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This is the last week to see “A Dance with Life & Death,” an exhibition of new work from artist Alexis de Chaunac, on view at ART 3 gallery in Brooklyn, NY. We spoke with the artist about the show comprised of three bodies of work—Traite d’Anatomie Humaine, The Last Supper, and your Anthropology series.
WHITEWALL: What was the starting point for you with this exhibition?
ALEXIS DE CHAUNAC: I started working with Traite d’Anatomie Humaine a few years ago when I decided to directly draw on pages of Charpy’s century-old treatise—one of the first medical studies to explore the origins of embryology. I selected pages from the book that already had pre-existing anatomical drawings and I automatically responded to them. The series then became a meditation about the threshold of “becoming” human. I realized that it would be interesting to be at the other edge—at the very last moment where the being dissolves into quiescence. I used the mummies of Guanajuato as a source material for the polyptych The Last Supper. In this body of work, we observe a diversity of ways of “being” at the threshold of death where each final expression nears oblivion for all eternity. Finally, I decided to tie these two extremities with a third body of work, the Anthropology series which is inspired by the statuary from Pre-Columbian civilizations who had a strong belief that life and death constantly intermingle with one another.
WW: Working in gouache, ink, and watercolors, even your painting seems very informed by drawing, which you’ve called “a transcendental language that anyone can understand.” At what point did you realize that drawing could be more powerful than language?
AdC: When you are fluent in multiple languages, you realize that some concepts are difficult to translate from one language to the other; the meaning gets lost or completely transformed in the process of translation. On the other hand, a drawing always remains “true” to itself, there is no transformation of the visual image from a culture to the other. There is subjectivity that appears in the mind of the viewer but that is part of his own private reflection that is in itself untranslatable. A drawing becomes a more direct way of expressing ideas into the unconscious mind of the viewer rather than to the reasoning of his logic, which is raised by language and education.
WW: But text and language is there in your work, sometimes physically as the basis for the work. What role do you see text and language playing in this exhibition?
AdC: In order to create something new, one needs to work with the past and at the same time respect it. I use text and literature as collaborators. My works can then have an entire “history” of their own. In the case of Traite d’Anatomie Humaine, even if the drawings were created today, they contain a century-old history. It is the text behind the drawings that transmits the idea that the image did not appear simply by accident but rather that it had a destiny to “become”. Even if language enables to recreate reality, there is still a gap between language and external reality as words cannot grab its overall complexity. Through this exhibition, text becomes a bridge by which one can cross the gap that separates him from reality.
WW: When did you start painting and drawing on text and why?
AdC: I started drawing and painting on text a few years ago after having worked on a series inspired by the great Western literature from the Scriptures to great epics and all the way to Beat Generation writers such as William S. Burroughs. I then realized that through the process of working on text I could collaborate with other fields of study such as sciences or medicine. I also wanted to work with the limitations of a pre-existing material as a page that already has a history of its own that I need to respect in order to bring something new out of it.
WW: Traite d’Anatomie Humaine and The Last Supper seem to be in direct opposition to each other, the first created in bright colors with energetic gestures, the second in nearly all black, thick brushstrokes. Were you working to intentionally set the two at odds?
AdC: As I was preparing the exhibition at ART 3, I visualized in the gallery space the two bodies of work covering two large walls and facing each other. The viewer is then confronted between these two thresholds and physically moves between life and death. As you said, technically, the two series oppose one another. For Traite d’Anatomie Humaine, I used bright colors with energetic gestures and we witness the origins of “being”. On the other hand, the polyptych The Last Supper is composed of black oil stick drawings where the human figure is about to disappear and become abstraction. The figures are at the cusp of “being” no more. This exhibition is about these two extremities of life from appearing to vanishing for all eternity.
WW: The Anthropology series uses imagery of mythic figures and archetypes – what cultures are you referencing here and why?
AdC: The works reference the statuary from lost Pre-Columbian civilizations who achieved their historic peak only to suddenly disappear. Some of the works are inspired by the Olmec colossal heads, representing powerful rulers, and sculpted before 900 BC from large basalt boulders. Some of the heads bear traces of plaster and red paint, suggesting that they were originally brightly decorated. I tried to re-image the colors time has completely erased. Another piece from this series is inspired by a sculpture called Mictlantecuhtli or Deity of Death, considered the most prominent god of the Aztecs. The worship of Mictlantecuhtli involved ritualistic dances and even cannibalism, with human flesh being consumed in and around the temple. Another important inspiration for the series is the Mexican Holiday known as the Day of the Dead. As I am myself half-Mexican, through the work, I was looking into my own cultural identity and heritage.
Born in New York and raised in Mexico City and Paris, Alexis de Chaunac grew up surrounded by art and culture, drawing in the studio of his grandfather – a renowned Mexican artist Jose Luis Cuevas. He then lived for ten years in Paris immersed in European culture only to return to the US to study at the Sarah Lawrence College, NY. He shows with ART 3 Gallery in Brooklyn, NY; and already had his first museum solo exhibition, at the Museo Iconografico del Quijote, Guanajuato, Mexico (2014).