The mechanical glow and savage potion, the sublime sink and the fluorescent drip. A mix between Rothko and Pollock, Guillaume’s paintings are haunting. They are as profound as the oceans and nighttime skies of which they are echoes, and yet youthful, childish, playful. For me, they contain a certain duality, of open-minded modesty and religious spiritualism, which draws me to them like a bat to a cave. Certainly, they can be overwhelming. But they are not vulgar, and they do not seek to jam some message down your throat. No, they expect more - they set the stage for the viewer to engage with them, to play with them, in the same way you might feel stargazing at night, when the cosmos beckon you to wonder. Their capacity for this interactiveness lies in the fact that they meet that balance between ‘message’ and ‘nothing’ which is precisely where I have often best placed Rothko. Indeed, they carry Rothko’s sacredness, and could easily be imagined in his Texas chapel alongside his other work. And yet they are not dead, they are alive, electric, moving; and it is in that I see Pollock.
When I asked some close relatives of Guillaume about the meaning of his paintings, they had little to say other than ‘they look pretty’. And in some sense that’s okay: the paintings are not propaganda, they are deep expressions of very human experiences. They might have no ‘message’, but they do have feeling, life, a story. They were painted by someone who had suffered, who had loved, who had won, lost, been frustrated, been angry, been saddened and overjoyed. Someone who’d lived. And that we see also in the art of Pollock and Rothko, whose action paintings and multiforms have a psychological and intellectual depth that could have only been achievable given such ‘life’. Indeed, it is so easy to get caught up in how beautiful their art is so as to forget the price these artists, in particular, paid. What is this price? One of suffering. I believe that it was the same drive that pushed these men to produce such awesome art that did to self-destruction, alcoholism and suicide, as if they had poured all that was beautiful and alive in them into the canvases they are remembered for.
To pause at mere aesthetics when confronted with such disturbingly profound work is lazy, ignorant and inappropriate. Such a point can be expanded to much art today; one would hope that the general public would cease in its obsession with technical ability (‘my toddler could have done that...’) and look beyond to see the sentiments, thoughts and feeling that lay behind. Technical ability is of only relative importance to the quality of an art piece (relative, that is, to the success of expression). To illustrate my point, many machines today posses much technical ‘artistic’ ability than we - photocopiers can copy better, laser cutters can cut more accurately, some machines even paint finer. And yet there is something about a Schwitters collage (whose exhibition I saw at the Tate Britain), with its imprecise cuts and rough imperfections, that will always win over a perfectly laser cut automatic collage-making machine. Why? Because Kurt Schwitters was someone who lived and loved and lost, and we are drawn to that which most resembles ourselves. Because life is not perfect, is not precise, so what is the relevance of art, if art really is to hold a mirror up to nature, that pretends it were? In that sense, then, we are all imperfectionists.
But the idea of meaning crops up again and again. What meaning? What’s the message? Guillaume’s paintings are both post-modern and primitive, and in that sense are utterly human, honest to their maker’s origins. They carry both the caveman’s yearning for sense, and the 21st century philosopher’s grapple with epistemology. They are primitive, raw and unedited in form, and yet done with modern techniques and materials. This in itself is an ironic reminder of man’s endless and unresolved search for meaning in the debris; this is of little coincidence, as Guillaume himself was influenced, visually, by the post-apocalyptic scenes of the Japanese Tsunami, and the immediate struggle for life following it.
In similar vein to that tragedy is the colour scheme of the painting Blue Moon I, which is the archetypal painting: tentative and yet overwhelming. Why tentative? Because somewhere, not completely hidden, in the overarching darkness, there are glimmers of hope, of white, and pink, and red. Why overwhelming? Because the painting gives you very little, the responsibility is overbearing. The viewer is invited on stage by the painting’s subtle ambiguities, and, in this case, he is free to see the glitter of colour as either the beginning or end of hope, he is free to see whatever he wants, and in that sense becomes an artist along with the painter. It is for this reason that Guillaume, when asked what his paintings ‘mean’, has very little to say: as he said to me, ‘J’ai tout a faire et rien a dire’ (‘I have everything to do and nothing to say’).
Undoubtedly, however, there are moments where Guillaume is trying to express a certain idea, thought or feeling. And yet even in these cases, he does not need to answer the question ‘what are you trying to say?’, for the artist need not deliberately think about such things even if he is ‘trying to say’ something. A writer, for example, will live many years before he writes a book. He might regret his childhood, become married, conscripted to war, win against all odds and in the final count lose against mere improbability… so that by the time he writes his book there are many layers of subconscious memory, which will have been rehearsed, reflected upon, edited, processed over time. So it will often be the case that an author will think for a long time. And then he will stop thinking and start writing. And though little of what he writes will be ‘deliberate’, it will all be him, it will all reveal facets or possibilities of the artist’s being. This is because over time the artist will have been shaped and formed by his experiences to become the tool that expresses itself, reproduces. It is for this reason that Guillaume does not like to have his own paintings in his house: he says that one of him is overbearing enough, he needs not see himself everywhere he goes. So what? So art is inseparable from the artist, because it is the artist. Parts of him anyway.
Guillaume’s art? He layers and layers, and in that sense mimics the subconscious. And then he tears layers away, revealing what is beneath. The best way to describe it would be psychological excavation, and in that sense his questions are: what am I really, underneath it all? What is there, once you’ve stripped all the crap away? His art is therefore practical psychology, therapy even.
His choice of wood renders the entire painting an object, a sculpture, which he can work with, expose, boast and manipulate. In his opinion, canvas artists spend too much time concealing the surface, making us forget it. This, in a sense, makes their art less relevant, for it is detached, it is not part of the world. Rather, Guillaume prefers to use industrial and everyday materials, available at any hardware store. His art is therefore in some paradoxical sense ordinary, relevant and relatable. Because Guillaume scratches and sands away surfaces, the viewer can see the many different layers that lie beneath the ‘finished product’. In that sense, too, Guillaume celebrates not just painting but painting: his works boast the process that is the construction of a painting in their display of the work in progress. This, in turn, feeds into Guillaume’s obsession with authenticity, honesty and integrity.
And so? And so Guillaume’s paintings are honest, if anything at all. Like them or not, they’re the real thing. And we can relate to them. Because of their abstract nature (and Guillaume is in the end a self-professed abstract expressionist) the paintings are flexible and change in meaning as the viewer changes. They are playful, demanding. Their flexibility and emotional profundity are marks of the kind of art that is appreciated for hundreds of years, whose constant relevance to the everchanging and yet utterly static human condition will ensure that they do not become obsolete artefacts of a past time, to be stored in a museum, but works that can be engaged with in art galleries by people that will undoubtedly lead quite different lives that we do at the moment.
Importantly, and this is very important, I would like to finish by saying that I maintain that Guillaume’s art is optimistic. It is optimistic in the way that Beckett might be said to be optimistic, perhaps not because of what is being said (though that is up for debate) but simply because something is being said at all. It is a testimony to the ups and downs of life, in all its shit and glory, the loud exclamation that separates us from the silent animals of the slaughterhouse.