Contemporary art publications — Visual artists in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, France

Jean-Xavier RENAUD

update December 08 2020

By Erik Verhagen
In Jean-Xavier Renaud, Edition Galerie Françoise Besson, Lyon, 2011

Translated by Simon Pleasance, 2015

In 2001, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam held a noteworthy exhibition titled Eye Infection, bringing together the artists Robert Crumb, Mike Kelley, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul and H.C.Westermann. The idea behind the show and the title were intended to demonstrate that, in tandem with the official narrative of the history of American art in the 1960s - the modernist-minimalist fast track -, particular trajectories had been developed (with Mike Kelley's work freeing itself from that chronological framework), which resisted the cult of an “opticality” announced by, among others, the critic Clement Greenbberg and the artist Donald Judd. In addition, the trajectories in question could not be likened to any kind of Pop Art, which was too seamless and too neat and tidy. Otherwise put, those artists did not have their place in an art history that was highly compartmentalized, not to say ghettoized. But nor could they be relegated to the Art Brut pigeonhole. And this in spite of the fact that an exceptional artist like Henry Darger could quite legitimately have been associated with that exhibition project.

The same would have applied to Jean-Xavier Renaud, had he been American and had he worked in the 1960s. The fact is that, in a certain way, the place that falls to him today in the French artistic landscape and life calls to mind that of the afore-mentioned artists, in their day and age. Renaud is nevertheless little concerned with “artistic life”, because the ongoing spectacle offered by this latter in no way replaces “a good jog in the woods with my dog, or looking at some fucking lichen”.1

Renaud, as we can see, is not given to theorization. His goal is in fact a different one, at once modest and immeasurable. Renaud trying to “observe and describe what is going on” and transcribe his observations by way of a highly diverse stylistic and technical arsenal. Yet is he is expressing his points of view ? No, not exclusively, at least, because, like Michel Houellebecq's writings, or Raymond Pettibon's drawings - this latter being  a visual artist with whom it might be tempting to compare Jean-Xavier Renaud -, with Renaud we are confronted by an idea with many meanings, in which different voices are entangled, the array of styles and themes which he draws on being symptomatic of that confusion of issues and concertinaing of opinions for which the artist is a self-appointed spokesman.

It is impossible to sum up his oeuvre. It is generous and multi-facetted, informing an extremely wide iconographic and, as we have also pointed out, stylistic field in which the place earmarked for sexuality is considerable, with the artist, here too, adapting to a mimetic and reflecting perspective, and to the mega-consumption and ordinariness of the sexual and pornographic thing, as hypertrophied by the new medias.  In this respect, the web and the world of video games, not forgetting comic strips, represent quintessential sources of inspiration for the artist. “I play video games a lot, and afterwards I draw. I'm a gamer [...]. There's one aspect of my work that people are not much acquainted with, which is that I've followed the whole development of computer-assisted graphic representation. So you can see how, with the progress of technical possibilities, the method of representation changes, and you can see what choices are made by designers and programmers. This fascinates me. I think my images are very influenced by these data, insomuch as I allow myself to make simple representations. A head is three dots, nothing more is needed. It's a language like any other, I can also use it. What do I care as long as it serves my idea !”

The catalogue of Renaud's works includes still lifes and landscapes, genre scenes and “portraits, not forgetting a few rare abstract compositions. Depending on the case, the artist associates images with words. The pitch may be “serious”, especially in the landscapes, but usually results from puns, obscene ideas, appropriation and hijack, and a schoolboy humour, which all evoke American neo-comedy, in the Farrelly brothers' spirit, Will Ferrell and the excellent series Eastbound and down, whose world and atmosphere call to mind, in many ways, the world according to Renaud. A strange world where you come upon a person ridging potatoes and Bernadette Soubirou (of Lourdes), a brame à poutre2 and an enigmatic double salope on the rocks close to the scie3. This is all absolutely moronic and totally regressive. But it has the colossal advantage of infecting our eye, which badly needed it.


1 - This quote, like the later ones, is taken from the interview of Jean-Xavier Renaud by Julien Kedryna, Collection#2, 2011.
2 - Brahmaputra, pronounced in French, sounds like brame à poutre: brame means a rutting stag's bell and poutre means a beam.
3 - Impossibly translated as a “double bitchsky on the rocks close to the sea (saw)”, where salope means bitch and scie means saw, but sounds like sea, or see.


By Fabrice Hergott, 2008
In Dorothéa von Stetten Kunstpreis, exhibition catalogue, Kunstmuseum, Bonn
Translated by Lucy Pons, as part of partnership between Centre national des arts plastiques and Réseau documents d'artistes, 2019

One may sometimes wonder if artists actually understand what they are doing. I have often been surprised by the contrast between Jean-Xavier Renaud's mild demeanour and his drawings. I was taken aback the first time I saw them, perhaps five years ago now. Little ballpoint pen sketches, biting and vengeful. They look like bad boy drawings – things seen and heard on television, in the street, at the local supermarket, or jokes that one mutters to oneself but dares not share in public. This, combined with quite a variable form of expression that ranges from quick sketches with no artistic intent to very meticulous, almost hyper-realistic pieces of draughtsmanship. These differences in style seem to follow the variations of his thoughts. There is no hierarchy between the scenes, as if they coexisted within an enormous bubble, with the artist as its scrupulous chronicler. One may see it as a picture diary, a collection of notes and meditations, a sort of scrapbook made from whatever thoughts pass through his head, and which one is given to see in various formats and various techniques (ballpoint pen sketches, watercolours, oil pastel or oils on canvas).

The joyous liveliness of his drawings does, however, allow for some darkness. They all rely on a vision of human relationships in which rudeness has replaced politeness and violence replaced indifference, with a jaunty and highly refreshing ferociousness devoid of any sentimentality. While his drawings and paintings do not depict anything one would like to experience (they are basically a faithful description of hell), they do, however, express a sense of freedom and carefreeness that I have never seen anywhere else. There is nothing stuffy about them, nothing politically correct, and yet they remain very lifelike. Like life inside a video game, where one can very easily do things that would be very unpleasant in real life, like killing or dying – heavy and distressing occurrences that the game allows for over and over again, not only painlessly, but also with a certain degree of pleasure.

Style or, to be more precise, a variety of styles, makes it possible to infiltrate not only the ideas one has, but also the ideas one tries to avoid having. In this theatre of the absurd, anyone will recognise the way thoughts segue into one another once they are no longer used in the context of action. In this case, the individual is not the artist, but rather the spectator. Through a curious process of self-erasure, and without any specific indication of how or why, he seems to make way for the subjects that populate his drawings. Perhaps because of the stylistic freedom. These are pictures rife with references to advertising and television, which the artist seems to collect with the placid voracity of a vacuum sucking up dust balls from under a neglected couch. The bubble is no longer a pretty bubble, but a bloated, indifferent and cruel sack.

This results in a kind of waste system located outside of the commercial economy of images, as if the subjects of these works themselves belonged to the invisible world of rejects. They fascinate us and we enjoy them because they relieve us of everything we absorb on a daily basis: beauty as a criterion, politeness, reserve, respect as a quality, silence, and, generally speaking, suffocation. A rabbit caged in a barbed wire enclosure with carrots as pickets is, for reasons I cannot explain, a precise and powerful image of the lives we lead. A portrait whose almond-shaped eyes are replaced by real painted almonds says a lot about the close-mindedness to which images and metaphors keep us confined.

What is unexpected isn't the scathing humour of his works (Sandra Cattini compares him to Willem, the brilliant cartoonist from the newspaper Libération), so much as his way of drawing as if it were the only manner in which to contain the flurry of reality. Jean-Xavier Renaud seldom filters anything out. He indiscriminately reproduces snatches of conversations overheard in the street and the sections of bodies and faces that advertising tries to sell us. All these elements are woven together with cold, technical draughtsmanship, at times falsely naïve and at others meticulous. This level of availability and attention sets his work apart from most others, which often conform to a kind of specialisation, a more or less acute problematic that is hardly up to date, slightly boring, and which ends up letting life fly by like a dreadful and gigantic missed opportunity. In the case of these drawings, there is no time for understanding. Each of them seems to have come a long way and to be headed very far, although none of them, in their details, feels unfamiliar.

And so we let ourselves get carried away on this endless journey, this story without morals in which everything is jumbled together. Private, public, old, and new, yet always linked to the immediate world. A world in which there is no other culture than that of frenzied consumerism and a instinct for survival that makes men (or women) and mushrooms closer relatives than expected, quite willing to devour one another and to be devoured by anything that comes their way, despite no one having a clue as to what this might be. This is, at any rate, what appears in his drawings, which are like symptoms of generalised cruelty, of the fragility of relationships, and even of the extended thread, of the razorblade that runs through life, reality, and all these things that are so difficult to identify. In short, I am not sure if Jean-Xavier Renaud knows what he is doing. His drawings are meteorites flying over our heads without us having any idea of what they contain. Our life? The life of others? Which others? We aren't quite certain of anything anymore.