9 January 1997 - 15 February 1997
Opening Reception 9 January 1997 8pm
I AM THE GREATEST
Mercer Union is pleased to present a solo exhibition by Toronto artist Roland Jean. Jean will exhibit five oil-on-stapled-together-plywood paintings that each juxtapose a caricatural portrait with an appropriation from a recent American or European painting. Despite the fact that the caricatures are based on widely circulated images-magazine and album covers, dust jackets -their identification depends on the viewer having a wide-ranging knowledge of American culture in general and of black American culture in particular. In these paintings, larger-than-life-scaled monstres sacrés à l’américain-Muhammed Ali, James Baldwin, Jean Michel Basquiat, William Burroughs, Miles Davis-exude an imperious chill as they gaze out through the corners of their eyes. Jean pokes fun at the suggestion of obscurity in the obvious dichotomies he sets out„high art/caricature, black/white, French/English-and hints at a complexity behind these simple juxtapositions that is inscribed within the messy archeology of contemporary culture. Jean attended Academie des Beaux Arts in Port-au-Prince and received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science at the University of Moncton. His most recent solo exhibitions took place at the Workscene Gallery (1991 and 1993) and he has recently joined the Red Head Gallery. Jean has lived and worked in Toronto since 1984.
Brochure essays by John Armstrong and Carol Laing :
Caricature is a double thing; it is both drawing and idea -the drawing violent, the idea caustic and veiled.
– Charles Baudelaire, “On the Essence of Laughter” (1855)1
Roland Jean’s personal trajectory is readable in the accomplished caricatures found in his preparatory sketches for the four 1996 paintings in this exhibition. Jean emigrated from Haiti to Canada in 1979 and lived for five years in Moncton, New Brunswick, before moving to toronto, where he has resided since 1984. Moncton, a bilingual city, provided a segue for Jean between francophone Haiti, with its ties to France, and a North America that was still predominantly anglophone. As a recent art school graduate, Jean found work in Moncton in commercial drawing: first, he worked for Radio Canada drawing caricatures of local luminaries and politicians on camera for Coup d’oeil, a mid-day TV show; subsequently, he worked as an illustrator for the Moncton newspapers Évangeline and The Moncton Times. Jean emphasizes that the work he did during this period is caricature not editorial cartoon. He presented big headed likenesses perched atop diminutive upper bodies-the exaggerations are playfully offset by a mock “academic” crosshatched drawing style. Jean’s caricatures offer “apparently” friendly spoof and parody.
The presence of illustrative drawing in contemporary francophone culture is huge, due in large part to the popularity of les bandes dessinées-hardcover children’s and adult comic books which, despite their enormous popularity, are criticized for their far-less-than-friendly gratuitous violence, misogyny, racism, jejune plot lines…. In anglophone culture, adult comic books are decidedly underground. (Not coincidentally, the Californian artist Robert Crumb, creator of “Fritz the Cat” and other 1960s adult comic “classics,” now lives in France.) Despite the notoriety of individual dessinateurs and even the recent creation of publishing houses in France that focus on “serious” experimental (read not exploitative and surrealizing) work, the genre has largely not been considered in the context of contemporary art production and retains an outsider status. In using a signature caricature style in his paintings, Jean’s work slips between illustrative drawing’s exteriority to “institutionally sanctioned” French art and its acceptance as a vital -and often problematic- French pop cultural form.
Jean’s relationship -like Haiti’s own- to French and North American culture is complex. The near universal presence of the Belgian dessinateur Hervé’s comic books for children in la Francophonie points to the heart of this ambivalent relationship; his popular Tintinseries recounts the “adventures” of a young French reporter who all too often encounters stereotypically colonized “types” when visiting former European colonies.
Jean, trained in a beaux-arts school in Haiti in the 1970s, was presented with the notion of the appropriateness of Paris-approved modernism. At the same time, a sophisticated naiveté associated with traditional Haitian religious art was widely used by Haitian artists in the 1960s and 70s to develop a rich symbolic vocabulary to treat subjects such as stylized characterizations of the natural environment, Vodou-inflected religious narrative in church murals, or political commentary in street murals. Jean made a conscious decision to work in neither a French modern nor intentioned naive manner, and was particularly impressed by the example of Haitian artist Hervé Télémaque, an émigré to France whose paintings from the 1960s were associated with the Nouveaux Réalistes’ (French Pop Artists’) working methodologies-both Télémaque and Jean juxtapose language and image to create paradoxical collisions, use collage and assemblage in an open celebration of American Pop Art, and render Ietterforms and images in a decidedly tachist manner. Importantly, both artists chose to establish careers outside of Haiti, and to incorporate models current in their adopted cultures. Jean’s paintings are less mellifluously finished than Télémaque’s, reflecting Jean’s interest in more recent, expressionist-mode American painting. If Jean’s work in some way mirrors Haiti’s own move away from French cultural influence towards American models, it does so conditionally.
In each of the paintings in “I am the greatest,” Jean juxtaposes a caricatured portrait with an appropriated image from a recent American or European painting, most often adopting a diptych format. The appropriations and portraits have a certain “product recognition value” within their restricted economies. An art-magazine-literate art student would be able to guess most of the attributions in Jean’s works: Andy Warhol’s Brillo Soap boxes; Jean-Michel Basquiat’s jazz album credits and song titles; a 1950s ersatz biomorphic glyph; Roy Lichenstein’s trigger-fingered pistol. The splayed reclining nude however, might be a bit trickier to source as Lucien Freud’s. Jean’s manner of working embraces the graphic expressionism and materiality of Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel. Unlike these artists, Jean works repeatedly over his motifs, covering his roughly-stapled-together plywood surfaces to create layer upon layer of contour lines enclosing aureoles of rag-applied paint. These surfaces read as palimpsests: beneath one art reference are the still-visible contour lines of another, serving to unsettle any sense of the predictability of Jean’s choice of sources.
Despite the fact that Jean’s caricatures are based on widely circulated images -magazine and album covers, dust jackets- their identification depends on a wide-ranging knowledge of American culture in general and of black American culture in particular. In these paintings, larger-than-life-scaled monstres sacrés à l’américain-Muhammed Ali, James Baldwin, Jean Michel Basquiat, William Burroughs, Miles Davis-exude an imperious, Bronzino-like chill as they gaze out through the corners of their eyes. These visages are secure in the pantheon of notoriety and priviledge accorded to public figures (those whose faces are most often caricatured). And yet, the caricatured rendering mischievously unsettles the pomp of large-scale painted portraiture and reiterates the temporality of its sources: journalism and the publicity photograph. These paintings are most often untitled and variously contain either French or English text: both of these strategies (which may alternately appear either as antagonistic or as a playful series of winks) provocatively exclude those viewers not within specific loops of experience. Jean pokes fun at the suggestion of obscurity in the obvious dichotomies he sets out-high art/caricature, black/white, French/English-and hints at a complexity behind these simple juxtapositions that is inscribed within the messy archeology of contemporary culture. Just whose cultural icons are these cited artworks, contentious written statements, and looming male portraits? His? Yours?
1. Charles Baudelaire, “On the Essence of Laughter,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans Jonathan Mayne (New York: Da Capo Press, 1986), p.151.
“L’ART SE PRÉTEND DE L’ART, ALORS QU’IL N’EST PLUS QU’UNE SORTE DE METALANGUAGE DE BANALITÉ…”
A painted quotation from Jean Baudrillard in a 1996 painting by Roland Jean titled Cassius Clay
“I AM NOT PROUD OF MY ROOTS AND I’M NOT PROUD OF ANYBODY’S ROOTS”
A painted statement by Roland Jean in a 1993 painting of the same title
“FAIT N’IMPORTE QUOI DE SORTE QUE SOIT NOMMÉART”
A painted statement by Roland Jean and Dany Laferriére in a 1987 untitled painting
“LE TOUT, LE N’IMPORTE QUOI, QUE SAIS-JE?”
A painted statement by Roland Jean in a 1987 untitled painting
The content of Roland Jean’s paintings is at odds with his way of rendering them: how do you paint a cultural icon that is both drained and over-full of content? Jean transforms the subjects of his portraits by redrawing them in his own mode: caricature. He then uses the caricatures to cue the paint application. Cross-hatched lines signify differently when they are translated into paint, as they strain to cohere -to build the illusion- of a three-dimensional body, or face. Between completing the line drawing and applying the paint, there remains so much to be decided. Could this be why the paintings are so full of gaps and uncertainties?
Although it looks crude on purpose, Jean’s work is calculated and informed. The cool forms of the portraits’ print sources transform into out-sized, rough successors whose relationships to their subjects strain to rescue something “heroic” (whatever that might now mean) from the archives of a mass culture given to both stars and outlaws. The portraits of Muhammed Ali, James Baldwin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, William Burroughs and Miles Davis are marked by their distortions. A relentless drive to gain focus is manifested through the artist’s ruthlessly editing anything that might undermine instant recognition of a famous person, a particular artist’s style or a theoretician’s quote. Individual elements become generalized, mystified and allegorized.
What is a culture? This is a difficult question under the most serene circumstances-under which circumstances, incidentally, it mostly fails to present itself…. Is it possible to describe as a culture what may simply be, after all, a history of oppression? … For what, beyond the fact that all black men at one time or another left Africa, or have remained there, do they really have in common? And yet… there was something which all black men held in common, something which cut across opposing points of view, and placed in the same context their widely dissimilar experience. What they held in common was their precarious, their unutterably painful relation to the white world. What they held in common was the necessity to remake the world in their own image, to impose this image on the world, and no longer be controlled by the vision of the world, of themselves, held by other people. What, in sum, black men held in common was their ache to come to the world as men. And this ache united a people who might otherwise have been divided as to what a man should be.
-James Baldwin, “Princes and Powers” (1961)1
I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the gredest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the the greatest. 1 am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest. 1 am the greatest.
-Muhammed Ali (x 30)
Grotesque and gigantic, Jean’s portraits are nonetheless Ioving caricatures whose huge size insists on their importance -even while their recognizability blurs within a form of representation that over-develops aspects of a face and/or a personality, in effect over-resembling its subject. The portraits become like faces on the cover of a magazine, albeit rougher; but their materiality and physicality distance them from airbrushed commercial magazine covers that show no traces of the hands that have worked on them.
And what do we make of Jean’s insistence in representing those who choose the mainstream while being extreme or marginalized themselves? These “freaks” whose talk-and back-talk-defies all efforts to suppress or gloss over what they say? The shiny gloss of Jean’s paintings seals all of this in, in black and white: the black (and white) that is repressed by a dominant white culture?
To live is to defy the logic that all we’re supposed to do is stay black and die. To leave in your wake artistic legacies, documents, abstract bodies of work and knowledge, conceptual paradigms, aesthetic philosophies and methodologies, signature styles, mythic identities, is to increase confusion exponentially…. When Jack Whitten says that the geometric constructs of African sculpture contain the DNA of visual perception, when Jean-Michel Basquiat explains his paintings to Robert Farris Thompson as a menu of erasures, when Andrew Light renders the sensation of kites pulling away from gravity in gargantuan terms, when Romare Bearden reconfigures Duke Ellington’s notion of transbluescency as a tragicomic structure of super impositions, when David Hammons extends Thelonious Monk’s obsession of the poignant one-liner to the visual, how can l talk about that in relation to some white academic art historical canon? “He is truly free who is free from the need to be free”
-Creg Tate, “He is truly free who is free from the need to be free” (1994)2
1. James Baldwin, “Princes and Powers,” Nobody Knows My Name; More Notes of a Native Son, (New York: Dell Publishing, 1963), pp. 34-35.
2. Greg Tate, “He is truly free who is free from the need to be free,” in The Black Male/Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, curated by Thelma Golden for the Whitney Museum of American Art, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), p. 177.
Translations of quotations from Jean’s paintings:
#1 Art will claims to be art, while it is really no more than a kind of metalanguage of banality.
#2 Do anything as long as you can call it art.
#3 What do I know about everything ot about anything at all?(Translated by J.A.)