Michel Alexis recent works. “Epigrams” and “Rhizomes”

On Michel Alexis website, next to his “Epigrams”, we read: 

« An epigram is a short poem; it comes from a Greek word meaning ’to inscribe‘ and was usually carved on statues, but was also an early form of graffiti on Roman walls.

I try to create visual poetry on canvas; I use signs, symbols, stains, engravings, erasures and imaginary alphabets.

In short, everything that goes beyond the legible word in the act of writing, and which has practically disappeared in the digital age.

On the surface of the canvas, set up like a notebook, I build a thick layer of gesso and paper. Then I draw lines with an engraving tool, sliding or tearing the canvas.

My first impulse is to make marks; then the colour creeps into the folds and tears, leaving transparent veils in between.

The semantic field becomes a ploughed field, with its furrows, puddles, dark rocks and streaks of luminous meadows. »

Michel Alexis, “Epigram 20”, 122 x 122 cm, oil, gel, rice paper on canvas, 2017 (Courtesy of the artist)

On the same website, you can also look at some “Rhizomes”. If you compare the two series, you will notice a fragmentation in one, and a greater unity, let’s say, a more obvious unity related to the semantic links in the other:

Michel Alexis, “Rhizome 51”, 50 x 63 cm,oil, gesso on rice paper, 2021 (Courtesy of the artist)

About the “Rhizomes”, the artist writes:

« In botany, a rhizome is a thick underground stem of plants whose buds develop new roots and shoots, such as ginger, hops or lotus.

The rhizome is also an « image of thought » that emphasises fluidity and multiplicity. The movement of the rhizome resists organisation, favouring instead a nomadic system of growth and propagation.

For me, the idea of the rhizome translates visually as a free association of signs, words, colours, symbols, thus as an image of the unconscious.

Somewhat like automatic writing, my paintings begin with an almost blind process: I make fine cuts with an engraving tool through a thick accumulation of canvas, paper and glue; then the liquid colour will flow through the folds and tears and spread into unexpected spots and shapes.

‘A root is always a discovery. We dream it more than we see it’.
Gaston Bachelard « 

When Alexis talks about “writing”, zooming here and there, it is amusing to come across graphic specimens that really bring it to mind:

If we take into account what the artist writes, we see that “Epigrams” and “Rhizomes” represent forms of writing (“ploughed semantic field”, “image of the unconscious”), writing, adds he, “automatic”, which brings us back to the  unconscious, and that old Surrealist theory which hoped to fracture its doors by putting oneself in the position of writing what was passing instantly through the psyche, or via hypnosis… Remember that the expression “automatic writing” or “mechanical writing” appears in Allan Kardec’s Book of Mediums in 1861, for whom it was a matter of connecting with “spirits”. But I suppose that when he talks about the unconscious, Alexis has more in mind the Freudian notion than that of the Surrealists. Also, if this is the case, I would see more the expression, of course naive, of one of the forms of the unconscious in the “Epigrams” rather than within the “Rhizomes”. For my very modest interpretative part on this subject, the unconscious appears to me as very compartmentalized, with gateways, doors, secret passages, but certainly not as an expanse of a connective fluidity expressed in the “Rhizomes” fashion; and this haphazard connectivity could very well be represented in “Epigram 20” (at the top of the article) by the loops (of “feedback” and “regulation”, as we say in clinical language) and undulations of this reddish line that is found everywhere, in different strength and quantity. Only this ribbon of mental blood has the leisure to go where it wants, or where it can, just look:

follow the geographically diverse areas crossed by this red thread, which seemingly ignore all borders, and plunges, resurfaces, or simply passing through.

Alexis speaks of “visual poetry on canvas; of signs, symbols, stains, engravings, erasures and imaginary alphabets […] a free association of signs, words, colours, symbols.” As a former poet myself, I do not consider that poetry can be, properly speaking, anywhere to be found except in poetry, that is, in writing. There is no such thing as poetry in a painting, nor poetry in a photography, for instance, and if the term is overused in art-criticism (significantly in France), it’s because some are too lazy to try to find another word, another concept. Fortunately enough, Alexis provides other words which, for the most part, intend to “make a sign” (the sign makes sign); and that “speaks” to me more, as here :

we have a form, but one that has been so worked on that it becomes a sign, that is to say, that is open to interpretation (more so than a monochrom area, for example). Let’s call it a “passage key”, as here:

one should not believe that all this is produced at random, even if a part of the unexpected may arise, which is not contradictory.

See, these two semi-circular cuts are surely not the effect of chance, while it may be the case with the glued fold just below forming a V with the cut on the left.

Let’s turn our attention to another “Epigram”:

Michel Alexis, “Brooklyn Epigrams 2”, October 6”, 122 x 198 cm, oil, gesso, rice paper on canvas, 2018 Courtesy of the artist)

Very strange indeed are the paths of creation. How does one come to arrange this and that in this way? A painting, except for postmodernists in general, often “tries” to unite, to propose a single form, which allows for an overall view. This is not necessarily the case with Alexis. Just look at this “Brooklyn Eprigram 2” (Alexis lives between New York and Paris). Of course the eye seeks a totalizing view. Looking at this work, and some of the other “Epigrams”, the idea of collage may come to mind. But that’s not it. Alexis (re)tells us:

“On the surface of the canvas, ruled like a notebook, I build a thick layer of gesso and paper. Then I draw lines with an engraving tool, sliding or tearing the canvas. My first impulse is to make marks; then the colour creeps into the folds and tears, leaving transparent veils in between.”

It seems that in a way Alexis is tracing a history in accelerated form, a history that is yet decelerated as one finds in archaeological excavations, i.e, in layers; but instead of being horizontal, they are here vertical; and this parallel is all the more relevant as one must remember that in archaeology one speaks of reading layers, and it has been pointed out above to what extent the theme of “writing” is prevalent for the artist through his work. It seems, therefore, that he invites us to read and reread a state of affairs which, shall we say, is then “isomorphic” to painting and drawing. But, to follow the thread of postmodern archaeology, his pictorial graphemes, signs, symbols, reminded me earlier (I was afraid to forget) of those insects found in the ground, frozen in amber. Do these signs and symbols, vestiges of a pictorial communication in an already historicized postmodernity, also point to this?

The painter’s work… See, in this detail, everything is measured, at least that’s my feeling, my impression, my thought, all combined. It tells something; it is not only plastic, attractive, “aesthetic”. And it is important to understand that I am not only focusing on some kind of semio-semantic ekphrasis, criticised by Gell (1998), Schaeffer (2004) and Descola (2021), who aim at  replacing the history of Western art with a mono-optic vision centred on “social relations” (Gell), which is only a roundabout form of nihilism, tinged with “à la mode” decolonialism… I want to make this clear, because it seems to me that we are far from having deciphered all that modern and contemporary art (the latter emerging in the 1960s) has to tell us; and there is no question of dissolving this living heritage into a non-sensical universalist horizontality constituted by “social relations”. It is obvious that art enacts social relations within it — made as it is to be perceived by others —, but this is not how the dignified life of an artist begins nor ends in the first place, it is much deeper and richer than a Jakobsonian communicative signal.

Let us end with this fragment of a hybrid writing, indecipherable, within a much larger geographical plastic zoning; a threshold of resistance and/or isolation; a primer maintained in the field of forms.

What I find remarkable in this work is the impossibility of the slightest centring, no axial reference point; the eye bounces from graphic meme to morphic meme, as if we were dealing with a kind of puzzle whose secret agency is held by its author alone. One “falls” on such and such a square, this and that place, and one thinks, while looking:


Refs. Alfred Gell, Art and Agency. An Anthropological Theory, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998 /// Jean Marie Schaeffer, “Objets esthétiques ?”, L’Homme. Revue française d’anthropologie, 170, 2004 /// Philippe Descola, Les Formes du visible, Seuil, Paris, 2021 /// Bruno Snell, La Découverte de l’esprit, Éditions de l’Éclat, 1994


(Physical) actuality of Michel Alexis:


Léon Mychkine

writer, art critic, member of AICA France, Doctor of Philosophy, independent researcher




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