Olivier Nottellet's work is haunted by a three-headed ghost which plays with the spaces he passes through (the leaf, the wall, the room). Whether he “summons at times the writer, the architect or the film-maker”, it is more often in the guise of the draughtsman than the spirit that has chosen to show itself.
His drawings are black masses which crumble, rebound, become diffracted, spread and explode. A whole grammar slightly skewed and unsteady, from which at times emerge black-headed characters encumbered by objects, precarious constructions close to collapse, empty frames piled up and disoriented. The drawings first of all inform the space of the white sheet of paper, that of notebooks, which the artist produces and makes use of as material with a view to a future adaptation: “What interests me is to use this matter; I have a cinematographic way of using it, I stroll amid my drawings as if with a camera.” Like actors in a story in the offing, whose place will be the exhibition space, the drawings migrate from the notebooks and confront the reality of the walls; they cling to changes of scale, laugh at doors and windows to provide the replica to objects which look like them and with which they may sometimes be paired. Having escaped from their two-dimensional space, they produce the dialogue of their conjugated and ephemeral presence: their appearance only lasts as long as the show. No camouflage, no effects, for Olivier Nottellet “hates the trompe-l'oeil”, and invites the viewer to observe what happens off-screen, for everything is there to see. The spectre of the film-maker, therefore, but a filmmaker who constructs films without any previous script. [...]
|J.L. : For you setting up an exhibition seems to involve a change of scale: from the sketchbook to the mural. Is this the case for the exhibition you're presenting at La Galerie at Noisy-le-Sec ? In other words, how do you go about not framing your drawings ? Because that's what's going on, isn't it – giving them a frameless existence there on the walls ?
O.N. : My work as a whole is based on a principle of extension and dilation that's related to my obsession with the infinite polysemy of forms. Walls, on the contrary, I see as kinds of buffers, or even promontories, that put a stop to this proliferation and offer a snapshot of the ongoing thought process that underpins my work.
I have a lot of trouble framing the drawings because I can't bring myself to limit them to their function as pictures, even if I do that sometimes. I've always pinned my drawings up so I can move them constantly. This mobility clashes with a frame, which for me remains a viewfinder, tied to the idea of focal distance.
Framing also means cutting short and I make a lot of use of the connection – very common in the cinema – between framing and editing, so as to create dynamics, to generate the unexpected. In my work things are often isolated – mental – so the frame is very important: it lets me set up a zone for dialogue with the viewer. This means the frame also has to contribute to the mobility of the work as a whole. By projecting my drawings onto the walls and having them match certain real objects – office chairs, anglepoise lamps, rolls of paper, etc. – I'm making sure I reinsert the drawings into the train of thought that generated them, into the correspondences between forms, meanings and, sometimes, meaningless things.
When I have to deal with walls – architecture, that is – I enter a larger frame, one that precedes the actual exhibition and is going to impose constraints on my forms. A new situation is taking shape, a hypothesis of meaning that necessitates the subsequent invisible, mute framing the viewer is inevitably going to create. Everything depends on this free zone that I've framed, that I've cut into my work so as to leave the viewer this permanent freedom to reframe.
J.L. : Some of your works, starting with the mural painting Angles, seem so bent on digging into space that they give the wall a disruptive depth. Does this mean your aim is to open a window, as if onto some parallel dimension ? And more broadly, does that make you an illusionist ?
O.N. : I detest "trompe-l'œil". There are no illusions in my work – the opposite in fact. Everything is shown. Everything is there before our eyes. On the other hand, there is a real urge to disrupt our relationship with things, with walls, with conventions. Angles is a good example. It's more a matter of shifting the gaze by guiding it with a vanishing point than of creating an illusion. You have a surface with its own convention: the centre is smaller than the edges, with the hierarchy of the forms creating an effect of distance. But again, it's not a question of creating the illusion of a hidden space, but rather of destabilising the viewer in relation to the convention that orders representation. The wall is flat and stays flat. On the other hand, it's true that your eyes dig into it, the gaze combines with the information. It's not a matter of entering a parallel dimension, but more simply – I almost said more bluntly – of making your way through space, through the vacuum around us. That's why I need black and white, and strong shapes that establish themselves from the outset. Then after a while, and because of the items of information placed at strategic points, the obvious stuff is attenuated, smoothed over, and the visual memory builds a framework that isn't an illusion. It's more a marker, a thread that never stops reminding us that ideas are like us: they collide with reality.
What's more, it's true that disappearance, the void, the cropped object are part of my work. By showing half of something I cause the viewer to activate a memory of forms, of meanings. By reconstituting the missing part, he can access the exhibition or the reasoning that generated it. Illusion is wanting to make people believe in something. But I don't want people to think the thing is maybe there in its entirety; on the contrary, I want them to question themselves about the limits of representation.
J.L. : The exhibition at La Galerie confronts the viewer with a very distinctive layout involving a lot of dead-ends. In addition to which the central core is a windowless, totally inaccessible room. How did you think up this guiding principle ?
O.N. : I'm very interested in the ways gazes and bodies move through space. When I'm setting up an exhibition I visit the venue and try it out physically for myself; then I make a model, and out of all this comes the underlying idea for the exhibition. Beforehand I have a few things in mind – drawings, objects, ideas – and the empty spaces make me combine these things, and formulate and organise them. I place them and I choose their scale, all in the light of my experience of moving through the space; and I do my best to share that experience with the viewer, so that he too can have a real reading of the space. But the true guiding principle of the layout is immersion. The viewer is given a number of clues that are going to affect his sight and memory, and thus his body. At La Galerie, for example, he's going to walk around the extra room, the closed-off one, but he can only check it out with his eyes, because he can't enter it physically.
When I place things, I also include the empty parts, the intermediate spaces; everything contributes to the whole. I want the viewer to leave with images that will go on developing inside him. This is why I also need him to take his time, to be prepared to let things work on him. If you just glance at the central room in the Noisy-le-Sec exhibition – the one I call "The Reserve" – you're not likely to get much out of it. On the other hand, if you take time to look closely at the details, the hypotheses the room contains ultimately take shape. That's a lot more exhilarating. And most importantly, you then discern possible combinations of the rooms. It's not a matter of understanding better, but more of undergoing the experience of instability and of groping towards a line of thought. In this respect it's quite like language: you can stammer, try out a sentence, change it, reach a precise formulation and then realise that no, in the final analysis that's not at all what you wanted to say. I put the emphasis on this kind of movement. Obviously it can't happen straight off. Between trying to understand and really understanding there can be five or six steps, a door, another viewer, another hypothesis. The paradox is that it's the structure that makes instability effective, a little like what takes place between the tongue, the teeth and words.
J.L. : It seems to me that the motifs of your drawings – at least those showing very fluid silhouettes or dynamic objects – give concrete expression to the instability you're talking about. More generally, do you have a preferred visual repertoire – recurring motifs that demarcate your world ?
O.N. : There are certain elements that keep coming back, and evolve; but more than a repertoire as such, what's involved is a way of approaching and dealing with the motifs. For example I love diagrams, plans, simplified representations, the shape of a letter; and my drawings often start out from this kind of ingredient. Then there's a whole connection with what in painting is called "retouching". I return endlessly to the motif, which very often ends up buried in a mass of stuff, in the movement of the brush. To the point where the drawing that started out clear and well defined finishes by struggling in the dark, as if to hide itself there or, on the contrary, emerge from it. The variations are infinite. It's really a continuum : I never make a single drawing, they always come in kinds of bursts.
But in spite of everything there is an ongoing visual repertoire in my work. Something like words that recur, something that accompanies the shifts: the proliferation of tables, lamps, buildings, T-squares, black balls and so on. And the headless figures that help me show a gesture or an action. Slightly absurd things that keep me company, questions that have been spurring me for a long time. The structure of my notebooks is really complex, it's the result of ongoing pressure from both eye and ink. And yet it's not easy for me to mark out my world this way: even if there are recurrent, enduring constituents, they're caught up in a dynamics of absorption, engulfment or fluidity. Just about everything I observe is grist to the mill. And so the subject of meaning has to remain pending; that's the questioning process I'm trying to get at.