The Theatre of Ambiguity
In Olivier Larivière’s paintings, night is like an envelope, a stage décor, creating a scene in which anything is about to happen. So it is that characters, dressed in sports clothes, affirm their presence with their backs – as if they were with their back to camera – taking a nightly stroll over a wasteland. Not far, a little to the side, a huge Ferris wheel sits enthroned. Anonymity rules as master. And we wonder what exactly is the nature of this stroll; are these young people, dressed in satin-like hats and jackets, on route for a secret rave, organized in one of these non-spaces – Michel Foucault’s “other spaces” – which are difficult to determine in these outer zones in which ultimately one can only but lose oneself. What exactly are we celebrating within this group on its way to some nasty joke? Lights up on a frieze, a frozen moment stolen from obscurity, the widespread aesthetics of a flash photo. The painter loves working with this shaft of light, this white and directional light which flattens everything as it reveals, as it gives to the whole something of a brutal aspect, violent, a sometime silver tinted reflection, as if in another canvas where there is a blue tinted crash being directed.
Olivier Larivière explains that he is “trying to solicit the viewer as spectator, as if they were in the cinema”. We feel the desired effect of narration but a truncated one where we do not possess the codes; we are face to face with an ambiguous atmosphere, frozen images, vacillating scenes, faced with a sort of treasure hunt. A woman in a wedding dress walks alone in the middle of nowhere, accompanied by enigmatic parking bollards. Moto-crossers rubbing shoulders with buntings and caravans. Hilariously odd-looking parents greeting their son, sitting on a sofa framed by green plants, with a background where we see a sado-masochistic that should not even be there unless it is to disturb, to derail our observation, to engender a new temporality between what is happening there and what is happening elsewhere, in the nooks of our mind. The canvases set up something forbidden, a moment that shifts between what is and is not acceptable, and in this way we understand the frequent reference to animality, be it the alligator’s ferocity or the bow-wow’s domestication.
If the works are often cinematic, the format – through its size - has the structure of a cinema screen, and above all through the manner in which the artist arranges them in the art gallery; the large canvases are not hung on the wall but stand upright, alone, relating to the floor in a powerful way, confronting the gallery space, creating new strategies for moving around. This does not merely create an interesting setting, but challenges the viewer with the size of the painting and the size of the spectator, putting him on the same level. And when the enlarged face of an old woman provokes the viewer, the painting says it all, be it a question of material, of confrontation, of presence. The face is huge and the expression which crosses her eyes is that of a look slightly tilted towards an elsewhere. The flesh is soft, old, wrinkles, thick, evocative of Lucian Freud’s art depicting the blood beneath the skin of his models.
In Olivier Larivière’s works, portraits take the form of a series, such as that called Idiots - oil on paper, a gallery of classically framed portraits. These portraits are realized with great economy, almost in one stroke, in one sitting, with exceptional spontaneity. The painter allows the brush to run, to chafe, to let the paint run so that the smiles and grimaces of these broken faces of the 21st century burst out; we do not know whether to laugh or cry and if we, in our own way, are not such puppet-like figures who are drunk with joy or stupefied by the world around.
All Olivier Larivière’s well documented paintings stretch out to vanity, unveiling appearances, stripping away at incoherences, fearing the tomorrows; a death’s head is in discussion with a voluptuous pin-up in the shape of a Perrier bottle, and the dark feast continues.
Traduction : Steven Jankowski
Léa Bismuth is an art critic as well as a curator and also teaches the history of art. She has been writing since 2006 for ArtPress as well as other magazines. She lives and works in Paris.