Text from the press release of the exhibition « Humaine comédie », Galerie Lily Robert, Paris, FR
Julien Beneyton’s work counters the idea of progress in art. Our current era may consider itself far removed from this very modern idea that goes back to the Enlightenment, according to which irreversible thresholds mark stages in the progress of the human spirit. Yet, contemporary art, like any dominant paradigm, has produced legitimating norms and considers itself as having moved beyond those having preceded it – namely, put briefly, the Renaissance, academic art, modern art, and the avant-garde. We have apparently moved beyond painting as a “window to the outside” with its two correlates of illusionistic space and faithful representational depictions of the world as perceived and understood by common man – unless created, as Marcel Duchamp suggested in a self-portrait of 1959, “with my tongue in my cheek.” Irony should be the constant companion of any conventional approach in art. I dare say all these aspects of painting, as taught since the Renaissance, render Julien Beneyton’s art strictly speaking “classical.”
However, Beneyton’s work is by no means anachronistic. As an artist, Beneyton is
all the more of today in that his approach is truly unique. This is typically contemporary in a world where group attributions have become challenging. Indeed, when was the last artist’s manifesto proclaimed in Europe, announcing a group’s agreement to shared ideas? He also stands out within the contemporary art scene in that he embodies an other culture. He is part of that very long chapter in history which favors continuity, while, since the late nineteenth century, the vanguard has preferred breaching traditions and choosing new beginnings. Beneyton’s approach is also socially remarkable for the way in which it embraces his fellow men’s fates, from which springs this artist’s preference for portraiture and strong narrative content. It’s a matter of telling men’s and women’s stories.
This notion of empathy that underpins Beneyton’s work keeps it far from contemporary art’s self-referential practices, which could be attributed to the increasing specialization of disciplines in modern times, and makes his art a contemporary legacy of renaissance and of popular committed art, in a catch-all category where I would gather the Brueghels (father and son), Millet, Courbet and Daumier, Toulouse-Lautrec, Beckmann, Siqueiros, Rivera, Kahlo, realistic 1930s American art, and the Harlem Renaissance artists, as well as Duane Hanson, Chéri Samba, and others. Put briefly, as a classical artist Julien Beneyton is a humanist.
Beneyton would also like to make sculptures, he says, while adding that not knowing
how, he paints objects instead. That is to say that he covers objects with painted depictions of themselves, thus creating objects that look like they’ve fallen out of a painting (see: BAG Life, 2014). I consider this a sign of modesty faced with objects. In betrayal to an exhibition title by Hektor Olbak and Didier Semin, I would even say, “It is the apples that are beautiful.” There is also a principle of frugality: no need to create existing objects when you can simply seize them. These objects create a sort of short-circuit between an item and its depiction, recalling the fascination sparked by things coated in paint by Bertrand Lavier, with that uncanny feeling of everyday life transformed without sublimation.
Depending on one’s point of view, this may be considered a shortage and deficiency, or proof of the artist’s soundness: he can but paint because painting is entirely his
medium. This is probably why I’m not surprised that Beneyton also works on his paintings’ sides, as his passion for this technique is all-pervasive. This detail furthermore strikes me as being in line with the two aforementioned aspects: his modesty and sense of frugality (not throwing anything away).
Beneyton’s painting shows us that art is not only a matter of space, but also of time
which is a matter of inner perception. The art of painting, in Julien Beneyton’s practice, requires a significant period of execution for technical reasons. But, a painting’s completion also needs preparatory work in which the artist assimilates and digests, to fully endorse all images he re-composes in his completed pieces. This preparatory work includes various phases: meeting the person whose portrait he wishes to make, getting to know them better, making photographs, assembling all images needed for the completed composition, sketching.
Here, this painter’s work is comparable to that of a writer. Julien Beneyton seeks
not only a visual image, but also a story. He assembles narratives in painting using
a set of signs which spatially condense a chronological succession. In Double Y (2015), a young man’s journey is depicted through the superposition of signs from his present (the historic buildings of the city of Ghent), his past (a scene of a Sub-Saharan African city today) and dreams for his future (North American branded clothes he wears in the foreground), making this a painting that requires “reading” as much as viewing.
Julien Beneyton resolutely continues to handle everything himself, not so much
out of a romantic desire or for proof of his signature’s authenticity, but because his
works are founded on the quality of human relations. This particularly struck me in
the portraits of boxer Jean-Marc Mormeck. At first glance, these big black and white
paintings can recall a certain type of realism in contemporary murals. Then again these figures really exude something: the boxer is right there in each of these portraits, so it may have been a feeling of loyalty that made Beneyton opt for this approach which is unusual in his work. I realized, looking at these pictures, that it’s their presence more than their representational resemblance that makes them successful portraits. Depicted subjects can recognize themselves in the painting when the artist seizes what extends beyond the visual and communicates it through the visual. An artist who knows how to do this truly understands his models’ deep identity – their desires, hopes, fears – and is capable of endowing his painting with the empathy he feels.
The scope of the Eye of the Tiger project, of which these paintings are the first
accomplishments, is comparable to a blockbuster movie or a vast litterary saga.
It tells the story of a champion’s return (Jean-Marc Mormeck was twice world champion and this project, inspired by the film Rocky, was to tell of his attempt to return to competition) and aims to bring together the whole past and future of one man in a single series of works. Unlike any narrative derived from photographic snapshots founded on ellipses and allusions, this work is comparable to biblical passion artworks (series of fourteen paintings depicting the passion of Christ and humanity’s destiny) or any work challenging historical narratives. Julien Beneyton summons a human tragedy of monumental magnitude. He could cover walls like the Mexican muralists had done.
In all those portraits, whether of friends, acquaintances, cattle breeders in France’s
Limousin, Mormeck, or in those portraits of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed – “the children of God” – particular sentiments always prevail, namely what Julien Beneyton had felt towards his subjects. In the same way that each painting is a tribute to the Old Masters, they also each give homage to often anonymous individuals to whom the artist lends dignity through painted portraits. This fusion between uniqueness and celebration, life’s banality and its sublimation through pictorial art, lends a throbbing heartbeat to Julien