Does site specific painting exist? Nicolas Party questions René Magritte

Piero Bisello  -  June 1, 2018

The Magritte Museum in Brussels puts the Surrealist master side by side with his young follower and reveals why Nicolas Party’s painting is so ground-breaking.

Can painting be site specific? Mind you, we here don’t mean frescos or murals, despite the fact that the exhibition under review in this article does contain a mural. We rather mean the paradigmatic painting, that movable artwork often made of canvas or paper, supposedly so self-sufficient that it doesn’t matter — at least aesthetically speaking — if it’s hanging next to a window, or to another painting, or to some dusty wall mould. Or does it? This question kept bugging us while visiting the exhibition of Nicolas Party at Musée Magritte in Brussels.

The very pragmatic idea behind the show was to fill up the large amount of empty spaces next to Magritte’s paintings in the museum, which were empty due to a large number of artworks on loan for Magritte’s retrospective at San Francisco SFOMA. Given that Party made this series of paintings specifically for these empty spaces we started to ponder over the meaning of site specific painting. This was mostly because the relation between Party’s artworks in the show and Magritte’s pieces was so tight that sometimes it was even hard to recognize who painted what. And by relation, one should here understand both a purely formal and an intellectual issue.

In the case of the former, Party’s use of colour and straightforward technique very much resembled Magritte’s technical naivety, yet with an important disclaimer: the classic museum style lighting of the show, with its spotlights hitting the artworks in an otherwise dark environment, somewhat disrupted the beauty of Party’s technique. In other words, Party’s use of pastels, which makes for the artist technical signature and allows him to create pictures that are coarse and gentle at once, was completely flattened by straight beams of light on the works. For this reason, we found hard to appreciate the difference between Magritte’s naive use of oil paint and Party’s technique; and both ended up looking slightly too much like each other. For example, Magritte’s ‘The unexpected answer” and Party’s “Stone fruits”, which are displayed besides one another, they not only share shapes, format, and composition, but a general way of technically representing things on canvas.

As to the intellectual relation between Party and Magritte, looking at their work next to each other illuminated on their common interest for what can be dubbed an “alien everyday”. But what is an alien everyday, and how Party and Magritte instantiate it? Perhaps a fruitful way to approach these questions is to begin by considering what collector and neuroscientist Beatrice de Gelder said about Magritte in a recent interview here on CFA: Magritte can be seen as bad philosophy insofar as its paintings strive to have a clear meaning. For example, Magritte’s “Empire of light” might be taken as pointing to philosophical paradoxes linked to time, or his “Le retour” might be seen as a meta-analysis of what it means to represent in art. We sure agree with de Gelder that if one attempts to analyse Magritte to look for supposedly clear philosophical messages in such ways, these messages appear rather shallow, perhaps even naive like their technical realization into canvas.

Yet we believe that Magritte’s strength, intellectually speaking at least, is to ask the viewer to take the subject of his pictures for exactly what they are: slightly twisted banal situations, charged with genuine sense of humour rather than groundbreaking philosophical claims. This is the alien everyday we were referring to above, which we found so close to what Party depicts in his works. In this regard, we think that Party’s forte is not to load simple subjects with symbolic meaning, so they become heavy carriers of important messages. As he says: “Sometimes when I do a tree, it’s just a tree. But the tree is perhaps the most symbolized object on earth, which is why people love it so much.” Hence, his trees, his snails, his clouds are just what they are: trees, snails, clouds, and if they become something else, this might be because someone looking at paintings often needs to charge them with symbolism or higher degrees of meaning.

Party’s irony here resembles Magritte’s: when asked the question of what all these pictures mean, the most effective way to answer is that they just mean a tree, a person mirroring his back, a snail, a dark night in daylight, a finger, an owl on top of a well dressed man. Nothing more, nothing less. We believe that both Magritte and Party seem to ask for an intellectual break rather than an intellectual challenge.

Back to the idea of site specific painting, after experiencing the aesthetic pleasure (both formal and intellectual) of the two artists in close conversation, the question remains on how much of that pleasure can be experienced when the conversation stops. In other words, will the artworks in the show loose their strength when taken apart? In the case of Party, we hope that the collectors who will acquire these works will take their fruitful site specificity into consideration, and perhaps recreate that aesthetic pleasure of Party conversing with Magritte in whatever place they are  going to be exhibited. Perhaps there is but very little truth to the claim that painting is the quintessential non-site specific medium, and any viewer who is hungry for a more filling aesthetic experience of a painting should also look at what falls without the borders of the canvas with keen eye.