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Christopher French

Christopher French
Marsha Mateyka  New Paintings: "Inventions and Recollections"

Washington, D.C.
by Rex Weil
ARTnews, June 2011, p 116

Christopher French makes paintings that are abstractions in the fullest sense.  He records and distills the brilliant palette of nature and makes it intelligible without dampening its inherent mystery.  These new works are based on the landscape in and around Water Mill, New York, where French (an ARTnews contributor) moved three years ago.

Remains of the Day, July 7, 2010 is a chart of thickly painted stenciled circles, each reproducing a color observed on the day specified.  Pinks, coppers, crimsons, blues, and shadowy grays on a yellow background suggest surfaces lit by sunset.   The work is painted on Braille paper mounted on linen, a device that French has long employed.  French’s dots fill the paper’s tactile grid, creating a vocabulary of color.  Since the paper is designed for the visually impaired, a reminder emerges about the limits of human perception.   However, French’s composition is specifically calibrated for our sensory pleasure.

Tracing the Colors of the Sky (2010) features a different, more difficult compositional element.  The Braille grid is gone and the painting is mainly composed of squiggles, the shape of which French borrowed from the top of the “T” in the New York Times nameplate. A tightly woven pattern of these sinuous figures in gentle atmospheric tints is punctuated by a few acid-pink dots, which impart a surprising sense of flux.

A new series of works on paper that French calls “floral prototypes,” bearing such inscrutable names as Dotty Mycropsia (2010), shows amalgamations of real flora. Here, the artist varies his application and choice of materials, from washy watercolor backgrounds to scumbled petal flesh and incised filaments pressed into the paper.  With these paintings French underscores his commitment to the careful notation of nature’s infinite variety.                          --Rex Weil

Art Papers, July/August, 2006
review by John Gayer

Christopher French, Washington

With the revival of interest in the Washington Color School now underway, the idea of showing new paintings made of dots, circles, and squares initially struck me as a way to capitalize on a trend. What better complement to Gene Davis' stripes of the 1960s than to exhibit works echoing Larry Poons' systematic musings, Victor Vasarely's optical effects, or Robert Irwin's hives of dots? But seeing Christopher French's exhibition New Paintings: Contradictory Resemblances [ Marsha Mateyka Gallery, April 8—May 20, 2006 ] changed everything as his lack of compliance with the tenets of such predecessors quickly hit home.

The initial surprises came from the compact size of French's images and the materials out of which they are made. Most of the dozen exhibited paintings were less than two feet square. As such, expectations of any of the effects associated with large-scale works were clearly dashed. Up close, one sees that the composite structure of French's work takes them into the realm of collage–he typically adheres Braille paper to linen or wood panels. The grids formed by the lines of raised dots in the paper also impart an unanticipated tactile quality of the paintings' surfaces, thus suggesting that they may be enjoyed by touch as well as sight.

Standing back from the paintings, one becomes preoccupied with the range of color, the sizes of the circles, and finding a key to the work. The earliest painting, 50-50 Proposition in 3/4 time, 2004, is the only one that offers a literal representation. By means of its title and visual organization, it evokes a musical score. Here, the array of circles implies loops and curlicues that intimate notation or an electronic visualization of sound.

In other paintings, the dense deployment of circles reminds one of the "vanishing" and "transformation" plates utilized in color vision discrimination tests. Such an analogue reinforces the will to find an image lodged within seemingly random arrangement. The inclination to squint arises frequently, but all attempts to decode the visual information continue to confound the viewer. In some works bright tones, such as pink and turquoise, pulse against a monotone background. In others, mottled paint handling contrasts with opaque round forms. Desirable Incognitos, 2006 and My Name is Red, 2005, exhibit color families of yellow and red, respectively. Equivocal references to game boards, maps of star clusters, spray patterns or the punch design on gilded icons may all be made.

Ultimately the paintings force one to see them for what they are: intricate explorations of color, texture, and form. French combines the seemingly disparate forms of circle and square in ways that simultaneously connote harmony and contradiction. The square within square format that founds these pieces is expressed spatially in low relief through the physical layering of components and the presence of prefabricated deformations in the paper. Though the juxtaposition of circles conforms to the planar network, logical arrangements with regard to color or size are nonetheless absent. In contrast to the squares, the color circles express space visually by advancing and receding. Some appear to float in front of the background color. Others sink into it. Bridging the two shapes are the raised dots and the horizontal and vertical brush strokes evident in many circles. The former echoes the rows of circles, the latter evokes the x and y axes of the grid.

It may seem a tedious exercise to analyze the paintings in this fashion, but this is also what makes them so interesting. The ways in which French integrates opposing forms, applies his colors, and uses a text-based material for its visual impact produce a complex visual interplay that enthralls both the eye and the mind.

The Washington Post, April 29, 2006, p. C2
Galleries: "An Aesthetic Dotted with Braille Allusions"
by Jessica Dawson

Blindness: a terrifying prospect for someone dependent on eyesight, such as a painter. Yet for anyone who has wrestled with the burdens of professional identity–and who hasn't?–such a catastrophic loss could pass for an escape fantasy, too. Although I'm sure a host or reasons drive former District resident and ex-Washington Project for the Arts director Christopher French's painting, for two decades he's explored Braille, a language of blindness, alongside issues of identity.

Whereas past canvases found spelling words in Braille, the Houston artist's latest show at Marsha Mateyka shows him limiting his references to the use of graph paper made for the blind. The embossed paper, with its grids made up of inch-long squares defined by raised Braille dots, serves as the base for all of his works in th this show. In some cases, French affixed the paper to linen or panels as a base layer to be painted over. In others, the artist painted directly onto the paper and float-mounted the finished work like a drawing.

When allowed to float freely, the paper's neat, dimpled rows have a life all their own. Smooth paint glides over the bumps, giving them vitality to the surface. Affixed to linen, however, the paper flattens out and seems to drown under French's paint. Its tactility is lost.

French has had a long-standing commitment to abstract painting, and here he acts true to form. The Braille grids offer an array of squares in which he paints variously sized circles–from the diameter of a quarter to a bit smaller than a pencil eraser. His palette is always pleasing to the eye, even when it hews to electric. The variously sized, multicolor dots look a bit like an ophthalmologist's test for colorblindness.

Yet all the references to visual anomalies, from the colored dots to the Braille, seem at odds with French's insistent abstraction. These paintings are pregnant with ideas and questions–about what the blind can't see, what the sighted are blind to, and what we, the gallery-goers, can't touch. Potent thoughts all, but still awaiting further exploration. It's as if two competing interests are at work here: a purist's adherence to strict abstraction alongside a poet's interest in the human condition.

The Washington Post
Thursday, October 29, 1998 section D, page 5


Galleries, "She has Her Data's Eyes"
By Ferninand Protzman,
Special to the Washington Post

Just over a year ago, Christopher French's paintings were heavy on issues of cognition and short on eye appeal. But in his terrific exhibit of new work, "The Picture Makes..." at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, he has succeeded in balancing conceptual, figurative and abstract elements in a way that is engaging, accessible and challenging.

Perhaps the biggest change in the 41-year-old artist's work is the reappearance of the human figure after a lengthy hiatus. The four strongest pieces in the show, from a series titled, "Vital Statistics", each began with a photographic portrait of the subject sitting in front of a canvas on which French made a single, gestural stroke using brown oil paint and a broad brush.

French then took a print from the subject's right index finger, or in the case of"MD", her big toe, since she was only a year old and the lines on her finger weren't distinct. The print was then blown up and painted in white or black oil paint on the photograph, creating a kind of topographical map that obscures much of the subject's face. Superimposed on the fingerprint are the subject's date of birth, Social Security number, race, height, weight, hair color and eye color, all spelled out in Braille.

The subjects include French and his wife, as well as one of their friends and her baby daughter. But the point of these vibrant, multilayered works isn't to make viewers guess who the subject is, but to get them thinking about how imagery can be both seen and read, and how a person can be measured or identified.

The lines in the background brush stroke, for example, could be compared to the lines used to mark the height of suspects in a police lineup. Or they can be seen as echoing the whorls in the painted fingerprint, leaving the subject trapped between the two layers. But listing the vital statistics in a series of Braille-like dots, French turns the personal information into an abstraction for most viewers.

This interplay of distinguishing charateristics and sameness, of visual imagery and encoded text, of the conceptual and the abstract, has been at the heart of French's painting since he found a Braille text on the street in New York a few years ago and became fascinated with the idea of "reading" a work of art by running a finger over raised dots. He began adding enlarged Braille texts to his works, a practice continued in the current show.

Those ideas are reflected in the title of the show, which comes from a quote by Otto Bettmann, the legendary photoarchivist who died in May. "The picture makes the viewer an immediate participant in the event", he once said. "But the ultimate meaning of that event lies in the word".

Words and image are combined with lyrical simplicity in "Fix an Image...Diderot", painted in oil and acrylic on paper. In it, French has superimposed a quote from Denis Diderot, the 18th-century French encyclopedist, on the same kind of sweeping, wavy brush stroke that formed the backdrop of the portraits. But the dots that spell out "Fix and image on the surface of the eye, such that it does not gain assess to the heart or mind, and nothing will be left in it" are arranged in a spiral that vanishes into the heart of the brush stroke, the very place where the image and the meaning intersect.