Passing away in his mid-sixties, Richard Deschênes (1957-2021) practiced an art of fine observation of the world. At the borders of painting, drawing and photography, his works oppose or bring together mechanical processes and the work of his own hand, of his own breath.
The posthumous exhibition The atomist brings together some twenty works, including a series in acrylic and pastel that reveals the specific way the Montreal artist (born in Lac-Saint-Jean) faithfully reproduces images. This hitherto unpublished ensemble, known by the titles Taiwan And Atomists 4, shows disparate scenes, as only a dictionary can bring them together. They are indeed taken from a Taiwanese encyclopedia of the 1960s.
Set up at the Clark Centre, the exhibition is tinged with affection: the tribute is delivered by a collective made up of five members of the artist’s artistic family, including his partner Catherine Bodmer. “We are a group bound by love, admiration and respect for Richard,” reads their blurb.
To accompany the series Taiwan (2014), spread over three walls, the curators have erected, on the fourth wall, a mosaic of works from different periods (1999-2020). This “reservoir” is a window open onto the Deschênes signature: repeated, transformed, pixelated figures and shapes, and a dialogue based on the dispersion of genres, as between Scale 1 And Ladder 2 (2017) — life-size children’s drawings — and See (2013), landscape disappeared under its excessive enlargement.
Every little detail, every little grain, including the most abstract sections, is a matter of patience in reproducing the image before the eyes. It’s as if the artist was trying to learn more, or to appropriate what is totally foreign to him. In the series Taiwan, the scene that brings together two men comes in several tableaux, including one that reproduces and magnifies an almost illegible background. It operates a zoom in the manner of what Michelangelo Antonioni did in blow-up.
Relentless copyist or revealer of not-so-trivial details, Richard Deschênes? Especially an atomist, as the title of the exhibition specifies. The one who, in 2009, created a first ensemble The atomists — he will make seven of them — seemed by this title to display his penchant for a philosophy or a science which designates the universe as a whole composed of an infinity of atoms, of disparate and inseparable elements.
“It is through an atomized vision of the world, the infinite dispersion of images and information that I am interested in the feeling of loss and growing uncertainty in the face of knowledge”, he testified on his website.
The more things we learn, the more we realize all that remains to be learned. Inhabited by this paradox of knowledge, Richard Deschênes bequeathed a rich and intriguing collection whose crux does not revive the useless debate between originality and copy, but tries to fix the in-between, constantly. An exercise always to be repeated. Somewhere, the exhibition invites us to take over. Literally: it’s about leaving with one of the artist’s used pencils placed in a box and continuing his quest for knowledge.