Militant abstraction

Derek Jarman's latest plastic works, “text paintings” or “slogan paintings”, reflect anger at the forms of homophobia specific to the AIDS years. They are exhibited this fall at the Ivry-sur-Seine Art Center.

I have no words, my shaking hands cannot express my fury. All I have is my sadness.

This is how the narrator's voice-over sounds in The Garden (1990), feature film by Derek Jarman in which he pays tribute to his friends who died of AIDS, from which he himself died in 1994. Two years later The Gardenthe series of Queer Paintings finds precisely the words that express the fury of the artist in the face of the cruelty of a society, institutions and governments who let people die and incriminate people contaminated by the virus HIV AIDS. Created while the artist was physically weakened, these abstract paintings show hands, perhaps sometimes trembling, but always determined, sweeping the pictorial space to vehemently inscribe the words of anger. Sometimes the texts almost merge with the material that fills the canvas: LOVE, SEX, DEATH, on a black, red and black, red background. Sometimes they appear finely inscribed there POSITIVE (reverse), between waves of pink, mauve, green, blue brushstrokes. Sometimes they methodically, but furiously, cover the headlines of photocopied newspaper pages: SODOMY STRAIGHT HERES NEWS FOR YOU 40% OF BRITISH WOMEN TAKE IT UP TEA ARSE/YOU CALL IT MURDER AIM I CALL IT LOVE/SPREAD TEA JOKE. (This text reverses the text of the newspaper, He called it love but I called it murder.) The red pigment on the black and white of the pages produces a most striking graphic effect, without the painting departing from an equally rich plasticity. Gestural painting, conceptual art, Xerox art and militant display come together in a monumental painting, where the denunciation of the hatred conveyed by the tabloids is unequivocal. Finally, other times, the words in the painting evoke scratches on the pigment: DEAD ANGELS QUEER.

AIDS blood, 1992. Oil on canvas

These text paintings, which Jarman also called slogan paintings (one of them mentions the militant movement ACT UP) produced in response homophobic fury British tabloid magazines during these years of the virus epidemic, are shown at the Center d'Art Contemporain d'Ivry-sur-Seine (CRDAC) this fall, in the exhibition dedicated to Jarman and entitled Dead Souls Whisper (1986-1993)a treasure of curatorial intelligence and sensitivity. Dead Souls Whisper indeed gives a sharp insight into Jarman's latest works, particularly works that are rarely shown (two series of paintings, the Black and the Queer Paintings), while linking his better-known work in feature films and his super 8 short films, but also his garden on Dungeness beach in Kent, near a nuclear power station. Thanks to particular care taken to make the works accessible and very secure hanging, Jarman's work appears in all its density, its alloy of delicacy and power. We note for example that Blue, Jarman's last film (1994), a cinematic monochrome made when he had lost his sight, is dubbed into French for the projections throughout the exhibition in the last room of the CRDAC (Crdakino). The exhibition is accompanied by a conceptually very complete program including screenings of a selection of Jarman's most famous feature films and of course public discussions with garden specialists like Marco Martella, or art and struggles. LGBTQI like Lisabeth Lebovici.

The broader context of Dead Souls Whisper is that of the better visibility of stories on the memory of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s-1990s which has been observed since the second half of the 2010s, in varied formats and political coloring. In mainland France, a certain number of these stories present the culmination of research based on archives LGBTQI, (and participates in the discussion on their nature, their future, their valorization and their accessibility). Ranging from a general public film on the history of Act Up-Paris to a scholarly work on the history of activist art, to university research work, these stories also find their forms via exhibitions such as those at the Mucem in Marseille (HIV/AIDS: the epidemic is not over, which begins on December 15 and which brought together young researchers). More specifically, the exhibition finds its place in a relatively recent year of exhibition of Derek Jarman's painting, notably via the retrospective exhibition PROTEST! the Irish Museum of Modern Art (2019-2020), supports ancillary projects at the art center VOID (Derry), the John Hansard Gallery (Southampton), and the Manchester Art Gallery (which only starts there in December due to the Covid-19 pandemic). For this reason alone that Jarman's paintings are rarely shown, the exhibition of the CRDAC is crucial. But Dead Souls Whisper is far from being content to capitalize on rare works: respectful of the intelligence of the public and the plastic intelligence of the works, the exhibition easily maintains the difficult balance which consists of presenting a very specific look at Jarman while providing the reading keys which allow access his entire work.

One of the great forces of Dead Souls Whisper thus resides in the passages it allows to establish between all the different mediums used by the artist. In the three exhibition rooms, each painting display is punctuated by a super 8 film. For the series of Black Paintings from the end of the 1980s, divided into two rooms, are projects Sloane Square: A Room of Ones Own (1974-76, room 2) and At Low Tide (The Siren and the Sailor) (1972, room 3).

Sloane Square

Attention is paid to everyday objects in Sloane Square is even more concrete in the paintings, true assemblages where objects found or purchased by the artist coexist, caught in a thick layer of tar (the same as that which covers the exterior walls of his fisherman's house). And in At Low Tidethe close-ups on the water holes where the appearance of shells and algae transforms with the movements of the salty water, on the rays of the sun reflected in the sequins of a drag queen dress or on the wet rocks, underline Jarman's passion for textures and materials, which is replayed differently in the Black Paintings, where the dull mast of tar spread quickly on the canvas competes with shards of iridescent glass, gold leaf, worn wood, dirty plastic or rusty metal. Thus, a virgin appears surrounded by a hob resistor, surrounded by keys and golden nails (The Common Prayer, 1989). GI toys, representative par excellence of obligatory heteromasculinity from childhood, are buried under tar (Andy, 1989). Surrealism had not said its last word.

In the large room, the film resonates Death Dance (1973) and the Queer Paintings (1992). Death Dance shows slow motion films of naked young men, each holding a mirror. The character of Death mows them down one after the other. A subtle counterpoint to Queer Paintings is thus established, both in conceptual terms and in tone. This confrontation between works which are almost twenty years apart does not, in my opinion, function in an anachronistic manner as yet another iteration of the supposedly prophetic dimension of art, but rather as a reintroduction of the political context into art. The spatial rapprochement with Queer Paintings allows you to think Death Dance not as a queer appropriation of the theme of lamentation over the premature death of the young man in art history, but as a reminder that this type of pictorial acts found its historical basis in wars and epidemics. In other words, it is not Death Dance who would announce the Queer Paintingsbut the Queer Paintings which allow us to locate Death Dance in a political horizon, rather than as a generic meditation on death. At the same time, Death Dance imposes an aesthetic distancing thanks to its slow rhythm, the choreography of the vanished bodies, facing the Queer Paintings which give the feeling of maximum proximity between the artist and the canvas, between the canvas and the spectator. The urgency to paint and to respond is written loudly on the canvas: the texts are drawn in capital letters, the language is often violent, the canvas is so streaked by the tracing of words that its framework is visible in places. The bodies that mark the picture are bodies that refuse to become invisible and to allow themselves to be reduced to silence by the vociferations of the dominant discourse (SILENCE = DEATH was one of the key slogans ofACT UP, just as making oneself visible in public space was an act of resistance or even activism for those infected.). In this respect, the choice of hanging the large vertical paintings of the series in twos, double-sided, on cleats planted from floor to ceiling not only cleverly takes advantage of the constraints of the exhibition room, but underlines the dimension of political defiance of the Queer Paintings: they become bodies that stand upright and occupy space (while small or medium formats are more simply hung on the wall). Dressed vertically, they are also funeral markers; and finally, suspended between the floor and the ceiling, these works are caught between the earth and the sky of the dead souls who have remained among us.

However, the violence of Queer Paintings and Black Paintings is held by the painting, as a format on the one hand, but also as a plastic object. THE Black Paintings reflect a constant tension between the acts of destruction participating in the artistic process, and their low intensity; between the diversity of materials and selected objects. To execute certain Black Paintings for example, Jarman quickly applied a layer of (toxic) tar to the canvas, then placed a plate of glass on it, which he then meticulously broke with short blows with a hammer. Other objects then join the painting, often protruding from the frame without calling it into question, producing paintings mostly imbued with a dark elegance.


And it is the entire journey of the exhibition, in its smallest details, which reinforces this dialectic between fury and refinement, anger and attention to vulnerability as the energy of life. Thus, in the corridor leading to exhibition rooms 2, 3 and the Crdakino, photographs of Jarman's garden are displayed, an improbable and thus poetic site of living resilience in a disaster-stricken place. Linking Jarman's latest creations to his garden is yet another way of making us understand how the material and the gestures (of arrangement, of creation) are the anchors of spirituality in Jarman, personal and embodied spirituality. In this regard, we particularly appreciate that the exhibition texts evoke Chromathe artist's hybrid meditation on color in the history of art, in his personal history, and in the immediacy and consequences of illness on his body. Chroma is, in effect, a manifesto against the formalist idea of ​​pure color, because for Jarman color is permanently connected to all aspects of life, including memory and imagination; and if there is no pure color, in the sense of unmixed color, nor pure abstraction in the text paintings of the 1990s, it is perhaps also because purity has no place in a resolutely queer universe, which fights plastically as ideologically the discourses of stigmatization of contaminated people.

Dead Souls Whisperdraws up a very dense tribute to the singularity of Jarman's art, his activism, and the memory of those who died from AIDS; it communicates a coler intact and a passion for beauty.

Dead Souls Whisper. Against a principle of elegance, I prefer this translation: The dead souls whisperrather than The whisper of my dead: both the souls who inhabit the four rooms of the exhibition and its corridors act.