and delicate things there is. When I look at Colombier’s paintings, I also think of Byzantine art, of Ravenna, of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, of the lapis lazuli of the mosaics, of that blue with an oceanic depth. And, later, to illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, where stylised creepers and groves invade the margins. It brings to mind all those works where the burgeoning richness of the forest triumphs over the mineral austerity of the architecture. For there is indeed an age-old clash between the two.
I think of art nouveau; of Gallé and Guimard. And of course of naive art, first and foremost the jungles of Henri Rousseau, populated by musicians and animals lying in ambush. Getting here has been a long journey for Colombier. “As soon as I paint a character in my forest, the forest becomes a backdrop. Rousseau, on the other hand, managed to merge the character and the jungle,” he points out. This means that his paintings take another approach to the body. On a more empathetic and realistic level. That of projecting oneself into his images.
In this respect, Sumiko Oe-Gottini, in a long essay she dedicated to Colombier’s exhibition at Maubuisson, makes an interesting observation: “As I get closer to the leaves, however, I cannot help thinking that these plants are actually transformed humans.” How could this fail to remind us of Apollo’s passion for Daphne, as recounted by Ovid in his Metamorphoses? The god has just killed the monstrous serpent Python, and, in his mocking pride, he arouses the ire of Cupid. In revenge, Cupid condemns Apollo to fall in love with the nymph Daphne, who—anxious to preserve her eternal virginity—takes flight and evades him. At the end of a frantic chase, Daphne implores her father, the river god Peneus, to change her form so that she might escape Apollo’s unrelenting pursuit. And so she is transformed into a laurel tree: “No sooner had she finished her prayer than a heavy numbness seized her limbs; her soft breasts were surrounded by a thin bark, her hair changed into foliage, her arms changed into branches; her foot, just now swift, now clings to sluggish roots; her face, at the top, disappeared into the foliage. Only the radiance of her charm remains.”
It may seem strange to bring up the subject of love in relation to Colombier’s paintings, but that is what they are ultimately about. I am firmly convinced of that. The plants and flowers are all abuzz with the stuff, just like pop music. And it is plain to see that these impetuous jungles emanate “the radiance of a charm”, albeit a slightly venomous one.
Richard Leydier is an art critic, exhibition curator, and editor-in-chief of the magazine artpress. He has organized such exhibitions as “Robert Combas, Greatest Hits” (2012, Musée d'art contemporain, Lyon) and “La Dernière vague : surf, skateboard & custom cultures in contemporary art” (2013, La Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseille), among others. He curated the 7th International Biennial of Contemporary Art in Anglet, in the Basque region of France (2018).