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Nathalie Du Pasquier, Untitled, 2016, oil on canvas, 150 cm × 150 cm (59-1/16" × 59-1/16") © Nathalie Du Pasquier

Essays

Nathalie Du Pasquier

Spaces Between Things

By Oliver Shultz, Curatorial Director

Published on the occasion of Nathalie Du Pasquier: Spaces Between Things

“Between the outside and the inside, between the external and the internal edge-line, the framer and the framed, the figure and the ground, form and content, signifier and signified.... ”
Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting

In her youth, Nathalie Du Pasquier once imagined becoming a sign painter—a “peintre en lettres” as she put itworking outdoors, carefully rendering the lettering on storefronts or the sides of cars. Du Pasquier has long gravitated toward places where painting intersects with the built environment, from the signs on the storefronts of Port Gentil, Gabon—where she lived for a year at the age of eighteen—to the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna, which she visited as a child. In her 2015 essay “My Influences,” Du Pasquier enumerates the chain of people, places, and things that have impacted her aesthetic sensibility over the course of her career as if arranging objects for a still life: “Persian miniatures, Ingres, Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Indian temples, Sanchez Cotán, Sottsass, El Lissitzky, Morandi, Giorgio de Chirico and Savinio, French Medieval miniatures, Le Corbusier, the shape of flowers, the colours of exotic fishes, the beauty of animal life, Japanese prints, the albums of Tintin et Milou. Plus,” she hastens to add, “many more things.”

This rich tapestry of disparate influences is woven throughout Du Pasquier’s paintings of the past decade, which have gradually evolved from figurative still-life compositions toward pure abstractions. Since 2016, her paintings no longer depict real objects, instead revealing the imagined spaces and relations between things. Pace Gallery’s online exhibition Nathalie Du Pasquier: Spaces Between Things, on view from June 2 through June 16, 2020, brings together more than a dozen works to trace this evolution in her practice. Two concurrent presentations—the online exhibition Message From My Room, consisting of a suite of new drawings with Anton Kern Gallery and, and Constellation, an installation for Apalazzo Gallery in Brescia, Italy—offer the opportunity to consider the centrality of painting to Du Pasquier’s multifaceted practice, in which both architecture and drawing also play important roles.

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Nathalie Du Pasquier, bright books blue glass, 2003, oil on canvas, 100 cm × 100 cm (39-3/8" × 39-3/8") © Nathalie Du Pasquier

During the 1980s, Du Pasquier was a key figure in the Memphis Group, the renowned Milan-based movement in postmodern design led by Ettore Sottsass. In 1987, however, Du Pasquier put aside her work as a designer and dedicated herself exclusively to painting. For twenty-five years after that, between 1987 and 2012, she painted carefully observed still-life scenes based on arrangements of objects composed in her studio. Remarkable for their crisp and effervescent figuration, Du Pasquier’s still lives evolved to a refined aesthetic exemplified in works like bright books blue glass (2003). The tight brushstrokes and almost beatific quietude of her still life paintings from this period often evoke the existentialism of Juan Sanchez Cotán or Giorgio Morandi, suggesting the transitory quality of material things.

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Nathalie Du Pasquier, A white little construction with 3 colorful pieces, 2012, oil on canvas, 100 cm × 100 cm (39-3/8" × 39-3/8") © Nathalie Du Pasquier

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Nathalie Du Pasquier, Untitled, 2012, coloured pencil on paper, 70 cm × 50 cm (27-9/16" × 19-11/16") © Nathalie Du Pasquier

In the 2000s, Du Pasquier began building three-dimensional wood constructions and using them as models for her compositions. A white little construction with 3 colorful pieces (2012) is typical of these works, which eventually lead the artist toward a new language of abstraction. Appearing to be non-objective, the painting is actually a portrait of a sculptural assemblage that Du Pasquier built in her studio from painted wood elements. That same year, she completed a series of drawings in colored pencil in which, for the first time, she liberated her forms from physical models, creating images directly from her imagination. “Those drawings were the things that pushed me in the direction [of abstract painting],” she explains, “all of a sudden I understood that I didn’t need to do all these models. That I could just go straight onto the paper or canvas.” Untitled (2012) belongs to this group of key works. Inventing form on paper allowed the artist to create geometries “that would never stand” in real life, since, as she puts it, “I’m not so good at building things.”

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Nathalie Du Pasquier, TRAVAIL VOLONTAIRE, 2014, oil on canvas, 100 cm × 100 cm (39-3/8" × 39-3/8") © Nathalie Du Pasquier

Between 2012 and 2016, Du Pasquier continued making figurative depictions of her three-dimensional constructions. Increasingly, however, the models began to be liberated from their relationship to the paintings, becoming sculptural works in their own right. The painting TRAVAIL VOLONTAIRE (2014), for example, pictures a wooden construction involving a plastic first that Du Pasquier created in her studio, and which she later further transformed into a ceramic work that was then exhibited separately as a discrete object in its own right. If these model-like constructions increasingly gained their own autonomous lives as her painted forms meanwhile became increasingly abstract, the paintings themselves were essentially becoming their own models. “Maybe I shouldn’t call it abstraction,” Du Pasquier muses about the visual idiom of her new paintings. “Maybe I should call it constructivism, because it is volumes and things put together.”

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© Nathalie Du Pasquier

Whether abstract or constructivist, this same approach is evident in the artist’s most recent body of drawings, made over the course of three weeks in March of 2020. They reflect her state of enforced isolation during the first weeks of the Coronavirus outbreak in Milan, where Du Pasquier has lived and worked since 1979. Presented as part of her concurrent online exhibition with Anton Kern Gallery, Message From My Room, the drawings are made in colored pencil on blue paper. As the city shut down and Du Pasquier’s existence was limited to life in the studio, drawing provided her a way of passing time in the absence of human contact. “I could not concentrate on painting and I found it more comfortable to sit at my table and make these drawings,” she explains, which “are like little paintings done with colored pencil.”

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Nathalie Du Pasquier, Untitled, 2019, oil on canvas, 100 cm × 100 cm (39-3/8" × 39-3/8") © Nathalie Du Pasquier

There is an elegant reversal in Du Pasquier’s abstractions—whether on paper or canvas—in which the composition ceases to suggest a window on a world and instead becomes a feature of our world. “It becomes raw material for something else, [part of something] which is bigger: the installation.” This focus on installation mirrors the artist’s interest in the frame as a constituent element of the painting itself. The orange border that Du Pasquier paints at the edges of Untitled (2019), a feature of many of her recent paintings, recalls Jacques Derrida’s famous argument that the “truth in painting” resides in the frame. Du Pasquier’s genius is to challenge the frame, to play on it—to “make it work,” as Derrida puts it—forcing us to ask: Where does the work begin? Where does it end? Du Pasquier’s painted frames possess a kind of magic power, a kind of enchantment, that expands outward into the endless telescoping mis-en-abyme of the gallery and its larger enclosing environment.

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Nathalie Du Pasquier, Marmo, 2018, mahogany structure, seat in wood veneer, back in printed textile, 146 cm × 58 cm × 40 cm (57-1/2" × 22-13/16" × 15-3/4") © Nathalie Du Pasquier

Recently, Du Pasquier has returned to designing objects after a thirty-year hiatus from such pursuits. Yet her design objects feel like they belong more to the language of her model constructions than they do to the logic of design as a discipline., There is no “use” for her constructions other than to be models; their forms are strange, borderless, and dysfunctional. They do something, to be sure, but their function is somatic. Arranged with the intent to beguile, they dispel a certain banality from our experience of everydayness—rescuing color, shape, and line from oblivion and offering it for our visual delectation. In Marmo (2018), Du Pasquier creates a chair which is more painting than design object—the canvas merely swapped for the wooden support of the chair’s backing. If it invites the viewer to sit, it is only so as to become physically enveloped in its own pictorial composition.

The dysfunctionality of form is central to Du Pasquier’s “cabin” works, which she has created over the past twenty years, and the latest of which is the subject of her concurrent exhibition at Apalazzo in Brescia, along with a group of new abstract paintings on canvas. The work expands on an idea begun in 2017, when Du Pasquier was asked to show drawings from the 1980s. Reticent at first to exhibit older work, she eventually created Dentro ieri fuori oggi (“Inside yesterday outside today”) (2017), a freestanding architectural pavilion or “cabin,” inside of which she pasted xeroxed images of her design works from the Memphis days. Du Pasquier’s cabin offered a kind of self-retrospective in a microcosm. It was a sculptural environment whose interior contained her history, and whose architectural skin was a new abstract painting. As Du Pasquier put it, the cabin was “to contain inside something from my past and outside, to be exactly what I am now.”

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Left: Nathalie Du Pasquier, TORRE NUMERO DUE, 2020, painted bricks, 293.4 cm × 142.5 cm × 142.5 cm (9' 7-1/2" × 56-1/8" × 56-1/8") © Nathalie Du Pasquier; Right: Nathalie Du Pasquier, TORRE NUMERO TRE, 2020, painted bricks, 234.2 cm × 142.5 cm × 142.5 cm (92-3/16" × 56-1/8" × 56-1/8") © Nathalie Du Pasquier

A similar link between past and present is at work in the artist’s recent ceramic “towers,” which she exhibited at Mutina in Modena, Italy, in 2019. These monumental installations are composed from hand-painted glazed bricks, which become units of form and structure. Not quite architecture, not quite sculpture, the towers are like spatial paintings—the bricks like brushstrokes in three dimensions. Du Pasquier’s towers suggest an architecture of exuberant pointillism, on the one hand, and the decorative sensibility of gridded minimalist compositions on the other. “The brick is an object that I had been representing often when I was painting still lives,” explains Du Pasquier, whose reveres bricks for their purity and simplicity as both ornament and structural form. The ancient and unchanged nature of brick as a technology provided her a metaphor for the very idea of basicness and seriality—as Du Pasquier explains: “The brick is the module par excellence.”

This kinship between painting and architecture in Du Pasquier’s practice goes back to her earliest painting, Viva Pertini (1985), a mural she produced for Denmark’s Louisiana Museum on the occasion of the group exhibition Homo Decorans. Du Pasquier was invited to participate together with the designer George Sowden, her collaborator and romantic partner, who introduced her to Sottsass and the Memphis movement in 1981. Among several other artists in the show, the museum had also invited Keith Haring to create a mural at the entrance of the exhibition. “On the other side of the entrance there was this empty space,” Du Pasquier recalls, “and after a few days I was there and doing what I was doing for the show and they asked: Why don’t you do a painting on the other side? I had never done it, I wasn’t a painter after all, but it was great! So I had this big surface. I went to the color shop. We bought some colors, and I did this painting, which is full of the decorated surfaces that I was using for textiles and carpets.” Du Pasquier’s first painting therefore emerges by way of the built environment—a mural is, after all, a painting on a wall and “very much linked with the architecture, with the space.”

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Nathalie Du Pasquier, Untitled, 2019, oil on canvas with painted wood, 100 cm × 100 cm (39-3/8" × 39-3/8"), overall © Nathalie Du Pasquier

Like her towers, Du Pasquier’s paintings often suggest an aesthetic of stacking: one thing rests or builds or teeters upon another. A still life painting is by definition the accumulation or arrangement of objects on a surface, and so shelving (and stacking) have always been central to the genre. Du Pasquier imports this sensibility into the language of abstraction in works like Untitled (2019), which incorporate sculptural wooden elements stacked above a painted geometric form, together occupying the same compositional space. The result is a kind of spatial riddle of Borgesian proportions, as well as a nod to the history of trompe l’oeil. This stacking, shelving, or nesting of worlds—in which frames proliferate within frames—extends Du Pasquier’s unique approach to her exhibition design. A mode of display is always a potential medium for Du Pasquier—whether pedestal, shelf, or wall.

“Whenever and wherever she exhibits, [Du Pasquier] smells the space and transforms it into a natural setting to host her creatures,” observes curator Luca Lo Pinto. Indeed, there is no such thing as a neutral presentation of her work. When she installs an exhibition, she places her paintings in space as if they were themselves elements in a still life. This was a particular feature of The Strange Order of Things, her recent 2019-2020 exhibition with Pace Gallery in Geneva and Seoul, in which the artist describes having “built the exhibition out of the elements which were the paintings.” The same will be true of her installation for Apalazzo, a gallery which inhabits the ground floor of the seventeenth-century Palazzo Cigola Fenaroli, one of Brescia’s oldest residences. Du Pasquier will also hang a series of small works around the cabin—which is both a support a three-dimensional painting in its own right—thereby constructing a kind of nested gallery-within-a-gallery, which is of course another kind of frame-within-a-frame. Still life, in this sense, remains the essence of Du Pasquier’s approach to creating environments: each painting becomes an object within the larger arrangement.

As a painter who renders the dazzling complexity of simple things, Du Pasquier’s work coaxes out enchantment from forms hiding in plain sight around us. She uses abstraction to invent maps for expanding the possibilities of our seeing. “In the end, installing things and representing them, this is what I want to do,” Du Pasquier concludes, “to create a kind of a scene that doesn’t tell a story. That is silent. In Italian we call them silent life.” She prefers De Chirico’s term vita silente to the more common natura morte because there is nothing dead about her works, she explains; instead, they express the vitality of lived experience. To enter Du Pasquier’s vision is to participate in this vitality, to attend to the “silent lives” around us—to the whispers of seemingly inert and humble forms—because, as the artist reminds us, “painting says something even though it is silent.”

Essays — Nathalie Du Pasquier: Spaces Between Things, Jun 2, 2020