Jean-Baptiste Bernadet

Jean-Baptiste Bernadet Interview - By Steven Cox

Steven Cox: Your exhibition Fugue, at Rod Barton London, featured one continuous work that comprised of 8 individual canvases. The work itself took its cue and form from music, where each canvas seemed to undulate, moving to a silent rhythm or sound that perhaps was once audible within your studio. Can you open up our interview by discussing this work and how it gathered its form?

Jean-Baptise Bernadet: Really, it’s just 8 canvases, 8 individual works. Still, the 8 paintings installed this way are like a 9th work, or a meta-work. They don’t « take » their form from music. When I was looking for a title it was obvious to me that I could use a musicology term like « Fugue », but this was not planned at the beginning of the work. I just think it makes clear that the sequence, the rhythm, is important here, but also that the way I consider "abstract" is close to the way we define music as "abstract". Concrete, actually, and not abstract at all. The other idea I had was to find a title that was related to literature, because for me these paintings are also a little like pages from a book covered by letters (brushstrokes) - or, to make a link with music again, each brushstroke is like a note on sheet music. I think repetition and rhythm is enclosed in each painting thanks to the brushstrokes.

I started making a series out of these paintings by working on many canvases at the same time, though despite my studio being big and not huge, the paintings had to be positioned side by side within the studio. I found that by having the paintings side by side was like flipping the pages of a book, or like listening to several tracks from the same album. I wanted to keep and continue this conversation between the paintings within the exhibition space. But I must emphasize, all of the paintings were made individually and now each work will go on to a different place being that the show is now over.

SC: Expanding on this concept of your brush marks linking to music, I would like to discuss the reference to music within your publication On Knowning & Not which highlight’s Neuroscientist Martin Braun’s Inferior Colliculus as Candidate for Pitch Extraction. It is discussed that one reason why music generates an emotional reaction is due to the major & minor chords having a direct/indirect influence on the reward nuclei.  Major chords are regarded as joyous, whilst minor chords are the opposite. I am interested if you personally interpret particular works of your own as being emotionally charged? Or, more specifically, do specific gestures within your paintings own emotional weight that is relational to the equivalent of musical chords?

JBB: Yes absolutely. But, I think they are emotionally charged without being specifically "joyous or sad", negative or positive. I'm more looking for intensity of the emotion (or sensation) than describing a certain state of mind. I also have to say that most of the time, what people think they see in terms of positivity/negativity ("Oh, so many colours, you must be happy these days") is the opposite of what I was actually feeling at the time of the making. I think being happy makes me able (or strong enough) to go into darker spots with distance, while being melancholic or sad pushes me to make more solar, luminous paintings. These bright, "happy" paintings are probably showing something I'm looking for, or something I miss, a very fragile memory, so they don't seem that "happy" to me.

SC: Considering your viewer, do you strive for an ideal reaction?

JBB: I guess just a reaction is already a lot. I don't really care about what people think or how they react. I'm working for "someone", the work is addressed to someone, by that, I mean the viewer is already included in the work somehow, I need him or her to finish the work, but it's for no one in particular.

SC: Within your oeuvre, you have explored various scales.  You jump between small-scale paintings that are both intimate and earnest, to large-scale works that appear planned and executed with a more conscious hand.  Can you tell me a bit about the hurdles you encounter within your studio?

JBB: Well, it is true the smaller ones are most often the result of an accident, because I'm using the same brushes or tools to make all my paintings. The same gesture on a large painting will be less important or monumental than on a smaller canvas. But that doesn't mean the larger ones are not accidental and that they are "executed" as you say. They are made of thousands of mistakes instead of just a dozen like in the smaller ones, but it's exactly the same process.

SC: Would you interpret your smaller works as being more refined than your larger works?

JBB: I don't know. I tend to consider the smaller ones as more sculptural, or "painted", the medium ones are in the classic landscape/window/mirror perspective, and the larger ones often are like backdrops, or screens.

SC: Within your past interviews, you regularly mention that your paintings are the result of wasted energy. Inevitability, your spent energy is unseen by those who do not witness your paintings being made.  I am interested to know to what extent you personally document the development and changes of works in progress? 

JBB: I completely disagree on that point :-)

I think this energy is very visible. A great thing in painting is that it is pure time you’re looking at. The time of the looking can be exactly the same as the time of the making. I think that's also why I make painting and not something else: I need this immediate result. With oil painting, the difference between a wet and a dry painting is almost invisible. So when I'm at work, the moment I decide to stop working on a painting and decide that's what the others will see, I know they will see the same thing in that exact same moment.

The most "complex" of my paintings have a lot of layers; a lot of things happening, a lot of contradictions, energy lies there and the duration of its making is visible. Some of my paintings are simpler, 2-3 layers, visible and almost independent, and they are done very fast, so there's energy lying there, in that speed too, it’s a stroke of luck.

I used to talk a lot of wasted energy because I was doing maybe 100 paintings and ended with only 20 or 30 that were good enough or made sense. Recently I started to work more slowly, attentively and focused on what's happening instead of working fast and looking at what I'm doing in the second phase. So I would say the energy is still there, but more accurately spent. But still, I'm not hiding the time spent and every step is visible, enclosed. Time = energy.

SC: Does it frustrate you if your paintings fail to capture or display the passing of time?

JBB: In my opinion they all capture the passing of time because I'm not hiding the time of their making, and they are all obviously hand made, from my very hand and not an assistant or a machine. And they display it for the same reason. It's a strange question because for me this capture or display is objectively present, not a matter of success or failure.

SC: At base, your work is an exploration of what it means to be a painter today. For instance, your canvases own gestural marks, rhythmic constructions, erasures, transfers and occasionally calligraphic scribbling’s. Collectively, these techniques showcase the actions of a painter. I am interested if you would you consider your works and these techniques as being autobiographical? 

JBB: I think what you say is what art critics may see in my work. And it is probably because of the heterogeneity in it. I'm fine with it, but I think it's more an exploration of what it means to paint instead of being a painter. I mean I don't care especially about painting, even if this is what I'm doing and even if I like a lot of painting as a viewer like any other. There's no position in what I'm doing, I'm not defending or advertising anything. I didn't choose painting versus something else, I just probably found myself comfortable doing it in order to say what I have to say. 

I see narration in my works on two different levels: as you point out, there's a lot to read in each painting. The gestures, the actions, the erasures etc. are all recounting the history of the making, the failures and the successes, the time spent in the studio, the bad days and the good ones. 

Secondly, what is present within the works I'm making and developing is a common quality that I strive for in every painting. This being distance, a mise en abyme, a loss of integrity balanced with a strong presence and attractive aspect. It is the product of decisions I made through the years, and at the same time, something I observed retrospectively. I think I want my paintings to be solid and hold a wall, act on their surroundings and on the viewer in a very physical way, imposing silence, clear as a sound, but at the same time I want them to appear as if they are on the verge of disappearance, corrupted like memories, unstable like feelings. 

Therein lies the autobiographical aspect of my work, this is the way I see the world around me. We don't know anything, there's nothing before we are born, there's no afterlife, and the more we are trying to grasp for something, it is fading away. If this is the way I see the world I have the feeling my painting should reflect it.

SC: You were amongst the final 9 featured within the Young Belgian Art Prize in 2013. The prize itself, for those are unfamiliar with it, celebrates and champions the works of painters based in Belgium. Can you discuss your views on the current trends within Belgian painting? 

JBB: It's more a young Belgian artists prize than a painting prize. They actually just changed the name of it last year so it doesn't sound like it is exclusively about painters anymore. 

I don't know a lot about painting or art in general in Belgium. I have friends and colleagues there, of course, but nothing I could say is specifically Belgian. Belgium is a small country in the very center of Europe. Artists from everywhere in Europe are moving there for affordable spaces, it owns a strategic position with cheap and easy access to London, Paris, Cologne…and a low key and welcoming art world.

I was born and raised in Paris, I spent some time in NY these past years, I'm a real city boy, but I have the feeling these big capitals are full of themselves, self-sustained and self-satisfied. Brussels is full of difference and change and is very open to the world. So, maybe the only thing I can say about art in Belgium is that it is maybe less influenced by trends or market, and probably more complex and often elegantly detaché. Most artists are free to take a longer time to find their own place, and most people are willing to take the time to understand things.

SC: Can you tell me about your first exhibition you ever did? 

JBB: I was eighteen, and it was not very good.

SC: I assume you presented a series of paintings back then too?

JBB: yes, painting on canvases, on paper and few b&w photographies.

SC: Discussing exhibitions, I am aware that you are the co-founder of Middlemarch in Brussels? To date, an incredibly exciting list of artists have exhibited there, can you tell me a little about Middlemarch? How did it begin? What is planned for the future of Middlemarch?

JBB: My friend and Historian Virginie Devillez was working in a museum and started organizing exhibitions in her freshly repainted apartment. I did the first show there with Benoit Platéus, another Belgian artist. We were discussing a lot about the program together, I was managing the website and the newsletters, giving a hand for installing the shows, so eventually after a few months when I came back from a six-months stay in NYC we decided to share the project and to put myself in the front line together with her. We are not really curators in the sense of putting people together around an idea, writing a text etc. Most of the time, it's a single artist, or a group of artists, or a curator that proposes us a duo or a trio show, so we are mostly offering a space and do our best to bring together interesting and interested people at the openings, but I would not say we are curators. We want to offer the possibility to show projects that wouldn't fit in a commercial place: first shows by very young local artists, or more confirmed ones that are able to show a very specific project. We facilitate things and offer some space and visibility. There's absolutely no rule and no rational scheduling. It's based on opportunities and friendship.

Images courtesy of Rod Barton and Jean-Baptiste Bernadet