Julien Colombier: Entropics
They have an appetite for all-over forms but blossom into subtle variations that betray their penchant for an older chromaticism, the hemmed in art nouveau or the decorative art of William Morris have in common with Julien Colombier’s works a bewitching harmony and an absence of perspective. But absence of perspective does not mean lack of depth. And it is amid the luminous undergrowth in those depths that Julien Colombier’s call of the jungle strikes us full force. To the point of entering another world, the candid eye, filled with wonder, by the lush vegetation that spreads the tendrils of its devouring and sensual ramifications. The garden, or forest, looks larger than life. The format of the works, focused in on the details of large, languid foliage, offers us views from the inside, suggesting a much denser immensity beyond the borders of the painting. In front of it—one might say within it—we feel its power and, like Mowgli, we hesitate: should we fear it or drink it in?
Impossible to confine within the window of the painting, the sprawling beauty overflows, irresistibly reaches out, like a growing, expanding universe. The artist attacks several sheets of paper mounted on the canvas to build an immersive space in the manner of wall-painting. What appear to be ferns, thistles, and palm fronds intertwine before our eyes in carmine reds, petroleum blues, golden yellows, and unreal duck blues, close to the ranges of coloured fabrics that Julien Colombier discovered as a child with his mother in the Saint-Pierre textiles market. The shimmering colours had captivated him at the time, just as the colourful adventures of Matisse did some years later.
Methodically, on a black background, harking back to the child’s first drawings with chalk on a blackboard, the artist traces the forms of his verdant imagination with oil pastel, field after field, in an effect of visual superposition: “I have 96 non-mixable colours, unlike with oil paints. So, for me, the challenge is to transcend that constraint. I compose my works like pieces of electronic music, based on a recurring theme, with several others gradually being superimposed on it,” he explains. The coloured form, in the manner of a process, emerges enlarged, thickened, a relief trying to break free of the bounds of the painting. Unknown plants are born, whose stylisation and formal repetition create a supernatural abundance that seems to fear emptiness. The painter’s attention to shadow effects and colour correspondences creates a magical vitality that is suggestive of movement. The curves seem alive, swayed by a mysterious force. Julien Colombier’s talent lies in his ability to take his works away from the purely decorative and into the endearing realm of Henri Rousseau, intermingled with the graphic exuberance of animated films. Spirited Away, one of the artist’s great references, can be heard in the hollow of his curves. One can almost imagine the plants moving and quivering in the wind, one can discern the sound of invisible animals in the distance. The scenery is no longer a backdrop, it comes to life, wildly, placing us humans not at the centre of these mythological tropics but underneath, forcing us to let down our guard of human vanities.
In his early years, the young artist’s fantasy was to bring nature into the city; now he irrigates any place within his reach and takes us on a journey through his blossoming fiction which, through the filter of his invented colours, is reminiscent of the electric blues of the film Avatar. Only, in the artist’s setting, there is no room for humans. Thus, Julien Colombier’s pictorial and spontaneous theatricality, if it shows the arborescent “systems of nature” as he puts it, is also imbued with the anxiety of the Anthropocene epoch.
The plant story becomes mythological, perhaps even eschatological... Are we in the beginning times or the end times? Are we in the depths of our imagination or on another planet in another space-time? Are we in the heart of the last virgin forest on the planet, whose ecosystems and richness are so complex and dense that we have only the faintest inkling of them?
Julien Colombier’s works are fascinating because their labyrinthine bundles play with our illusions and dreams while confronting us with what we do not yet know. In short, the mystery of nature. Here, sung by a formal quest for beauty, proclaimed by the artist and so taboo not so long ago in contemporary art.
Journalist, art critic