This is the moment when skin transgresses into flesh. French artist Philippe Pasqua’s striking, larger-than life portraits are composed of bleeding lines and bruising reds and blues. Each one depicts a face in intense proximity, eyes closed in a moment of euphoria, or glaring back, ready to take a punch. A self-portrait from 2011 shows the artist scowling through a crimson splatter, lip curled, one eye open. In these works, violence intermingles with sensuality to create a force both repellent and alluring.
Pasqua’s current exhibition at Unix Gallery in New York presents a selection of his monumental portraits, works on paper, photography, and sculpture. In addition to paintings on canvas and mixed-media “palimpsests”—combinations of silk-painting, printing, and painting techniques on paper—the show also features Pasqua’s skull sculptures, titled “vanities.” These works invoke the vanitas paintings of the Dark Ages, featuring skulls covered in gold or silver-leaf, often adorned with lovingly preserved butterflies. Crane Blanc Tatouage, Noir (2012) is a photograph of a blanched skull grimacing through stained teeth, the crown of its head laced with tattoos. These sculptures speak to the brevity of life. Like Pasqua’s paintings, they remind us that pleasure is fleeting, but pain can be enduring.
Prostitutes, transgender individuals, cancer patients: Pasqua has often chosen his subjects carefully from a tight circle of distinctive individuals, yet his brush lingers less on what makes them different and more on what makes them human. Pasqua, who is self-taught, is frequently compared to Francis Bacon and Jenny Saville, but it is Lucian Freud whose words seep through most vividly: “I want paint to work as flesh.” Pasqua wields his brush not to depict his subjects, but to inhabit them.
“Philippe Pasqua” is on view at Unix Gallery, New York, May 7 – June 7, 2014.