My several visits to Alix Le Méléder in her City of Paris subsidized studio in Tolbiac, in the 13th, began in 2002. She would place a painting on her working wall. I would look at it for a while. I would say très beau, merci. Then she would put up another one. There was always yelling, playing children in the schoolyard next to her building. I asked her if it bothered her and she said non.
Upon each visit I would make my way through leaning stacks of finished works in her two chosen sizes, six-and-one-half foot square and two-foot square, to get to her painting area to see the recent pictures. As the inventory built up around her, the brusque paint applications present in her canvases of the early aughts got slighter and slighter. Then she stopped making work in 2011. By then there were hundreds of paintings completed. She had painted her way through the series and felt that she had said what she needed to say.
In the current exhibition, only her second solo in New York, there are the types of big, commanding, difficult abstractions that are not so common these days. All the better to see them freshly, and this work is of the first order. From the left as you come through the door, the moist, gummy ellipses that hug the perimeters of the first one (Untitled, 1.11.03, oil on canvas, 78.75 by 78.75 inches) is a candied blood red, then the next a very orange one (Untitled, 15.4.03 oil on canvas, 78.75 by 78.75 inches), then a middling red (Untitled, 22.3.04 oil on canvas, 78.75 by 78.75 inches), etc. The strange shapes made me think of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Odilon Redon’s Cyclops eye; the phrase “Tongues of Fire” came to me, I know not from where.
As a painter Le Méléder held on to the most conventional behavioral aspect of the painting practice—that of standing in front of a rectangular support hung on the wall and putting on paint with a brush—but she departed from it in several essential ways, breaking its quasi-language commensurately. Beginning in the mid- to late 1990s, in a migration from her past rectangular verticals, she began rotating her recent square format as she painted
Eventually the painted gestures moved in from all over the field and isolated the single mark as it landed on each middle edge, collapsing its unique character approximately over it, reapplying and obliterating the previous gesture. The only other painter I can think of who so completely problematized the direct gesture of the painter’s hand with equally evocative results is Simon Hantaï, who took the canvas and through elaborate folding devised an indirect, almost authorless but variegated painted surface that resulted after he re-stretched it on the rectangle.
By 2002, and for the next few years (the period represented in the exhibition) there is a trace of the body, counterpointing the disappearing hand, in her propulsive brushstrokes; its byproduct is a halo of spray producing an atmospheric buzz. The brushed mark remains as a slap and a wipe and after many passes, the weave of the canvas dimly reappears in the center, like a bald spot. A residue of hard droplets of dried color collect at the bottom of the painted shape in slight relief.
In Le Méléder’s work, for every action there appears a requisite result of a negation or restraint. The buildup of paint in strictly delimited areas creates a form seemingly hollowed out from some natural process, like tree rings or a succession of solar eclipses, one laid over the other. As the paint marks emigrated to the edges, the resulting blank center took on a glow, like looking up at the inside of a church’s or hammam’s dome. There’s a feeling of the miraculous.
Le Méléder broke apart her embodied knowledge of the painting act in such a way that the other senses could re-enter the arena of expression. I remember her using the word “metaphysical” in relation to the paintings, and also a reference to Van Gogh’s suns. If the performative creeps in, it may have to do with her many trips to India, and the Holi festivals, where bright pigment is flung to disperse evil spirits and mark the end of winter.
So it is important, maybe, in this moment where figuration and content is all, to remember that an abstract painting can have a narrative in how it is made and that aspects of that narrative can produce metaphors that cannot be gotten elsewhere.