Catherine klein’s solo art exhibition in ” Xun Art Gallery ” in Shanghai from the 14 july 2012 until the 2 septembre 2012.



It happens that artists conjure up words or sentences in their paintings. Long ago this could take the shape of scrolls forming ribbons, with which the words spoken by the angel to the Virgin Mary, for example, would enfold themselves, as in the work of Hans Suess von Kulmbach, among many others, inscribing the initials that open the salutation.

Later on these words disappear, the painting is resolutely mute, and it returns to its essential silence, in a way, from which the incarnation of the Word had drawn it out for a moment …

But later still, it is writing – and no longer the Word – that becomes a pictorial motif. Bypassing Bibles and other represented books, or inscriptions such as Poussin’s famous Et in Arcadia Ego, we meet with the Cubists’ newspapers, sometimes painted but often affixed with glue as well, as in Braque’s work:

Less remotely, what is known as “conceptual art” gave rise to works completely made of writing, a tradition followed by contemporary artists such as Marcelline Delbecq (here, Ghost [2007], where the viewer may read a story put together by the artist).

And so, writing manifests itself in painting from time to time, rarely in the form of texts, which one should no doubt keep apart from isolated words (as in the Braque painting), or from handwritten words (such as Cy Twombly’s use of them), and even more from contemporary calligraphic works inspired – at times at their birthplaces – by Arabic, Indian, Chinese or Japanese calligraphies, or closing in on the possibilities of Western calligraphies.

Let this sketchy summary simply serve as an introduction – in no way does it claim definitely to deal with the great question of words in painting: with Catherine Klein’s work, we come upon a new feature. Her texts, which she wrote, aren’t truly offered as reading.

The artist in fact writes the texts that she paints. She writes them in their entirety, and on her canvases she doesn’t paint any text that she hasn’t written. But she doesn’t substitute writing for painting, nor does she write instead of painting. She gives figure to the letters of a text, she fashions the body of characters without genuinely aiming for a reading. This procedure makes it possible to divert the term “autograph” to designate her painting – not “autograph” in the sense of a document written by an author herself (a notion slowly becoming obsolete with the keyboards we are using) but “autograph” in the sense that it is the text of the painter herself, written by herself, that becomes the painting, and this painting takes up again the very idea of text, in its materials, hues and surfaces.

Only on her canvases, and nowhere else, does she show these texts. She doesn’t give them to read in any other way. In a way, they immediately turn into painting, even if they first exist as simple writings (done by hand or with a keyboard: it doesn’t matter to us). It is only in the second – remote and fleeting – degree that they are saying or telling something.

Let’s take an example among the ones crafted to give the greatest legibility:

Manifestly one makes out not only letters but also words, though recognizing their organization in sentences requires some labor, and most often this will deter the viewers. It is their despondency that will make the “onlookers” (that’s what we’ll have to call them) recognizable, the “onlookers” or simply the “visitors” (one may be paying a visit to an exhibit in the same way one pays a visit to a person).

The quicker the despondency sets in, the truer the relationship one establishes with the canvas – for it leaves this despondency at once and enters a dimension other than the one in which a message or meaning is expected. Accordingly, this isn’t being despondent but rather accepting the rule of a game, or a challenge, or whatever one may wish to say: what you are seeing isn’t for reading although it is entirely written and thus offered to be read.

What is it telling? But is it saying anything?

It isn’t forbidden to read either. But this is hard work, which, for those willing to take it on, would really match the strenuous task of archeologists deciphering inscriptions in the attempt to decrypt their language.

Yet the language is evident here, and its typography ordinary, even if its layout is consistent with the ways of the ancients whose inscriptions – and even their manuscripts on parchment or papyrus – had no punctuation (which was introduced rather late).

The absence of written punctuation (we’d have to verify whether this is consistently so in Catherine Klein’s work) sends us back to an oral reading, for which scansion is found to be necessary. Does this mean we are invited to decipher it aloud? Who knows!In any case, this certainly refers us to something else. And this other thing takes shape first of all in the thickness, consistency, color, brightness, crusty layering, contour and graininess of the characters. Which is to say in the painting: not in the art of pictorial figuration, but in the handling of substances, colored pastes likely to become imprinted with the types composing a certain font, that is, the realization of a determined drawing of the alphabet.

But it isn’t this reference to printing that can enlighten us either – at least if the point is to be enlightened. Typography here is just the opportunity, even the pretext, to bring forward a  materiality – varying from canvas to canvas, being fatter or stiffer, in high relief or hollowed out – with a thickness and a touch, felt at a distance, and its whole scabby laborious emergence that pertain to the most compact, densest, heaviest, thickly loaded painting rising from the depths.

This materiality is light years away from the immaterial thinness of printed letters. And yet, it says and she says (it: the painting, she: C. K., it: the canvas): these are letters, and these are texts – texts written by the painter to be rewritten by the painting. And what is painting doing here? It is coming to encrypt the texts and at the same time to display them as texts. By displaying them encrypted – readable, barely decipherable – painting returns them to what every text indicates at its extremity: the outside of the text.

But to this as well: there would be no outside of the text if there were no text to reach toward this outerness, to exscribe itself as an outside. Here the text autographs itself as outer text at the same time as the outer text (the supposed author, the world, history, affects …) autographs itself as text – illegible text, textual illegibility.

Long ago the world was represented as a great book. Today a painted text – wrapped in paint, with its paste and coloring – autographs a world that is uncertain about being the world, and the pain or disdain of what might be intelligible, a muted tension of sensing and sense, an insistence and a worry, which the heavy paste of words takes on sometimes, as a hollowing and a scooping and sometimes as a swelling and a peeling. In the end, it is this paste that stirs its own substance, lancing and prickling it, imprinting it with drippings and glazings, dyes, pigments and lumps of significance.


Jean-Luc Nancy