La Poulinière – The work process as a work

by Dr. Angela Lammert

White, curved lines of a skeleton on black, cloudy sections of a simple wooden disc between the alternatives YES and NO, which are captured in diagrammatic segments by a circular outer edge wrought in green and white. Or four circle segments covered precisely with black and white paint, the dark sections of which are marked with pair characters and lie respectively next to a bright, blank counterpart. Here too, framed by a colourful edge, a clear red and a subdued green. Figures for time intervals, day and night versions, royal blue rotation loops and filled circles, contrasted with a white circle. Colour possibilities – subdued ochre, pale yellow, bright blue flooded with light – “burst” the circular segments in their geometrical forms, which look as if they have been drawn with a ruler or compass. Terms like poetry, body, start or end can be read on the discs. One can consciously comprehend hastily drawn subdivisions, in the middle of which death raises its delicate hands upward. Or a circular disc serves as a compass, as a mysterious place where there is only east, south or north, but no west. Or it even appears like a hamster wheel, in that the front and hind legs of a mare, angled in a galloping position, are painted, its elongated abdominal form taking up the green outer edge of the circle in delicate orange. The more intensively one looks at the manageable, seemingly easily manufactured turntables, the more surprisingly do the rotating details and the expressive, nuanced and gentle application of the gouache paint open up a poetic “world of choice” – the world of La Poulinière.

The La Poulinierès are both painting tools and painting rules. Valérie Favre speaks of coincidence, of rules of the game. She has established these herself, in order to structure and provide a foundation for options for action for the work process, for herself and others. By rotating the painted wooden disc, the arrow, like with the wheel of fortune, indicates how long the option chosen in this way should continue or which colour choice is prescribed. At the end of the 1980s, work with the La Poulinierè was the starting point of a conceptual painting principle for the artist. To some extent, it was her escape from the need to physically and lavishly dip into the paint with the brush and to counter the trend in contemporary art, in that she replaces painting through discourse and the word and shifts the work into the realm of installation, coincidence and functionality. The term La Poulinière is not selected coincidentally but should instead be understood as a deliberately placed commentary, connoted by feminism, on Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Stoppages étalon. It should no longer be the role of coincidence in relation with measuring and with the rational as a cognitive game, but instead the relation with the paint and the application of the paint that is explored. Each instruction for action with relation to painting is literally “grasped” by the executing hand, physically experienced and transformed. If one can also translate Duchamp’s 3 Stoppages étalon with “stud stallion”, the translation for La Poulinière into English is “brood mare”: the orange-coloured mare may be the embodiment of this idea.

Why, however, did Valérie Favre not exhibit her first La Poulinière at the end of the 1980s, in contrast with the initially described new objects, which more resemble an hourglass? It did not seem to make sense to her to install the “other brush” next to the painted image, and thus the tool next to the work. The La Poulinière is depicted more as a reference in publications, but is not presented, or is only presented at the edges in the exhibition space. In the current exhibition, on the other hand, an accumulation of these newly realised “apparatuses” is at the heart of the concept. At another turning point in Favre’s work, in 2017, she increasingly used La Poulinière for painting. As a rule, drawings or journal-like sketches originated parallel, in advance or in retrospect, which prepare, accompany and comment on the paintings. In 2017, this happened without any explicit drawing translation. Character or notation systems arose, which she developed while travelling with her Travel Poulinière, the structure and rules of which are selected through the handling of a lying disc object.

At the zenith of her black-yellow paintings of the Suicide Series (2003–2013) or with the Le Bureau des Suicides (2020), Favre once again appears to be approaching a turning point in her work. In light of the cycle of darkly shimmering Le bateau poètes (2020), which originated for the most part during the corona period and deals with poets who voluntarily opted for death, what the La Poulinières always were becomes apparent: a reversal of the principle of the small Rotoreliefs (1918-1935) of Duchamp, the fellow player and at the same time predecessor of which, the work Rotary Glass Plates. Precision Optics (1920), was photographically staged in his studio like in a lab. The photographs are not only illustrations of works but works themselves. In their preoccupation with the representation of movement, the Rotoreliefs embody aesthetic test subjects for the departure from painting proclaimed by Duchamp, which is based on the misunderstanding of perspective space founded on the line and not on colour.

In the studio of Valérie Favre, a total of more than twenty La Poulinières are installed on worktables like Rotoreliefs, erected in the vertical in rows of various lengths. Found in another work area of the space are large-format paintings, including the works of the series Le bateau poètes, the brushwork of which stages a deliberately painterly unsharpness. These are juxtaposed with the small format, painted wooden discs with their colours reflecting the palette of the paintings and geometric structuring: the linking of elements that are different but relate to one another as a test set-up. However, this involves a test set-up that takes thinking in colour as its starting point. The orange-coloured female horse, the “brood mare” on one of the initially described La Poulinières,is reminiscent of the fish that Duchamp similarly placed at the lower edge of the disc form on his Rotorelief Nr.5: Poisson Japonais (1935), but here as a symbolic condensation of the geometric spiral form and not as an element nuanced with colour with an expressive attitude in a geometric network. In the concept for the present exhibition, the La Poulinières acquire a significance not previously ascribed to them. Differently than up to now, Valérie Favre places her work process and thus the rules of the game itself up for selection, effectively as an offering to the participants. She transforms the painting tools into a flexible object through the serial installation on a light, flat wooden shelf plinth: The work process becomes the work of art and enables combination with temporarily alternating copies in the exhibition, which are produced not only by Favre. The artist will draw with chalk on a school blackboard installed as a mural in accordance with the choice for her own options for action made by La Poulinière. However, the invited artists will also use them for painting and exhibiting. At the same time, the La Poulinières function as a revealed background for the works shown. They allow the opportunity to slowly fill an exhibition space, to leave it almost empty at the start, just as it is also concealed from the start in Favre’s experiment with the non-colours, her white and black paintings, as a formal principle corresponding with the principle of silence found with Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage. Silence as an expression of doubt in words. The exhibition dedicated to the artist is thus no presentation of her works produced in the studio, but instead a constantly changing constellation of several actors and their works: of haptic and ephemeral images, traces of work and discussion situations in the space.

The exhibition itself thus becomes a work of art, or, more precisely, a lab, the La Poulinière the curator, and at the same time the formative machine. The exhibition can thus be understood as an exercise and an experiment. The focus is thereby on the development and the changing of the principle of the artistic: the process as work. The tool, the La Poulinière, as curator – how should we understand this? To this purpose, let us take a closer look at what is planned. The artist, associated with the theatre, aims at a dramatic staging of the exhibition spaces. The selection principle for the duration of the exhibitor and the place within the series of rooms is provided using the La Poulinière. The foundation for this is the invitation of six artists who work and live in Berlin and are respectively associated with other cultural backgrounds, from Japan through Algeria to Israel. The placement of their works in the exhibition spaces and the definition of the period in which these can be seen is effectively established by the La Poulinière. The prerequisite for this is that the invited artists use it as a random generator in order to situate the works they have selected in advance in the joint presentation or to create them on site. Everything is linked with one another.

This does not happen without setting, and the setting is provided by Valérie Favre. It is borne by the impulse to link everything with one another and keep it in a state of change: the static image is the goal and nonetheless bursts its boundaries, its framings, its positioning on the wall. The exhibition therefore has four different accentuations that refer to one another. The start was provided by the eponymous objects: a number of La Poulinières, the turntables installed in series on several worktables and a large-format panel for works of the artist produced on site, which are deleted, renewed or supplemented and receive their respective orientation through the use of La Poulinière. The view into the main room, in which, when the artist is not present, a “stacked” installation of own seating and table furnishings can be seen, is thereby unimpaired. It is the space for the discussion platforms, for which the armchairs, chairs and tables are used – always with a view of the panel as a place for drawing with the help of the La Poulinière.

The large format of the panel corresponds in the third room with a large-format, black, shimmering canvas oriented to the dimensions of the exhibition wall, which, in contrast with the presentation of a predecessor painting in the exhibition on the occasion of the nomination of the Prix Marcel Duchamp in the Palais Paris 2012, is shown without stretcher frames. The question of the boundary, which is posed in painting with any form of framing of the image, is resolved differently for the “Kosmos“ (Cosmos) theme, thus the title of the canvas.

One asks oneself whether the temporary as an exhibition principle, which is confronted with the static nature and the permanence of the painting, invokes its retrospective dependence on the Italian fresco painting of the Early Renaissance in this mural-like work and combines stationariness and appropriateness for purpose with the transportability of painting. In Favre’s studio, in front of a postcard of Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera (1477–82), is a diagrammatic drawing, the themes of which are, for example, the linking of pictorial elements like clothing, titles, historical artistic positions and questions, overwritten with the brown-red, underlined term “Poulinière”. In the style of the layered application of paint, the process of painting remains palpable, comparable with the monochrome colour elements of the La Poulinière.

The 5 x 6 metre painting Kosmos is largely free of figurative elements and invites contemplation with its changing colour shades and colour textures. Everything is conceivable, everything can be linked, thus also in “Golden Exile”: the theme and the initial idea of the discussion platforms. The co-actors exchange ideas about the respective special goal, which they have compiled at this place for working and which precedes the wish of chosen exile. All are part of a shared universe. “There is no Planet B” – according to Valérie Favre. The fourth exhibition room adjoins with the first room with the La Poulinière objects and presents sketches and drawings that have originated in this context. The works of the colleagues can be shown on the walls in all free spaces for a certain period, just as they have determined themselves with the La Poulinière.

Here, at the latest, one recognises that there is not only the correspondence and juxtaposition of very small and very large formats, a recurring principle beyond the serial approach of Valérie Favre, but also a correspondence of formal elements. The geometric circles, triangles or squares that arise again and again on the La Poulinières, as described at the start, appear to herald the coming theme of the artist. This is also confirmed by a group of drawings in the studio. Her occupation with constructive forms and the painterly overwriting of performative and photographic works in Self-portrait after Odilon Redon, The Fallen Angel (1880) (2017) or Redescription I and II (2018), in which poses and formal languages of the Russian constructivists are addressed with painterly self-stagings, is currently finding its way back into painting via the La Poulinière. The coming La Poulinières not shown in the exhibition thus also assume larger formats as a consequence. The Rotorelief-like discs take on a life of their own as geometric patterns. At the same time, the rotating circular form of the La Poulinière becomes a wheel of fortune.

Coincidence, play, assimilation and inversion of and with artistic roots has reached a turning point in the work progression of Valérie Favre, one at which Duchamp, as at the beginning of her pictorial-artistic work, again becomes relevant as a productive antithesis to her polemic, and at the same time in the sense of an own classification within an art canon that refers not only to painting. Which rhythm results from the random generator La Poulinière and how does it differ from that measurable and the calculation of 3 Stoppages étalon? What and how can I choose? Can this work process become the exhibition and to what extent does it push the door open further than the ironizing of historical sources can do? Is it the role of coincidence that is of interest, or is it not instead more the process of linking that finds its way into the exhibition? When Duchamp was asked about his most important work of art, he answered that the work 3 Stoppages étalon triggered the “driving force” of his future, in order “to liberate” himself with this random operation and occupy himself with the depiction of space on the surface. It is precisely this surface of the painting ground that represents the point of longing in the work process of the artist. It is not the depersonalisation of the line that is of interest but, on the contrary, its subjective, colourful unsharpness. It is not the notation of the process of finding form alone, but at least as much the rhythm of becoming colour through the principle of the La Poulinière, the work process as work, to which the painting of Valérie Favre owes its unique artistic character. The painting is both the instrument and the result of the lab situation exhibition.