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Claude de Soria, A Sculptor, Claude Bouyeure, 1991

in L’Oeil, n° 428, March 1991

 

Claude de Soria’s work is striking – unsettling might be a better way of putting it – because of the grandeur of her forms, the severity of her outlines and their frayed edges, which somehow define reality as unbounded. And because, too, the unique nature of her material provokes a secret exchange between shadow and what must remain intangible. Immediately, one’s eye perceives a loud call of beauty. Out of what part of the moon, with its midnight clarity, does this form-system, do these flashes, these mysterious receivers, plaques and monoliths come? Here, a polished surface, or a translucid one, suggest roughness. The coarseness and raw grain of cement herald a volatile vanishing, a mineral evanescence. Whence arise these blades, with their shaved edges, just sufficiently crumbled for us to know that borders are not what we like? And indeed before our very eyes they change. They are solidly anchored signals. They are fog spray, answering a wish for dissolution that raises, irresistibly conveys, colour, substance, form…

It takes all kinds to make a world… Not the sort of aphorism that anyone would bother to contest. Except that sort of prophet called artist. The first artists drew bison on cave walls. Such was their choice. For centuries, figurative dreams have shown infinite variation in subject-matter. This is determined by a choice, the mechanics of which cannot be unravelled. The world of Verrocchio, Donatello, the brothers Le Nain, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Goya, Seurat… to name just a few. Not just a palette of colours. There is also a palette of objects. Every artist is a maker of hieroglyphics. We think we know. We think we can decipher meaning. Then a Donatello comes along, a Carl André, a Claude de Soria, to make the cackle of comment seem utterly vain… And then one must start over. There are more worlds in the fantasies of dreamers than there are stars in the sky… In this spring of 1991, Claude De Soria’s work comes in a new guise: plaques, lofty boards, upright, striped at a more or less regular intervals with linear growths, sometimes on a slight bias and always horizontal.

The scarification resembles the letters of a minimalist alphabet and is hieratical. The direction of the stripes establishes an exchange, a rustling, a whispering from plaque to plaque, weaving a web of harmonies at the threshold of emptiness. These sculptures come with a collection of marks on plastic. Sedimentary prints left on diaphanous sheets once the material (cement she uses, we’ll come back to that) has solidified. The plastic serves as a base upon which the artist makes her shapes, directs their evolution, observes the change in them (offering a disincentive to pragmatism). The parts gathered together seem to copy invisible landscapes, positing, on a Cyclops’ scale, though a Cyclops whose eye no one has had time to put out, a different universe, obeying unknown laws. These works are medium-sized. They seem gigantic. Nothing stops at a frame. It is a universe without orbit, that sees forms, molecular signs, shift within, pass, light up, switch off, barely just graze each other, fade, vanish. Shadows dance. Night slips. Everything seems breathless, shuddering, and inexplicably so. The slither, universal shift, brings on to a diaphanous surface something like Brownian motion that seems indistinguishable from immanence. Another series of sculptures completes the show. They are longitudinal and reminiscent of waves breaking over themselves, or perhaps better measureless needles, sometimes granted an eye.

Every Aesthetic Adventure Has To Begin Somewhere

Leonardo, in his Treatise on Painting writes, “Sculptors remove material. Painters add material.” In doing so, he offered a code for the art of sculpture that held from the Renaissance to the death of Naturalism at the end of the 19th century and even a little beyond, into the start of the 20th century. Why bring up the history in the face of this highly contemporary work? Because de Soria is a classically-trained artist. Because her masters (she worked in their studios) were Lhote, Léger, Zadkine, heirs of the 19th century. Because her earliest work, in clay, inherited from naturalism as well as still lives, the torsos of Picasso’s cubist pictures, and even flower-buds and apples or pumpkins… Even these early works contained in their folds, their crumpling, their raggedness, their shattering, their unfurling, their polygonal or plain raw fragmenting (Mur, 1969-1972), such perceptive stimulants, such games of uncertainty and excitement as affirm what is visible but only affirm it intermittently. From then on, something was put on show and something chased away or changed in the seeing. Doubts arose.

Images appeared. And unravelled. Endlessly, form and volume were born, became, developed.

De Soria: the remarkable thing is that her work is defined equally by what she will not allow of the past and what she affirms as contemporary. It is sometimes easier to understand something in terms of what it is not than in terms of what it is. Leonardo describes what a sculptor does when presented with a block of marble, from which he can only remove and to which he can never add. The material gives its orders. As in Don Giovanni, the statue of the Commander, which is a statute. The artist is faced with something that makes demands. An authority. A monolithic block. A oneness to be whittled, reduced until it becomes his statue. Dominated, he ends up dominating. A theological confrontation, that ends to the son’s advantage. Thus, Leonardo defines the spirit of sculpture in our history. Sculpture and its procession of religious metaphors, at the turning-point of the Renaissance, which will tip them into the camp of humanism. After God and His Creation, such as the Middle Ages wished to praise it, comes the age of “ecce homo” in its many guises that have lasted down to our own age.

The rule of sculpture is the rule according to which we have lived through the ages and according to which still today sculpture continues to live. Only differently. A cipher is revealed and exposed. Sculpture is oneness subtracted through suppler and less “noble” materials than marble. Plaster, wood, cement, clay, wax, wire, sheet metal… determine sculpture’s essential character. Our modernity plays within this set of rules with every element of its vocabulary. From Gonzalès to Picasso by way of Serra, Long, Bruce Naumann, Carle André, Flavin… sculpture is composed of a sheet of metal, of cement, of a steel stalk, a fluorescent tube, a block of bevelled wood… by way too of the heterogeneous collages of Cubists and Constructivists, from minimal to multiple, according to rules of identity, mounted, dismantled, reassembled. From Donatello, Michelangelo and Bernini to Rodin, Matisse, Giacometti, addition and subtraction – combinations of all sorts – make sculpture. Only in the background the idea of oneness lives on to eternity. History continues to play opposite that One that is the mark of our culture: God, or law.

But contemporary work is testing limits of sculpture and its potential, compelling a realization that as an art-form it has lost its age-old status. It has rejected the father-figure, the unitary. In its stead have come process, multiplication, combination, repetition. Something like plate tectonics or architectonics has appeared which, in its multiples, can live without statutory oneness. Who is to say that that transgression is not germane to our contemporary experience? The artist shows that multiplicity of which we are made and raises the issue of oneness. Offering no solution.

Claude de Soria’s cement sculptures were born in 1973, when the artist discovered a bag of cement in the yard outside her studio that some workman had left behind. Immediately, she saw what might be made of a volatile, malleable material that was easy to knead and mix. A turning-point. Humble craft of a plasterer’s apprentice, a workman. A craft well-suited to the character of a sculptor, who is as disciplined as she is stubbornly attracted to silence, solitude, meditation. De Soria works to one side, in ash-whiteness. Surrounded by traces of previous work, photographs of museum-pieces. Her studio is attractive because of its misty light. Grey mist showing every grey in the world. Blue tints that shimmer: sand grey, sky grey, sea grey, storm grey, dusk grey… Dream smoke, upright and forceful that… go where?

De Soria mixes sand and cement into liquid then coats a sheet of plastic with the thick mixture. The grey mud spreads, slithers, blossoms. The artist wants to give it direction. It escapes her intention. She steers it, redirects it; it escapes again. She is its master. It is her slave, a rebellious slave. She is astonished, amazed and transfixed by its rebelliousness, avid that something unexpected should arise. When it does, it arises incidentally. A fold, a landslip, thick or thin, more or less runny. It is not usual for an artist’s relationship to her material to be so passionate and emotional. The plastic sheet sheds a skin or is ruffled, offers a deep fold, a hemming, a striping, makes a path, a gulley, a slit, a rip…. Claude de Soria’s handwork has produced, since 1973, first round, translucid, Plaques, crystallized dusk like halos; then polished Boules, with a tear in the middle, a crevasse, like the edge of an abyss; then Tiges, long pillars like butchered trees; and Lames and Contre-Lames, branches fringed at the edges or slit, open, granular reeds. In 1987, there is her series, Ouvertures, circles with a hole in the middle and folds around the hold, a gash that seems to offer a potential way through into some ill-defined remoteness. A plausible door onto being.

De Soria. In her work, the statuary is centrifugal. The fields of Plaques are centripetal. There is a centred visual course and a fragmented one, which appeals not just to the eye but to the whole body, undispersed. The sense of her sculpture is not in the sculpture itself or centred on its presence alone, but beyond it, where it opens onto a plurality: the plurality of us.

Claude Bouyeure