Painting in its worst form.
Text by Hugo Vitrani.
Painter-ragpicker from the Capitalocene (the age of endless accumulation of capital) and the century of programmed obsolescence, Pablo Tomek has dirty hands. All that the big city has rejected, all that it has lost, all that it has disdained or broken, he catalogues and collects. Perhaps we could say, stealing Baudelaire’s words “He searches through the archives of excess, the limbo of discarded objects.”
Canal Saint-Martin, winter 2016. As happens every ten years, the city empties the canal for several months to clean it up and to reinforce the foundations. A ritual which always unveils numerous mysteries previously submerged in this immense watery Parisian trash can, bordered by yellowing banks that reek of piss and bad wine. Among the prises which delight the press and the Parisians who spy on this clean-up: a skull, weapons, tin cans, microwaves, bicycles, parking meters, electric scooters, chairs and other objects thrown from the banks, at the end of a drunken evening. Pablo Tomek ventures into this ballet of bulldozers and mud, in the middle of the night with two accomplices, boots on their feet and wearing dark grey coveralls and MAPA red gloves, armed with photographic and painting equipment. During this clandestine expedition, the artist and his friends carried out a series of photos of these objects - sometimes painted or collected - which have changed shape or form, which have lost their usefulness during this time of decay in the water. This transitory state of the object’s function is at the heart of the exhibit Nature Morte, presented at the gallery Christophe Gaillard and which stages an immersive landscape reuniting the paintings, sculptures, and photographs. No matter which medium, each work is clearly the product of a painter’s thinking.
Allowing the passage of time to change the form and the use of an object: the idea takes form in Pablo Tomek’s imagination. He originally planned to work on these objects by covering them each day with a coat of paint, during several months. Influenced by the “One Minute Sculptures” of Erwin Worm, this exercise repeated over a long period of time would have permitted Tomek recreate the magical transformation of the objects spotted in the mud, all the while using a method close to that of a workman (Pablo Tomek is particularly interested in workmen’s anonymous and unintentional painting methods of on worksites or in public space). Deforming the object, destroying its function: we come back to the idea of vandalism which was at the heart of the artist’s street work, when he was painting illegally in the public space. In the end, Tomek decides to cover over the objects he has stocked in his workshop with thick layers of rough, boldly thickening the forms, creating a voluntarily industrial and polluted aspect. With these sculptures (sometimes placed on the ground, sometimes suspended), Pablo Tomek thus reveals a sort of urban theatre which renews the genre of still-life. He explains this practice in painting: “here the bicycle has replaced the apple, the Vélib’ and the fan have replaced the ceramic pitcher.” But the concerns are still the same. “We have seen the realm of waste grow considerably larger,” observes Nicolas Bourriaud. Who adds: “The entirety of the non-assimilable comes from this, the banished, the unusable, the useless…. Waste, explains the dictionary, is what is left over when we make something,” reminding us that “since the beginning of modernity, at least since Gustave Courbet - but we can back as far as Caravaggio - diminished/depreciated or devalued designs form the favourite raw materials for pieces of art.” Thus, Pablo Tomek forces painting into a precarious state is incapable of avoiding Bourriaud’s definition: “Art reveals the non-definitive character of the world. It dislocates it, rediscovers it, turns it into disorder and into poetry.”
The limits of reality
Pablo Tomek’s favourite workshop is the street, with which he has rubbed shoulders for years. Much like the Situationists, he regularly drifts away - sending art spinning - and finds himself in the disorder of urban comedy, to reuse the expression coined by the New Realists, artists who (much like Tomek) seemed to use chance as their directional radar.
In his 1982 work Street Art, critic Pierre Restany claimed that Karel Appel’s approach of street reality was “spontaneously intuitive, organic, biological.” Using the Chinese metaphor of Ling Shu, he wrote that “the metamorphic vision of Karel Appel is the product of the circulation of energies and breath coming from his soil, which is urban reality.” An urban reality imagined as spontaneous expressionist theatre. Much like Appel, Tomek’s view is always drawn to what he calls the “far-fetched details, the mystical phases of the city” which appear in dark, hidden corners where no one looks. He captures the image with his iPhone, without worrying about quality, for the memory, for Instagram, for working on later. He explains: “I use an everyday technique. I place myself with a goal in mind. I move, I crouch, but the quality of the photo is unimportant.” Many photos that he then transfers onto an underlayer of paint, a process that causes certain details in the image to be lost, then shreds the image much like Hantaï might have done, slashes the object with random folds like so many cuts of a utility knife in the orange leatherette jumpseat of an RER train. The altered image, looking much like it has been trampled on, is then silkscreened onto a linen canvas recovered with a white underlayer, and sanded. Here again, the painter’s technique is that of a craftsman. In these photographic canvases, Tomek plays with the link between photography and painting, between representation, disfigurement and abstraction. Always in black and white, like a 5-cent photocopy, the image on the screen is life-sized on a yellow background. The colour of France’s 2020 social conflicts? “It’s more of a Caterpillar yellow, with a Kiloutou aesthetic which I particularly like,” teases Tomek, his pupils electric.
Painter-sculptor, painter-photographer, Pablo Tomek is also a painter-painter. This is what he reminds us of by continuing his series of canvases carried out using sponges, taking both their subjects and their techniques from workmen, from whitewash spread on worksite windows, to power washers erasing graffiti in public spaces. Presented “shoulder to shoulder like a frieze” Tomek restates his attachment for these rough writings. Much like amateur and anonymous signs of the street, of which Brassaï said: “Carve one’s name, one’s love, a date, on the wall of a building, this ‘vandalism’ cannot be explained by the simple need to destroy. I see there more the instinct to survive of all of those who cannot erect pyramids and cathedrals to leave their name for posterity.”
Tomek specifies: « Different from my first canvases, these designs and messages are no longer excuses for abstraction, but are reproduced purely and dictate the composition of the work. These signs I use as intrusions in the composition of the pieces have become the subject itself of the painting.” We find here the idea of the printer: Tomek continues his attempt to make a photograph by painting, and a painting using photography. The painter’s technique becomes then quasi-photographic, a post-production scan of the effects, of filters well-established by the artist.
Pablo Tomek has always rejected the label of Street Art to define his work. Widely known today thanks to social networking, the mainstream press, the auction houses, the movement evokes in the collective imagination a sort of bad pop art, kitsch and unoffensive. Pablo Tomek comes from the world of graffiti, an approach that is encoded, sneaky, risky, clandestine. A world where he gained experience by breaking the rules. But the definition of Street Art by Pierre Restany when describing Karel Appel could cause trouble: “(Karel Appel) assimilates ‘street art,’ ‘Throw away Art,’ the art of the street, of rubbish, of objects we throw away, to a metaphoric game, to recreation in recreating. He is modest, because he knows that this game is the very essence of the world: this industrial discarded object, that he ‘treats’ after having taken it just at the moment of collapse of its function state, he takes it from the nothing of obsolescence and raises it to a dimension of completely new, poetic, and human expressivity. He humanizes and poetizes the standard product of the machine, the object that is worn out, used-up, thrown away, lost: it’s the return of the prodigal son.”
With its immersive scenography, inspired by the bulky items that he comes across in the street (and that he has photographed for many years and sometimes even painted in situ), or by the carcasses hanging in the butcher shop, the prodigal son Pablo Tomek seems to remind us that, much like the dinosaurs, fossils, and iPhones, art too is destined to (re)turn to dust.