Fabienne Verdier: Rhythms and Reflections at Waddington Custot, London
Before passing Waddington Custot on a wintry morning en route to work at a Mayfair gallery, I hadn’t encountered the French artist Fabienne Verdier. However, after seeing her work exhibited, and subsequently reading about her life, travels and work, I came to realise just what a dynamic artist she is. Twelve large-scale paintings, and one video - all produced in the last year - adorn the walls of Waddington’s Cork Street space in the artist's breathtaking solo exhibition Rhythms and Reflections. Verdier quotes the Mexican poet Octavio Paz in an interview with The New York Times Style Magazine, saying, “Rhythm is not a tempo: it is a vision of the world.” The result of her compositional experiments - upon which I will elaborate - are canvases that draw the viewer in, as he or she encounters Verdier’s paintwork as if it were a complex landscape - a meditative and performative view of the natural world.
The series of paintings on display reflect her travels through China and are a result of a phase of multimedia experimentation which began during Verdier’s time as the first visual artist-in-residence at the acclaimed The Juilliard School in New York in 2014. This time spent in such an enriching New York environment was hugely impactful on Verdier’s work, allowing her to explore a newfound freedom of creativity and inspiration. In fact, a short video accompanying the paintings in the exhibition space explores just this, depicting the French artist painting to music as she both responds to and draws inspiration from the notes and crescendos.
Perhaps it's a little cliche, but arguably justified to describe Verdier as a contemporary Abstract Expressionist. In particular, her technique undoubtedly recalls the work of Jackson Pollock, an intensely physical and gestural process during which the artist is actively engaged in creation and abstraction. It is Action painting, but taken to the next level - Verdier is known for her fascination with the East, having left her native Paris for China in 1985 to explore traditional artistic techniques. In her art, therefore, she combines the meditative force of the Orient, refined over countless centuries and empires, with the radicality of twentieth-century American modernism; painting ‘vertically’ with ink and with self-fashioned tools, brushes, and instruments. There is much theory, thought, and practice in this seemingly random technique. Verdier first went to China in 1985 and ended up staying for ten years. There, she says, she learned ancient traditions of philosophy and painting, and learned to question the representation of nature. In an interview with Studio International, she states that, as a young artist, “my interest was in the question of what life is. Life is movement, and movement is spontaneity. So my question was how to represent the spirit of life?”
The results of Verdier's experiments with alternative materials and processes were a reflective artistic insight into the natural occurrence of rhythm in nature. Inspired by the music she encountered at Juilliard, the large-scale paintings on show at Waddington Custot demonstrate Verdier’s fascination with nature and the natural world. Lashings of inky black paint layered over shades of ochre evoke a reconnection with the natural physical world channelled by the earthen tonal palette. Bold, gestural brushstrokes characterise her work - evidence of the years spent in both France and China where Verdier perfected and explored her techniques. Her work displays an interest in the spontaneity of painting, a ‘rebellious’ departure from traditional Western schools of thought that characterised artistic teaching whilst she was growing up in the 1970's and 80's. Verdier paints vertically, a technique that is part of the legacy of her experiences in China. It is this technique that aligns her to Jackson Pollock, but the reasons for her adoption of it make her completely unique as an artist. In China in the 1980's, Verdier managed to gain unparalleled access to the remaining old Masters in order to learn the ancient techniques of poetry, philosophy, and painting (including calligraphy) that had managed to surpass the Cultural Revolution.
The spontaneity of the works in this exhibition reflect the meditative practice Verdier learned in China all those years ago. Although, she lives back in her native France: these canvases represent her combined knowledge and experience of the unique forces of culture that both separate and unite the East and the West. Painting at Juilliard, in New York, being inspired by music and setting her art to music allowed Verdier to explore Western culture having gained the deep understanding of life that she owes to Chinese teachings. There is a vibrancy to this new work, in the deeply impasto layers of paint and the use of a palette that is not limited to black and white, but punctuated by vivid colours and tones. Although abstracted, these canvases evoke a sense of landscape, exploring the pictorial surface as a whole. Verdier works layer upon layer to build up the paint in a style that perhaps recalls complex musical compositions such as the ones she experienced at Juilliard. She quotes Mexican poet Octavio Paz in an interview with The New York Times Style Magazine, saying, “Rhythm is not a tempo: it is a vision of the world.” The result of these compositional experiments are canvases that draw the viewer in, as he or she encounters Verdier’s paintwork as if it is a complex landscape - a meditative and performative view of the natural world.
Written by Georgia Messervy, a contributor to Arteviste.