Claire Maugeais — What do we see where we can indeed see that one sees ?
Inheriting from modernity, but to contest some of its schematic aspects, Claire Maugeais’ artistic undertaking goes voluntarily against the grain of concepts such as purity, perfect form, organization or harmony (that of images and spatial arrangements). Not to consider them as automatically invalid, but to signify how much their historical valorization is often due to a certain naivete. Citations from modernist painting or architecture in her work are therefore not surprising, as the artist uses counterpoints against them. Moreover, this approach of a critical nature provides Claire Maugeais the occasion for a permanent play of forms, in the sense of an unexpected redistribution, an incitement to ” better see ”, and thus “ better live ” reality.
In her study on one of Claire Maugeais’ recent works entitled The Handkerchief (Le Mouchoir) (2002), a monumental floor piece in the style of Mondrian integrated into the architecture of the Lycée de Saint-Vallier, Valérie Chartrain explicates the artist’s praxis in these terms: “ The support chosen matters little, whether it be weaving or the curtain, the rug or tapestry, Claire Maugeais’ work strives to unearth the framework of things, to untangle the threads of vision so as to reveal what is hidden or lost out of habit 1. ”
Each of Claire Maugeais’ works contests. In Curtains (Rideaux), presented in 1996 at La Box, in Bourges, the view of an ordinary modern city district printed onto curtains is rendered poorly visible by the folds of the fabric. In The Surroundings (Les entours), presented in 1997 at the Faculty of Arts in Aix-en-Provence, the glass walls of several entryways to this establishment are covered with black and white photocopies that occult their transparency. The theme of these photocopies, a frieze taking the form of a montage of buildings in the modernist spirit, accentuates this out-of-sync effect. With The Landscapes From Behind (Paysages par derriŹre) and, beginning in 1999, the Frameworks (Trames), the artist embroiders views of landscapes or urban places on different supports (plexiglass, architectural grids…) which she then presents back to front. This amounts to exposing not just the stitching but also the various uncertainties behind the making, knots and detours alike. There is also Trickle (Dégoulinade) from 2002 : beneath the orderly folds of a cloth hung on the exhibition wall treated in the style of Venetian blinds, an image can be faintly made out, its squashed contours rendering all description uncertain…
Contestation ? Yes, a contestation of our visual habits and, by extension, the meaning we confer upon the visible. In every case, the spectator experiences a feeling of deprivation, either because the visual proposition acts as a stumbling block in that it cannot be perceived outright, or else because this severing of vision raises a sibylline interrogation whose meaning will not be immediately revealed. The whole sparks curiosity and, et the same time, revives reflection on our relation to that which surrounds us and constitutes the environs of the body and its milieu, including their conditioning.
Claire Maugeais’ work is characterized since its beginnings by this inflexion, to upset the viewer and oblige him/her to modify (at least) his/her vision of things, even and especially as regards the most ordinary. Interference (Interférence), a monumental sculpture from 1991 in two distinct parts, made of two large superimposed wood panels, one abstract and the other figurative (one of the panels is treated as a monochrome while the other is covered with a photocopy presenting a view of buildings), deliberately accumulates two disparate ensembles, a direct reference to its title. This opting for a dual discourse is not in the least fortuitous. It is a radical manner of indexing the idea that in art as elsewhere autonomy doesn’t exist, or else only by decree, in an authoritarian or dogmatic manner. As for the rest, bodies interact, everything plays with and on everything else, the work of art assumes the role of an interposed reality in this game.
“ Interference “ is precisely the object of several creations the artist will sign shortly afterwards, this time in the form of installations. Thus for example the work presented in November 1993 at the Sequenz gallery in Frankfurt, Where are you when you’re where you’re at ? (OĚ es-tu, lorsque tu es lą oĚ tu es ?). This work simultaneously confronts the spectator with the classic white cube of the gallery but also, inside this same space, with a wall painted green, another covered with floral-pattern wallpaper, and finally with a photocopied view of a factory architecture. A whole which as Sylvie CoĎllier writes, manifests “ a strategy that consists in clearly positing opposing values ” (such as domestic space/social space, private space/work space, flowers/factory, nature/architecture or pictorial/decorative), as well as the valorization of visual “ connivances ” troubling these distinctions 2 ”. Without omitting an unquestionable effect, implicit to this kind of work, that consists in blurring the localization of the work and the spectator, a blurring implied by the very title of this singular work, Where are you when you’re where you’re at ?, a question that cannot be easily answered.
Repeated consistently over the course of a decade, Claire Maugeais’ interventions in the form of installations resound like the damaging of a certain established order of representation, namely the one bound by principles of coherence or homogeneity. Maugeais’ method goes against the customary uses that are, as is known, inherited from the renaissance and transcended afterwards by the moderns. It varies the point of view and, in so doing, shows how turning the image or the mechanism of its consultation upside down amounts to modifying its meaning and symbolic range. As regards this register, there are the multiple works of occulting realized by the artist from 1996 on. On the window, this transparent wall, Maugeais adds the cold image, reworked as a black and white photocopy devoid of gray tones, of other walls, those of architectural forms common to our cities or curtains of walls. An unusual spectacle that ultimately represents the exchange of one spectacle for another, upsetting all values. At Pougues-les-Eaux, in 1998, the mounting of images on the art center’s windows forbids the vision one normally has in this place, that of a rurban landscape. In Sélestat in 2001, where she intervenes in the post-Bauhaus style parallelepiped housing the Regional Contemporary Art Fund (Frac), the artist inverts the axis of vision : the large format photocopied image of a house repeated at regular intervals is exhibited facing out towards the street. And so on… Each time around the play on vision is accompanied by a resolute impulse to rearrange. Grasped as an object sworn to artistic appropriation, space is also treated as a medium. Maugeais works place in the same way a painter works a canvas.
Some might say that the act of pasting pictures onto a pane of glass and masking the openings of a given place with imported images amounts to an act of decoration. So be it. For Claire Maugeais however, the latter takes on a specific character, if only for the fact that it escapes the constraints of the pleasant, harmony, or the quest for plastic beauty which underlies the decorative as a general rule. For each place rearranged by the artist is not intended to increase its qualities but aims instead to propel the spectator into another dimension, a dimension the artist wishes problematic, in the order of deviation. The use of an effect such as trompe-l’Ōil, for example, proclaims itself. In other words, it does not dissimulate itself beneath the marks of a virtuoso realization, as is the custom. All ambiguity concerning the desire the artist might manifest to play with the concept of illusion is automatically excluded, contrary to the rules of the genre. (continues on page 42)
Another particularity is the distance taken from traditional site specific art. The latter, at least insofar as its initiator Daniel Buren established its rules in the 1960’s, aims at unmasking each humanized space as being organized in the name of complex codes where the double brand of the Power and Control tandem can be discerned. Public space ? Never free, never neutral, being of course that its arrangement aims at the user’s submission (even a park, as can be easily verified, imposes its paths on the stroller, delimiting rest and exercise areas, mapping out a chosen landscape for him/her etc.) Regarding this given, Claire Maugeais’ goal is not so much to repeat the obvious or to display it in three dimensions. It is rather to install the spectator elsewhere, in this intermediate place between real space and symbolic space allowing the materialization of a work that throws off reference points. One might as well say, if one prefers, that it is a matter of installing the spectator somewhere else, elsewhere.
Elsewhere (Ailleurs) is incidentally the title of an installation realized by the artist in 1996 at the Marseilles Contemporary Art Museum (MAC), an installation whose strongly meaningful effect is indeed to brutally force the spectator to reevaluate the place he/she frequents. Once again, Claire Maugeais occults the glass faćade, this time that of the museum’s cafeteria, by using a panorama of urban views without qualities photocopied and reworked in black and white. The effects of this work reveal themselves for the least paradoxical. The cafeteria’s clients are disturbed by the exhibition of this rather austere and negatively connotated panorama occupying their field of vision, even if it is their day-to-day. As Philip Vergne notes, “ this reaction on the part of the visitors is all the more startling seeing that the museum’s neighborhood is a mutating suburban zone 3 ”. This way of using the image, in which an image takes the place of a landscape, obviously concerns replacement and substitution as well as a procedure of inversion. A glass-walled room is changed into an occulted and decorated box ; a glass-structure meant to let light through has the flux of light blocked by the mounting of an image on the glass. What one would normally see inside an exhibition space can be seen from the outside… It also introduces a subtle play with vision in that it uses metamorphosis 4. What is normally seen through the windows can no longer be seen. Something else is seen, with the following consequence : the work rubbing up against the place becomes an “ in-between place ”, it recontextualizes real space as a visual fiction that opens our eyes, obliging a keen gaze. In this respect, it matters little that Claire Maugeais use such modest forms as photocopies, printed curtains or embroidery works. What counts most is their potential to energize vision and the relations to these same things.
It would be hard not to speak of Claire Maugeais’ work without taking into account the method referred to by the artist as “ sauce bases ”. Faced with Maugeais’ artworks, the spectator will notice various recurring elements in the form of motifs disseminated from one work to another. What are these motifs ? A fragment of wallpaper, a fingerprint, the wall of trees that figures in Forest at the Lycée Samuel de Champlain in Royan (1999), the facade of the Royan house posted during the installation And everybody wants to see the sea (Et tous ils veulent voir la mer) in Sélestat (2001), the home adorning the windowpane of a work such as Forum (Lycée de Saint-Vallier, 2002)… Using culinary terminology, the artist employs the expression “ sauce bases ” to designate these motifs. The latter plays a dual role of a reserve and a module. A reserve, in the sense that the artist has only to cull from this compilation to find a motif which will serve as a visual base for present or future realizations. A module, in that the “ sauce base ” can be deployed in a serial manner, with the aim of inscribing such and such a reference, through repetition, in the real. Systematized, the use of the “ sauce base ” goes beyond an anecdotal usage. It is all the opposite of an occasional insert.
Beyond what is left up to the spectator to see (unless he/she is familiar with the work and follows its developments), the “ sauce base ” works as a repertory of signs making up the key components of the artist’s world. So many signs of a strong visual and symbolic charge archived after much thought with their repeated usage in mind, as an expression of the self, esthetic and critical interests combined. Thus, When preparing the exhibition entitled Forest (Forźt) at the Lycée Samuel de Champlain in Royan, Claire Maugeais photographs the villas on the seafront, intrigued by their uniformity. These documents furnish her with a new “ sauce base ”, that she uses afterwards at the Frac Alsace in Sélestat, then at the Crédac in Ivry-sur-Seine. If each “ sauce base ” relates to the motif, it has just as much to do with the leitmotif. Their use as required, repeated from one showing to the next, hints at the permanency of focal points in a work which is ultimately more structuralist and conceptual than it seems : the body making contact with the world (the finger), the succession of spaces one slides through in the course of a lifetime (domestic space as symbolized by the wallpaper or the house; urban space or the landscape represented by the panoramas of cities or the tree motifs)… The patently stereotyped aspect of the Sauce bases can then be better understood as a means of ensuring transitivity : to engage the spectator through a mechanism allowing immediate identification. If the artist’s works, unusual or incongruous, can reveal themselves to be intentionally unattractive owing to their out-of-sync character, the “ sauce base ” acts as a transitional object, something like a magnet skillfully drawing together there where the work divides.
One of the society of the spectacle’s harmful consequences, among others, is to diminish the quality of the visible. Too accustomed to considering that a spectacle is only worthwhile if it is spectacular, that is, calibrated for an emotional optical grasping, the Western spectator can be qualified in terms of his/her paradoxical deficit regarding the capacity to see and by extension his/her difficulty to position him/herself in concrete space, there where the image is no longer spectacle, but the mere desublimated transfer of the world as it turns and appears. Without overly exaggerating, one could arrive at a new breed of blind, this visually impaired person who can only see the unprecedented or the extreme but remains practically incapable of grasping the perceptual contents of ordinary things, those which however surround him/her starting with his/her lifestyle and the position of his/her body within and in relation to the images he/she forms or rubs shoulders with.
Claire Maugeais invites us to revive in unison the vigorous cycle of vision and the experience of the places in which the body moves. In so doing and given the degraded cultural background in which she operates, it isn’t for nothing that Claire Maugeais carries out her “ provisional acts of authority ”, as she herself refers to her works. They are in this case the virtues of inspired détournement.
Translation, Francesco Finizio
1 Valérie Chartrain, Le Mouchoir, presentation sheet, Lycée Henri Laurens, Saint-Vallier (Drôme), in the context of the 1% for the arts commission (1 % artistique), 2002.
2 Sylvie CoĎllier, in the leaflet Trois interventions réalisées entre 1993 et 1994, publication realized with the support of the Marseilles Office of Culture (Office de la Culture, Marseille) November, 1996, no page numbers.
3 Philippe Vergne, Rideaux sur la ville, catalog for the exhibition Claire Maugeais, la Box, Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Bourges, December 13th - January 17th, 1997, no page numbers.
4 Through the inversion of the scopic code, the effects of replacement and the play on vision, one could almost discern the historical ingredients of the baroque, an artistic style well acquainted with these esthetic slippages, meant to promote the soul’s dynamism and the faithful’s fascination. With the exception that, as tempting as it might be to inscribe Claire Maugeais’ work in this tradition, artifice in her case does not come into play.In Maugeais’ installations, each element is in its place, and the mechanism hindering or redirecting vision is absolutely explicit. What to make of the process of visual seduction proper to the Baroque and totally out of place here ? No desire to please for Claire Maugeais. Quite the contrary even, as the work in her case establishes contact to irritate vision rather than pamper it.