Revelations (in French: here)
New York Exhibition of paintings and sculptures by Jean-Pierre Formica
The face’s wrinkles of painter and sculptor Jean-Pierre Formica, his eyes too, the iconic choice of words and his unexpected way of linking them together let a colorful and poetic universe surface. A desire to make the invisible visible. If his artworks were argentic photographs, Jean-Pierre Formica would be the developer, the essential chemical agent that converts the latent image into one that the eye can see.
Also inscribed on Formica’s face is the force of Camargue’s salty sun, the insatiable curiosity of a man driven by uncertainty, an almost detached look, perhaps surprised by the interest his work arouses, and a polite recognition.
A selection of Jean-Pierre Formica’s artworks will, at last, be on view in New York from September 6 to 30, 2022. Titled ‘Revelations,’ this exhibition juxtaposes recent paintings and sculptures whose teared papers for the former and accumulations for the latter give “form to the formless.”
They “reveal” to paraphrase the artist.
Jean-Pierre Formica was born in 1946 in the south of France to Italian parents. His childhood soul wandered from town to town, from Arles to Aigues-Mortes, the Camargue of the North and the one of the South, each marked by the passage of Caesar’s Rome, then the masters and architects of the Mediterranean basin. Formica grew up in this scorching hot region in the summer and windy in the winter, the land of bullfighting and salt marshes. When his professors attempted to teach him cross multiplication and the geometry of a triangle, the child closed his eyes, glimpsed at curves, assembled colors, and discovered unknown territories. Sitting in the back of the classroom, he had already escaped into an imaginary Tarzan comic book.
“I was seven or eight years old when I had the profound sense of being an artist,” he confided to me as we sat among ceramic sculptures that he had just fired in his Arles’ workshop, and now waiting to be painted and glazed. In the next room, his wife Lisbeth is packing selected works to ship to New York.
As a young artist, Formica draws portraits and nudes; he is also involved in architecture and lets nature inspire him. The salt marshes of Aigues-Mortes soon became a theater of sculptural creation. A whole set of encounters have guided his work, encounters with history and Mediterranean landscapes, and with fashion designer Christian Lacroix and art collectors. Among them, Nathalie and Paul-François Vranken invited him in 2008 to be the guest artist of “SurNature,” an exhibition noted by Beaux-Arts Magazine in the chalk pits of the Domaine Pommery in Reims.
Whereas the Vranken–along with their cellar masters and ‘Maîtres de Chai’–work the vineyards of Camargue, Provence, and Champagne to birth joyful and sparkling wines, Formica confronts his sculptures with the sedimentation of salt from the reddened waters’ Camargue marshes to reveal characters buried in his imagination. Formica similarly superimposes vast sheets of paper he has painted on both sides. His eyes buried in his now tangled colors, he tears up small pieces of this three-dimension canvas, unfolds them, and then appears his ultimate drawing, a view of the world, individuals, or of this Camargue, now bearing his name.
JC Agid: Then came the day when your wife Lisbeth and you decided to add Arles, this small town in the South of France, famous for Les Rencontres d’Arles (an annual festival of photography), and today the Luma Foundation, to Aigues-Mortes and Paris. It is here, in your open-air studio, that we are conversing.
Jean-Pierre Formica: The city of Arles came later than anything else I have done in the region. I was born in Uchaud, a small French village in the Gard region. Then I lived in Nîmes during my childhood. From Nîmes, I went to Paris. When I met Lisbeth in 1985, we came to live in Arles. I had always known Arles. I used to go to the bullfights; I used to party here. It’s a beautiful region, but I had said that I would never live here because Arles is very cold and windy in winter, an impossible coldness.
Arles! This is la Camargue.
I have always known the Camargue, the little Camargue, the one of Aigues-Mortes on the other side of the Rhone River, and the big Camargue, the one of Arles. I wanted to experience it as I live it now. It is a region with artistic antecedents, for example, this original, great artist Van Gogh in the last century, but he was not the only one. It is a rather exciting region, especially in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, a prosperous area with the Rhone, which allowed the commerce of all commodities, even silk. I am very much imbued with this history.
I like burial, I like erasure, I like layers, I like everything that is an accumulation.JEAN-PIERRE FORMICA
It’s also a culture of the south, like the one of your origins?
My father and mother are Italian, from Sicily and Tuscany. So, I was born in France by accident; I have, however, a deeply rooted Italian culture. Ancient Rome had conquered the entire Mediterranean basin and turned its native populations into Romans. I come from this Gallo-Roman culture, and Arles is steeped in this history. These characteristics define me as a character: the colors and the way I approach nature with love, even if I am more a city dweller than a landlubber. The two are actually inseparable from me.
The cities—Nimes, Paris, and thus Arles—inspire you but also do the salt marshes of the Camargue, those of Aigues-Mortes, “intimate” salt marshes, you say.
These are the first ones where the Romans settled to collect salt. For me, it is the crossroads of the landscape, of nature, but also a powerful encounter with water and salt. I once saw the crystalline side of water in a pastry shop in Aigues-Mortes, there was a Berlingot in the window, and I said to myself, ‘this is mine’ as if it belonged to me simply by looking at it.
The marshes of Aigues-Mortes have become your sphere of creation.
The directors of the Salins du Midi in Aigues-Mortes allowed me to work in them. Going there assiduously, I took possession of this crystalline side formed by water and nature. I became pretty committed to them like a farmer, and my training as a sculptor quickly allowed me to become one with the environment that water offered me. I have been experimenting with this kind of process for 30 years, and beyond experimentation, it quickly became an artistic work.
Salt as a material!
The sea is full of salt. When it settles to the bottom of the water, it forms infinitely small or infinitely large particles made of strata thanks to a sedimentation process. This is how I perceive even painting: in an archaeological form.
It is not a simple archaeological research but the construction of archaeology.
Exactly. With my art as a sculptor, there was a work of touching. When I pushed the clay with my fingers and modeled a body or a form, I already knew that the interior action caused me to render a shapeless material to give it an appearance. This is the reason why I called my works for a very long time ‘form-inform’ or ‘landscapes differently.’ These terms were instantly taken up by my ideas and are becoming more apparent in how I look at the city and the world.
That’s how the salt statues came about?
I was growing a garden. I had a space, a one-hectare stretch of water. In it, I planted a whole set of stakes to hold my sculptures. So I went into the water, I went to see if the adventure of the salt and the water produced what I intended to create as a sculpture, and I went just like a gardener might go check his leeks or his carrots.
If humans cultivate and consume nature, you, the artist, reveal it.
The revealing side is essential. I like burial, I like erasure, I like layers, I like everything that is an accumulation. All these terms tend towards the notion of time, of the perception of time, which becomes at the same time almost a material language—since I am going to give it a reality—but also a philosophical one because it is really situated in a thought process. This word ‘reveal’ leads any discussion on this phenology and this peculiarity to approach art.
And you relate this approach to art to your work in architecture.
When I was a professor at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture, I told my students that everything was parabolic. It was mankind that revealed the straight line, but everything is curved in nature. This is what defines infinity. I am not a mathematician but simply an artist, and I immediately realized that the problems are located in a 3D space and not in only one dimension.
There are also your notebooks, your daily drawings, which you share on the Internet. It feels like a necessary breath.
You’re referring to the comic strip I do in the evening. When I come home from my daywork in the studio, I need something like adrenaline to completely unload my head. It’s mental, and it’s instinctive. It’s everything you wouldn’t say, which is said because there is a need to say it and affirm it. And as I have the sense, I believe, of drawing and color, I fill small pages on my notebooks, which do not ambition to be accomplished since it is simply a daily act. In general, it is about 1,000 drawings, 1,000 intentions of images that I aim to create every year. I need to give substance (literally ‘to give body’ in French)—and this is the proper phrase because often, these are naked bodies, they are bodies that are not dressed because these images allow to better express the human in what it is the most direct, to strip it bare and reveal it naked.
This desire to say something through art has revealed itself to you gradually.
When I was a student at Les Beaux-Arts, I painted many portraits of doctors’ or lawyers’ daughters. The bullfighting world also influenced me a lot; it had everything in it: there was aesthetics, color, and death, the three elements that are also fundamental in nature. I especially liked the beauty of the bull; this animal is a wonder.
As with my work, New Yorkers are anchors where each immigrant is at once separate from the other and simultaneously forms an identity of its own, the New York identity.JEAN-PIERRE FORMICA
An animal found in New York, it is now a famous sculpture, the Charging Bull, a symbol of Wall Street. So it is to New York that your trajectory is currently bringing you. Therefore, we are having this conversation here, in Arles.
New York is an undeniable platform to show my work. I’m sure that New Yorkers will look at it differently than here in France, so I’m looking forward to it.
New York, the city among cities. Maybe even a reflection of your artistic research. You have already been there.
For me, who speaks of strata, sediment, and accumulation, I was absolutely seduced by all these little villages, where you meet people of all origins, all kinds of societies. They share New York by fragmentation. And I come from the fractal, I come from the fragment, and my way of fragmenting things and putting them together becomes an identity. As with my work, New Yorkers are anchors where each immigrant is at once separate from the other and simultaneously forms an identity of its own, the New York identity.
So together, New Yorkers reveal something.
Jean-Pierre Formica is represented in Paris by galerie Pierre-Alain Challier
Monographie book published by Actes Sud and video on Jean-Pierre Formica: click here
Expérience Pommery #7 “SURNATURE” in 2008: Click here