This is a painter’s painter. You can almost smell the paint, sense its texture, hear the swish of the paintbrush while all the time the eye falls in love with the rich palette. Jean-Pierre Ruel is also a painters’ painter for proudly resting on the shoulders of great artists that preceded him, as well as his contemporaries. This holistic encompassing of Art produces in Ruel’s paintings a dense pictorial landscape with echoes of old masters and art brut. Narrative, powerful, his large oils have a modern feel, engrossing the viewer in the composition without ever overshadowing the very act of painting that gave birth to the work. An audacious colourist, with an almost atavistic feel for visual expression, Ruel was born in Saint-Étienne, France, in 1970. A graduate of École des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, he has created his own style, raw, unencumbered while solidly resting within the demands of what we call good art.
Ruel’s pantheon of figures forms a disconcertingly coherent “society”, as if each personage belonged to the same clan, an imaginary populace, marked by barely defined features, oblique bodies and a prevailing air of melancholy, partly due to the often subdued, earthy palette and partly to their stance. Imbued with profound emotional component, the figures in Ruel’s paintings carry both the weight of the pictorial composition, and that of the human lot. Forming a tight, overlapping huddle, six figures in Groupe resemble shipwrecks at sea, grouped together against a pitch-black background, emerging from, or perhaps hiding behind an abstracted rectangle. A vivid, almost brutal splash of red marks the shirt of one of the figures and spills over onto the face of the one next to him. Fragments of textured fabric, and minimal facial expressions, attempt to define their personalities, but the meaning of this odd reunion remains enigmatic.
Magdalena speaks of that melancholy that marks Ruel’s compositions. Deceptively simple—a girl’s figure, solitary against a dark background, barefoot, eyes closed, her arms tightly wrapped around her body as to be invisible. This is a beautiful painting, pushing into the foreground Ruel’s signature red which accents her skirt and hair, making our eyes dance between the two, until the shadow that lurks behind her appears to move. There is a presence in the dark background, and the girl’s closed eyes could be her way of protecting herself from some unseen menace. Minimalistic to the point of abstraction, Magdalena is also a splendidly contemporary composition, where colour and form are the main players, leaving the girl in the foreground the role of a focal point, a respite of sorts from the mysterious, geometric landscape.
Jean-Pierre seems to have borrowed his colours from Goya, as in the above-mentioned paintings, allowing bold reds to stoically exist next to murky browns and greys. His pictorial virtuosity is best seen in Boite, which could keep the viewer glued to this painting for a very long time. The creative disorder of what appears to be an artist’s atelier hides a plethora of delicious morsels among the many colour patches that make up the core of this large composition. It takes enormous confidence to produce a work of this calibre, disjointed, as it may seem at first glance. The spontaneity and an obvious love for the medium are what attract instantly, and as we delve further and further into the corners of the canvas, and literally into the corners of the studio in the image, a magical world of visual play opens up. There’s a barely visible, tiny bicycle in one corner, and a white fish that could be either painted on the wood floor, or placed there. Many coloured masks lie scattered around, some closer to actual heads, but there is nothing of the macabre in Ruel’s art. On the contrary, there is the joy of painting, and a loving homage to many great artists, and then, there is Ruel’s vision.
Never ask the artist what he thought as he painted. Don’t ask for an artist’s statement, one of the worst inventions of the last few years. It can, and has, reduced some artists to tears. They create. That is why, writing about a work of art, a process in itself, exposes the creator, as much as the viewer, to the alchemy that is art. In Ruel’s case the layers are many, and varied. Emotionally charged, his paintings re- define figurative art, and herald a formidable talent, raising the bar for contemporary art by many notches. Modern, spontaneous, and oh, so painterly, his oil on canvas works are at once visceral and esoteric, the brushstrokes assured, instinctive, the narrative aspect but one of many. Jean-Pierre Ruel’s paintings astound by their complexity, their controlled energy, and the mastery of the medium. They are simply unforgettable.
Galerie D’Este, Montréal