Portraits, vanitas, still lifes, landscapes... Denis Laget embeds his paintings in art history’s classic subjects. A more thorough attempt to list the series comprising this oeuvre, which has been evolving for around 35 years now, yields : portraits, lemons, skulls, herrings, meat slabs, sheep heads, jellyfish, landscapes, flowers, dogs, birds, fig leaves... forming a collection that is both banal and strange, a sort of cabinet of curiosities where nothing extraordinary or spectacular stands out.
Does this imply that the subjects are all random, mere pretexts to paint, meaningless and aimless image-props? This connects to the complex status of subject matter in painting, and requires moving beyond simplistic antinomies, with at one end verbose or “symbolist” (as Claudel put it) representation that relegates painting to the rank of medium, and at the other end an indifference or absolute transparency of the subject as the sole underlying premise of Painting that is regarded as a metaphysical power unable to bend to imagery without compromising and limiting itself. Even artists such as Gottlieb, Newman and Rothko, who went on to become heralds of the aniconic sublime, tackled the issue of subject matter, declaring: “It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.” It is thus worth restating the obvious: a (good) painting is clearly not just a matter of illustrating a theme or anecdote, and yet the subject is never insignificant.
However, although subjects in Denis Laget’s work are not insignificant, they signify nothing. An allegorical interpretation is possible, but remains essentially open, and while it may enrich the paintings, it does not diminish their scope. Associations, evocations and references are suggested, as if dormant or inchoate, but never conspicuous keys into the paintings, precisely because painting cannot be distilled into words, or at least because words cannot get to the gist of it. If there is an enigma, it is one of painting’s constitutive enigmas, not just a simple rebus, and this means rejecting any sort of didacticism that forces its way between the viewer’s eye and brain.