Erik Desmazières: Imaginary Places

Childs Gallery
Jul 20, 2016 4:03PM

Erik Desmazières’ prints and drawings are fascinating explorations of places both real and unreal. In the artist’s hand, cities, battles, libraries, and various curiosities are all rendered with the same virtuosity of draftsmanship as the Old Masters, but encompass a cerebral twist. With the lines of Dürer, the vision of Piranesi, and a healthy dose of science fiction and fantasy elements, Desmazières captures on paper intricately complex and dreamlike spaces and scenes. Imaginary Places, based on the highly successful exhibition of Desmazières’ works on paper at the Musée Jenisch in Vevey, Switzerland (June 15th through September 9, 2007), celebrates this unique combination of tradition and futuristic vision through a survey of recurrent motifs in the artist’s oeuvre.

Indeed, looking through Desmazières’ prints reveals an interest in several themes: cities and buildings, battles and warriors, libraries and letters, wonder chambers and curiosities, comedies and characters. With each, the artist envisions an imaginary world unto itself. Using an idiosyncratic visual language that draws from the past while looking towards the future, Desmazières creates scenes of civilizations and eras that never were, but certainly feel as though they could have been. Les Roues depicts a cavernous space in which precarious looking beams support enormous stone wheels. The unusual perspective and wildness of the scene recall Piranesi’s Roman Views, while the atmosphere brings to mind the Italian artist’s imaginary prisons (Le Carceri d'Invenzione). Wunderkammer II owes its theme to curiosity cabinets of the past, but it is unlikely that any wonder room ever held the outlandish flora, fauna, and unusual objects found in Desmazières’ imagined chamber. Often playing with books and language, the artist invents twenty-three letters in his etching Alphabet Imaginaire I; though completely unfamiliar, the alphabet looks as though it could belong to either a long lost civilization or the peoples of a far-off future.

The juxtaposition of old and new in Desmazières’ work is visually compelling and intellectually stimulating. In creating these new worlds, the artist provides an almost overwhelming amount of observable information; there is always somewhere else to look, something else to see in a Desmazières print. The artist’s intensive world building, however, also invites a viewer to think beyond the paper and the self-contained scene. In this way, Desmazières’ imagination inspires the audience to consider what else may lie in his vast dreamscapes.

While Imaginary Places focuses on the artist’s more fantastical prints, the exhibition would be incomplete without also exploring the surreal quality imbued in works depicting real world locations. Le Magasin central des imprimés, a suite of seven etchings commissioned in 2013 by les Amis de la Bibliothèque nationale de France, details the vast stacks of the eponymous library as they appear cleared of all books in preparation for a major renovation project. A bookless library shelf is, in and of itself, a peculiar, somewhat unsettling idea, and Desmazières’ strong repetitive lines and emphasis on the vastness of the space serve to heighten the stacks’ strangeness and labyrinthine qualities. Similarly, in Salle labrouste, coté nord, fragment Desmazières joins Pierre-François-Henri Labrouste’s sweeping architecture with his own pared down perspective to present a unique view of the famed reading room. Le Magasin de Robert Capia playfully compares the famed antiquarian’s treasure shop with cabinets of curiosity, perhaps as the artist’s “real world” take on works like Wunderkammer II. In these life-inspired prints, the artist has the uncanny ability to make the world around his audience feel both familiar and utterly foreign.

La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, 1993
Childs Gallery

Born in Rabat, Morocco in 1948 to a French diplomat, Erik Desmazières has been described as “arguably the finest French printmaker of his generation.” After graduating from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris in 1971, he turned his attentions towards the arts, having drawn since childhood. He subsequently studied printmaking at the Cours du Soir de la Ville de Paris. During his career Desmazières has received the Grand Prix des Arts de la Ville de Paris, and was elected to the Société des Peintres-Graveurs Français, where he has served as President since 2006. He is also currently the President pro tem of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. He continues to be a force in printmaking, with solo museum exhibitions throughout the world, including major shows in France, the Netherlands, the United States, and Japan. Imaginary Places marks the third exhibition of Desmazières’ work at Childs Gallery in ten years.

                                                                                   - Kathryn E. Fields

Childs Gallery