The paintings of French artist Robert Combas are excitingly direct and graphic. Like Gary Panter, Raymond Pettibon, and Keith Haring, his work is posed against the heady conceptual art that directly preceded him in the 1970s, creating pieces that maintain a direct connection to popular culture, street life, and supposedly low art forms like comics, rock and roll, and erotica. Nonetheless, Combas is richly linked to the history of art in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
One work that recalls medieval European tapestries, depicts a starry sky filled with dragons, with two ecstatic young men (one nude) celebrating the celestial spectacle. The color palette and vibrant, emphatic lines resemble Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889), with its mix of vibrant blues, yellows, greens, and purples. The painting uses seemingly pre-modern imagery to draw allusions from phenomena, like shooting stars to fantastical beasts and auspicious events. Another painting from 1991 shows imaginary royalty and pseudo-iconographic figures (a man with a cross for a body, a creature shaped like a pyramid, a half-nude Madonna in white). These narrative scenes employ cartoonish figurations to depict rich allegories of contemporary sexual libertinism and exuberance as a righteous moral force.
A painting from 1989 shows a young woman, nude except for stockings and a black belt around her midsection. She sits on a psychedelic, anthropomorphic ground of pink creatures and interwoven red lines. She glows blue, with bright lines radiating from her body. Her face here is reminiscent of similar techniques used by Haring and Pablo Picasso in his late work. The emphasis on graphic impact and bold, unpredictable lines gives the work archetypal vivacity and visual solidity. Another work from 1989 brings that imagery into the present day, setting the main figure against a city skyline. Juxtaposing images of contemporary liberality with ancient hedonism makes them timeless and utterly present.
Indeed, timelessness is one of Combas’s explicit themes in Bataille intemporelle (1988), which shows a romantic young man and woman surrounded by tightly packed cartoon vignettes of mayhem and anarchy. Peace (1989) uses similar composition, with a central peace sign surrounded by birds, licentious lovers, and beasts.
Combas says, “I like to leave traces and drips in my colour. I do not like the effects to be too clean, too uniform or too smooth.” Using bright colors, strong lines, manic energy, and charged figurative imagery, Combas always includes a sense of vitality and action, as well as romantic and erotic themes. The emotions in his work are at least as strong as his colors.