On ViewMiguel Abreu
January 25–March 19, 2023
There is a moment of confusion as I tentatively enter Miguel Abreu Gallery. The exhibition before me seems to be a group show of disparate artists and not the solo exhibition I expected. But Francois-Marie Banier’s Writings & Pictures, a small yet ebullient sampling of nearly sixty years of artmaking, provides a snapshot of an artist’s practice that is as unconstrained as it is prolific. Persistently following inspiration and impulse, Banier refuses categorization and has worked in whichever collisions of medium and style best serve his continuous need to create. Since his teen years, he has befriended and photographed artists, celebrities, and other members of the glitterati. He has also published seven novels, three plays, and numerous books of photographs, along with acting in films by Éric Rohmer and Robert Bresson.
Here, groupings of sparse paintings enlivened by quick brushwork, informal photographic portraits, and works on paper stretch to the gallery’s lofted ceiling, while a basement space holds multiple series of small canvases, mixed-media accordion books, and at least one manifesto dating back to 1966 in which an eighteen-year-old Banier wrote, “I’m overflowing with vitality, I devour time like a starving being.” And that was just the beginning.
It takes a minute to shake off the initial jolt the array of images delivers before I can focus on individual works. An untitled painting from 2004 on which horizontal bands of aqua, black, white, and green make up sky and sea has a note scrawled along the bottom, reading (partly in French and partly in English) “[Very appreciative of these animated walks on the beach with your dog, Tommy,] on these Norfolk, Brancaster beaches, where I learnt that our Banier was sick of Mrs. G.” These inscrutable words transform the canvas into an overheard conversation, or maybe a thank-you note. Close by, eponymous text found along the bottom edge of S.V.P. Imaginez du vert soutenu en haute à droite [Please imagine some sustained green in the upper right] (2004) speaks directly to the viewer, asking them to envision the suggested color along with the red squiggle, yellow dashes, the stripes of white and blue that make up the actual painting. The written message invites a comradeship between viewer and artist, as if the two are chatting about an unfinished painting which, as the artist suggests, can only ever be completed in the viewer’s mind.
Banier’s duotone photographs weave through the exhibition, providing quick glimpses of lives that intersect with the artist’s, no matter how briefly. Taken at a distance, Samuel Beckett, Tanger, août 1978 (1978) shows the writer lost in thought as he strolls along a beach in Tangier, oblivious to a child who kicks a soccer ball nearby. A very large print, Iris Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall, mars 2018 (2018), captures a two-year-old member of British nobility in a moment of stillness. Changing lanes in Rio de Janeiro, janvier 1999 (1999), Banier fixes his lens on a down-at-heel gentleman in a scruffy suit who holds a set of dentures in his outstretched hand, giving him as much dignity as the iconic playwright or royal tot. In Fascination (2002) Banier marks a photograph of a previous exhibition with a series of lines and arrows pointing to doorways, reflections of light, a seated figure, asking the viewer, “are you more fascinated by … this or … by … or by…?” Banier provides no answers, only ongoing questions, snippets of conversations to be continued.
Two series of small paintings from 2022, Amours 1 and Amours 2, line the walls of the basement room in riotous colors. Several panels include the word amour, but the connective tissue holding the groupings together lies more in Banier’s investigation of how the picture plane can hold a concept as abstract as love. Paint is smudged, stippled, allowed to drip. In one image, patches of canary yellow, cobalt, and green merge in a climactic revelry. In another, the word amour hovers above a solitary figure indicated in easy strokes of red paint who sits with knees pulled into chest, suggesting loneliness or perhaps grief.
Speed is very much at play here, as is the idea of perpetual movement. Accordion books are pulled open, revealing long, fast brushstrokes traversing across pages. Then Banier is on the road, stopping only to snap a photo, jot down a thought, or wiggle a line across a surface. Objects, paintings, and photos are often quick and unpolished, and not everything succeeds, but now and then the artist hits the perfect moment, as in a tiny untitled painting from 2019 in which a yellow circle tinged with red floats on a field of black. White swirls of paint loop around it. Suggesting a celestial object, the image holds the mesmeric intimacy of something made in a moment of contemplation before the artist continued on.