‘The ultimate sophistication’ at Piante Gallery in Old Town Eureka

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

 EUREKA – The sculptures and paintings of two native Frenchmen evoke the truth of art unadorned in their December exhibit at the Piante Gallery in Old Town Eureka.

Some 40 minimalist works by Daniel Frachon of Trinidad and Marceau Verdiere of Freshwater are the embodiment of Leonardo da Vinci’s aphorism, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

The joint display comprises some 15 to 20 of Frachon’s ceramic sculptures and about two dozen of Verdiere’s oil paintings on wood panels and paper.

Frachon and Verdiere are well-known on the North Coast; both have exhibited separately in the past at Piante.

‘TRACES OF SILENCE’ by painter Marceau Verdure.

‘TRACES OF SILENCE’ by painter Marceau Verdure.

The show’s title, “Traces of Silence,” derives from the artists’ mutual desire to renew appreciation for quietude in an everyday world which they find choked and defiled by aural and visual pollution.

The exhibit honors restraint and nuanced expression. The artists showcase the elegance of restraint and subtlety, fused with spare colorants.

Certain elements of Frachon’s gnarled, wizened structures recall the black knobby stick figures of the Swiss existentialist sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Like Giacometti, the Paris-born Frachon (who moved to Montréal when he was 7) paints many of his works black, a pigment which for him communicates no mood, statement, symbol or meaning. He intends it as a non-color and thus, by definition, minimalist.

However, he adds tones of amber, ochre, xanthus and chalky white as accents and counterpoints. He also applies light, watery glazes and sealants to some works, affording a tony, lacquer-like finish.

A piece by sculptor Daniel Franchon.

A piece by sculptor Daniel Franchon.

Frachon’s horizontal and vertical creations are made of ceramic clay, a material inclined to brittleness. Gingerly, using little pieces of wood he has carved himself (he is a master wood craftsman), he imprints and embosses the clay with miniature bas reliefs of delicacy and fineness, some of them obliquely anthropomorphic.

“I try to bring out the figurative and architectural elements, giving depth to a plane surface,” he said.

Those features are gossamer-like, but in their physicality his sculptures convey strength and inviolability — as if their silence were impervious to the noise pollution with which society abounds.

Some of the black creations resemble burnt or charred wood; one can almost ‘hear’ it creak, yaw and shift. Other works resemble vertical ‘houses’ with overlapping ‘roofs’ that feature smooth, glassy surfaces, suggesting light and uplift. There is a tincture of the Asian about some of them; Frachon was in China in 2000, where he “sketched and sketched and sketched.” He has been in Humboldt County for close to 40 years.

In a sharp, yet complementary contrast, Verdiere’s oil paintings are the opposite of the structural density and concentration of his colleague’s sculptures. Although some of his work is geometric in the foreground with lines, squares, tendrils, rectangles or quasi-trapezoids, many other surfaces are so aqueous and mirage-like that an observer feels about to sink into their illusory depths and deliquesce in them. The longer an observer lingers over a Verdiere image, the deeper it becomes. The depth of field vanishes into an unreachable horizon.

Diaphanous, the non-geometric images are fluency incarnate, avatars of the calm and detachment silence invites. One could almost float inside his paintings; they are a vision of filmy immersion. It is as if pointillism had been taken to its extreme and the image had disappeared into itself.

The borders of the panel notwithstanding, the physical dimensions of space evaporate; there is no up, down or sides. Space resolves into infinity. The painting appears illuminated from inside, the light issuing from an untraceable source.

Verdiere sidesteps the traditional color palette; he experiments ceaselessly with different pigments in assorted shades, hints and hues. For applicators, he uses everything from kitchen utensils and wine bottles to cotton swabs and different size brayers, the old fashioned printing hand tools for evenly spreading ink.

“I coat the wood panel or paper with different thicknesses and play with them on the surface, releasing the paints in different ways,” he says. “As you layer them up with transparents, like linseed oil, the more pronounced paints will start taking their place in the foreground and predominate.”

For coloring, relief and varied hues, he scratches off a bit of paint or applies a corrosive, perhaps a dram of carburetor cleaner, “to get the paints to melt into each another.” Also, he daubs, smears or splashes color in small, minimalist strokes.

At first glance, the lion’s share of the open surface invites the viewer to “rest” the eye—and the mind. But then Verdiere’s wispy splotch of color, like the sudden flash of a struck match in the dark, snares the observer’s gimlet-eyed attention.

“My painting is not flat; it has lots happening in it,” he comments. “But it’s only if you pause and you look at it that you realize how much is going on in it.”

Verdiere’s most abstract works fit the very definition of “painterly,” a venerable technique that gives precedence to qualities of color, surface and texture over line.

In the Piante exhibit, Verdiere, who was born in Strasbourg and grew up in the nearby village of Boersch in Alsace, wants viewers to regain “the appreciation of a single moment, being mindful of the moment, right here, right now.”

Silence engenders wonder.

Verdiere chats with a reporter together with Frachon over coffee, tea and bagels at the latter’s home north of Big Lagoon. It overlooks the ocean from a high promontory that confers a majestic view of the rain swept, frothing shoreline on a waning autumn day. Both artists built their own studios by hand.

Elaborating on the Piante exhibit’s theme of silence, Verdiere calls his oil works a response to his keen awareness “that the world we live in has a deepening aversion to quietude and tranquility. Everything is getting louder.”

Frachon feels the same about the modern “Tower of Babel.” The two friends have arrived independently at the reasoning of the 19th-20th century American novelist, Harold Bell Wright. He wrote:

“Eyes blinded by the fog of things cannot see truth. Ears deafened by the din of things cannot hear truth. Brains bewildered by the whirl of things cannot think truth. Hearts deadened by the weight of things cannot feel truth. Throats choked by the dust of things cannot speak truth.”

“In the face of this,” affirms Frachon, “the artist has to create something that otherwise you cannot speak about or express, and that society does not want to hear about—the importance of what is really happening in life.”

He recalls the remark of a German friend who is also a sculptor of highly abstract creations. “If I could say it in words, if I could write poetry, that’s what I would do,” the friend says. “And since I can’t, I use forms.”

Hence besoin de faire art, the need to make art.

Frachon: “We artists use the media we’re comfortable with, to speak about things that [existentially] are very important. When Marceau came up with the idea of silence, that resonated with me and what my work is about also. I can’t talk about it, but I feel it.”

Both men say that words elude them and their respective arts offer alternative vocabularies. “I can articulate with painting what I can’t say properly with words,” Verdiere chimes in. “When I’m working on an idea of a painting, suddenly the colors, the shapes, the forms, the textures make sense; I feel I now understand how I felt. It’s all about an emotional reaction to some ideas, some thoughts, some problems that I can’t quite figure out.”

The two spurn the notion that any of the fine arts, architecture, music, painting or sculpture, are superior to the art of words. This despite the age-old complaints of writers about the impediments of language, as in the lament of the 18th century French novelist and dramatist Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, who wrote in ((italics)) La Vie de Marianne, “I know those with whom I live much better than I could describe them; there are things in them I do not apprehend well enough to put into words ... They are the objects of emotions so complicated, so delicate in their precision, that they become confused as soon as thought enters into them ... so that they are in me, but not mine.”

Frachon puts it this way: “When I work in my studio, I feel what’s going on as I work on a piece; if I tried to write it, it would just seem very superficial.”

Verdiere adds, “I’m often frustrated at not being able to say things with words that can make me understood. But more often than not, I can see a reaction in people when they look at a painting. And that makes me think, ‘Ah, here’s the connection.’ I feel more confident I’m being understood than when I try to talk to them about it.”

“Traces of Silence” opens Saturday, Dec. 3, with Arts Alive! Eureka. The artists’ addresses are [email protected] and marceauverdiere.com.

Founded in 2000 by owner/curator Sue Natzler, Eureka’s Piante Gallery exhibits avant-garde and traditional contemporary artwork, ranging from installation to photography. It is located at 620 Second Street in Old Town. piantegallery.com.

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