Marc DeGuerre (1984)

“Marc de Guerre,” Vanguard, 13:2 (March 1984), pp. 40-41.

Marc de Guerre
Carmen Lamanna Gallery,
Toronto December 17 to January 12

It is a mark of the decadence and nihilism of our time that so much expression is given to something that denies life. For all its frenzy of reactive emotion, this denial leads to inaction, a passivity in the face of time and history, that are themselves turned into spectacles.

Marc de Guerre’s exhibition is entitled The Fall into Time after one of the three paintings. We take “fall” here in its Biblical sense as the fall into our human history. But this exhibition also marks the end of time. Perhaps painting in itself registers that return and end of time, as a denial of technical and representational practices that have intervened in history and art. But it is more than painting that is at issue here. It is the subject of the work and its presentation, and most of all the position that these allow the spectator that must be criticized. Beyond these issues, if we accept these paintings on their own terms as paintings, then we must criticize an ambition that exceeds its grasp of technique. Perhaps the end of time makes that mastery obsolete for the artist in the urgency of his expression; but not for us for whom historical pastiche only calls forward the judgement of past history.

De Guerre paints in oil and on a large scale, and he bases many of his figures and scenes on late-Renaissance paintings. The sources have been removed from their context for iconographic effect: but their transition to the gallery and translation into contemporary art could only be called clumsy and inept. For instance, The Fall into Time copies a depiction of Cain slaying Abel in one of its panels. It looks like it has been taken from a reproduction of a ceiling mural, so that translated to a vertical position as it is here and allied to the lack of finesse in anatomical rendering, the whole panel appears primitive. The Fall into Time is full of jarring background tonalities, awkward changes of scale between panels, and clumsy colour contrasts as well as heavy-handed drawing. With the change in scale of figures, the defects are only exaggerated. The screaming head of a woman that fills one panel has its features foreshortened from different angles, skewing transitions between mouth, nose and eyes. Large areas of the panel fall off into dull surfaces.

These are not minor criticisms for painting; but for some commentators the interesting motives justify the clumsy methods, presumably as means to an approved end. The methods, however, may only be symptomatic of the motives, for there is no love of painting here, only its glorification. But that glorification in the end is not reserved for painting in spite of the elaborate constructions that turn The Fall into Time and Setting for a Tragedy into an altar and temple respectively. These constructions ponderously fill the space of the gallery and seem superfluously to obstruct the paintings. But they are necessary to turn the event of the painting into a spectacle on the same order as that depicted within the painting where history is given as a series of spectacles: scenes from the Crucifixion, suffering and screaming bodies. The construction outside the painting reinforces the features within—for instance, the Doric columns and entablature in Setting for a Tragedy—and duplicate for the spectator the conditions depicted therein. We stand to that event as do the witnesses within the paintings.

In two of the paintings, Setting for Tragedy and Untitled, a camera records the scene. The spectator outside the painting is folded into an event of the past through this means of substitution. (Whether it is an historical event or a mythical recurrence, the same conditions hold.) This has the effect of condensing time into a predetermined pattern (or in the case of myth, a recurring event), an order outside individual or human action that leads to passivity on the part of the viewer. Camera and construction, content and presentation equally promote this spectacle of passivity.

What is left for the viewer is only an empathy with suffering. The empty place of the “altar”, the fabric covered platform within the construction The Fall into Time, seems to indicate that this history will be fulfilled, and suffering redeemed only in an end to history, by something that comes from elsewhere—a second coming that fires the apocalyptic imagination in its hatred for what exists. The suffering figure of Sisyphus in his repetitive plight in Setting for a Tragedy offers us no consolation: he is only a type for Christ.

Thus in response to the suffering of action caused by our human reality and by capitalism—supposedly the map in The Fall into Time refers to imperial domination and capitalist exploitation of the world—we have the Christian apocalypse forced upon us. Its sense of time and action is one of denial and destruction. Ultimately it offers no victory to the artist as the theoretician of nihilism, Nietzsche, revealed to us a century ago as the history of our time: “The end of Christianity—at the hands of its own morality (which cannot be replaced), which turns against the Christian God (the sense of truthfulness, developed highly by Christianity, is nauseated by the falseness and mendaciousness of all Christian interpretations of the world and history; rebound from ‘God is truth to the fanatical faith All is false’: Buddhism of action —) .” Thus, “fall into time”, Christianity and capitalism all share the same symptoms, and cannot be escaped by this turn against them: the reaction is the historical outcome of what it criticizes. The apocalyptic response to suffering really is a will to destruction, as Nietzsche wrote in his notes: “The will to destruction as the will of a still greater instinct, the instinct of self-destruction, the will for nothingness.” Given this symptomatic reading, we can ask, what right does this artist presume in speaking for suffering? What responsibility is there in using imagery of this nature divorced from any situation, and using it in an art gallery?