Felice Varini





Common Places and Particular Perspectives


An inventory of the "figures" that Felice Varini has used to this date can be drawn up quite quickly : broadly speaking, they fall into two categories. The first is defined with respect to a fixed viewpoint : circle or ellipse, diagonal, rectangular or square. Within this group, different constellations are possible : concentric circles, a triple diagonal, a square within a square, an ellipse inscribed in the rectangular format of a mirror, and so forth. The second category is determined by a spectator turning around his own axis, his gaze describing a 360° rotation : a panoramic band, a plane inclined from the horizontal. In short, the perfect exercise ground for a formalist-type approach.

Indeed, it is possible to analyze Varini's works as entities formed of different fragments assembled according to certain laws, as figures then, or as structures. These figures, endowed with very precise properties (in terms of form, color, etc.), can be related to the context in which they are inscribed (the background). Let us begin, therefore, with the most elementary aspects, at the risk of repeating a few things that are now common place . If we beg in at the very basis, might it not be possible to discover other viewpoints, new perspectives ? To carry out different speculations?

Excepting a few works in black-and-white photography installed in outdoor spaces (Tielt, 1987 ; Kerguéhennec, 1988 ; Bienne, 1991), all of Varini's proposals involve the dialectic of part / whole, fragment / totality. To form a whole, the constituent parts must be in partnership, interdependent, structured. Each element is determined by its position in the ensemble, and this position is dictated by the point of view. The image of the whole only becomes possible when someone occupies the point of view; it is therefore a function of the act of perception. This act is not successful, the relation between the work and the viewer is not consummate, until the latter has seen the whole thing!

The fragment always remains an element forming part of a whole; it is never a consciously incomplete work (to be attributed, for instance, to the artist's aphoristic turn of mind or his penchant for "open" forms). In its absolute quest for fulfillment in a whole, the fragment according to Varini is the contrary of the unfinished (the non finito). It will never be autonomous. Though it may be individually perceived, it will never make any sense outside its correlation with the other fragments (thus it excludes all fetishism). It is as if the part bore the traces of the whole, as if the whole preceded the port. In Kantian philosophy, wholeness (Allheit) is an a priori form of sensible and rational knowledge: it forms the synthesis of the categories of unity (Einheit) and plurality (Vielheit). For Kant, wholeness is the perceptible unity of a plurality of elements. The gaze of a person confronted with a work by Varini circulates, oscillates, not only between the fragments and the unified form, but also between the "completed" figure and the space that contains it: the gaze is necessarily totalizing, it concentrates on the synthesis of particular bits of visual information. Now, what are the indices that allow us to perceive a work as a totality? What unifies the fragments?

The striking thing, that which we grasp and retain from these works, is above all the "perfect" form, indeed the figure, more than any specific detail of the shattered contour. The artist actually has a hand in this, since he hesitates to publish any photos that are not taken from the point of view. The classical opposition between figure and ground is based on a very simple mechanism: a part of the perceptual field seems to stand out as a whole, while the rest is attributed to the background. The elements recognized as forms are principally the familiar or regular ones, geometric elements above all. The more these are simple, elementary (circle, ellipse, square, rectangle), the more they "leap out" at one's eyes, whatever the complexity of the background. The figures "come forth" to meet our projective gaze. This encounter is possible because there is re-cognition, identification of the perceived figure with a known, assimilated schema. Shall we say, getting back to Kant, with an a priori form?

This leads us to pose the following question: in what reality does the work really share ? Is it merely a projection ? 1 All that exists are broken lines of color, pointed in an architectural space. My eye is what makes the work, what gives meaning to the lines assembled into a figure and, retrospectively, to each of the Figure's parts. The common clue that allows them to be put together is primarily color! And it is above all the primary colors (plus black and white) that permit these different Fragments to be linked with one another; only secondarily does the trajectory of the broken or twisted lines tend towards a specific figure. Even if the light is not homogeneous throughout the space, 2 with the help of color one will always perceive forms possessing a continuous and consistent (or isotropic) identity. The use of the primary colors is quite fitting in this respect, because these are artificial colors belonging to the realm of the artifact and barely to be found in the real world (both natural and architectonic: the world in which the artist operates). Monochromy creates an optical unity accentuating the separation of the figure and the ground and allowing for the simultaneous perception of all the planes.

Felice Varini makes us believe that the figure appears on a single plane. He attempts to annul depth by enlarging the lines in proportion to their flight into the distance. Binocular vision permits the synthesis of the information furnished by two eyes, notably the perception of depth. Looking at a work by Varini, we automatically close one eye in order to provoke the loss of depth. From the ideal viewing point, 3 we have no means of defining at what distance the figure stands. The circle has no diameter, the side of a square has only a minimal and maximal dimension. The gaze has no precise anchor-point, it must continually adjust, without ever finding its benchmarks. Simultaneous perception of the figure and the ground is impossible. The viewer unknowingly carries out a process of reduction, of abstraction. He must decide on one or the other: standing immobile at the point of view, he chooses the figure; outside the point of view, moving through the space, his preference falls on the background. Varini does not seek to anchor this zoom-effect in photographic or pictorial practice, in the manner of Barnett Newman, for example, 4 but rather to provoke a tension between the local and the overall: or, to use a phrase dear to Michel Serres, between paysage and dépaysement [landscape and disorientation], between rambling and method .

Formal analysis possesses distinct advantages. It permits us to situate the form in a precise temporal perspective: to relate Varini's work with, let's say, research carried out by Brunelleschi or Mondrian. Certain formal analogies invite connections between his optical systems and those used in classical stagecraft. Since the Renaissance, the word "scenography" designates the art of perspective, of the point of view as applied to painting, architecture, the city, or the theater. Sebastiano Serlio revived the classification of stage-scenes developed by Vitruvius, on the basis of the three dramatic genres: the tragic (which unfolds on a monumental plaza), the comic (in a street or marketplace), and the satyric (in nature). In the first two volumes of the Sette libri dell'architectura (published in Paris in 1545), he groups the mathematical foundations of architecture, perspective, and scenography as a single theme. The engravings that accompany these tomes 5 show architectural spaces constructed according to a perspectival schema with a single point of view. The seventeenth-century theater will replace this frontal stage by a system with double vanishing points (views on an angle). As for Varini, not only does he adopt similar principles of construction, but even more, he does so in the same universalizing spirit: his artistic method is that of a generalist who embraces a vast range of aspects, scientific, psychological, philosophical, architectural, urbanological... and, precisely, scenographic. Operating from a transhistorical typology, the artist uses the two most widespread scenic systems: the focused scene that concentrates the spectator's gaze and the panoramic scene that dilates the space and causes the gaze to diverge, entailing a visual scanning and a movement of the head. In Varini's theater, however, the public is formed of a single spectator on whom everything converges (indeed, in the installation photos the scene is always empty of human presence). Little by little though, this spectator discovers that he or she has taken on the role of the leading actor.

Illuminating though it may be, this extremely summary comparison of Varini's procedures with those of another scenographer demonstrates once again that a formal analysis has neither the capacity not the will to grasp the totality of all viewpoints. In fact, it privileges the "ideal" point of view and ignores the shattered vision, the apparently fluctuating, imprecise, chaotic side of Varini's art, the side that constantly escapes us. In short, if one considers the quantity of possible viewpoints, the formalist inquiry "skips over" 99% of the work. Whence the need to develop a phenomenological type of approach, centered on the relations between man and space. How does space appear to us? How do we apprehend it? In this context it is not the work as such that would interest us, but rather the path toward the work, our pathfinding toward the point of view. The study of the figure / ground antinomy would have to be replaced by an analysis of of the process of figuration. Instead of seeing space as the work's support-medium, and the point of view as its alpha and its omega, we should have to conceive a frame within which the work can take place (can take the place of space), and in which the perceiving subject can give up his place, his point of view on the world and let himself be understood in another sort of ubiquity. This approach to Felice Varini's art has yet to be written.

Being unable to consider all the points of view, all particular situations without any attempt at hierarchization, let us at least select two among the multiplicity of possible levels (knowing that we schematize things to an extreme). Varini's work always brings two mutually exclusive spatial forms into coexistence: the second and the third dimension, concrete and abstract space, "real" space and the space of art (of fiction), and so forth. Returning to the comparison with theater, we can say: every scene is an actual and a virtual space, both instrumental and metaphorical. Considering Varini's works both as physical reality and as apparitions, one observes that they do not inhabit the same spaces. The notion of anamorphosis helps us to account For the difference: "The principle of anamorphotic painting involves two imbricated spaces: what is recognizable in one is not in the other. The right form of the representation is deconstructed by the "wrong" ones." 6 In reality, anamorphosis, illusionism, geometric forms, primary colors, all the "artifices" that make up Varini's repertoire are only modes of applying a far more vast design, which could be called "pan-optic"...

But let us return to the terribly simplifying principle of a division into two levels. The tendency of Varini's work to bring two heterogenous (or anisotropic) levels into coexistence con be compared to the relay between two levels of meaning. The work then functions as a metaphor. In the classical definition, this rhetorical figure consists in transporting the proper or literal meaning of a word to another meaning, which only fits it by virtue of a comparison in the mind. For Jacques Lacan, metaphor is the substitution of one signifier for another, such that the latter falls to the level of a signified. In this way, metaphor permits the coexistence of an absent and a present signifier; and in the same way, Varini's figures (!) are based on the superimposition of two signifiers, such that each can substitute for the other - according to the viewpoint one adopts. Thanks to a change in the focus of the gaze, we can condense two signifiers into the figures of the circle, the square, or the 360° line: we can superimpose, for example, "the concrete marking of a space" and" an abstract geometric surface."

Jean Molino very aptly remarks that "...the metaphor comes close to the act of intellection. To pronounce or understand a metaphor requires mental research and the discovery of new relations between things. The metaphor draws us on to the enigma, to the joke..." 7 In the approach to Varini's works - whose playfulness is undeniable - the gradual discovery of the different fragments that determine a figure does actually follow the structure of a rebus : First I am a... next I am a... my whole self is...! Like the person who has "gotten" a joke, the person who has discovered the point of view, who has understood how the system functions, quite simply experiences... pleasure! Sigmund Freud has taught us that pleasure is released by an act of recognition bringing about an economy of psychic expenditure. 8 The pleasure procured by the discovery of the point of view results from that fact that one recognizes the circle, the rectangle, or the diagonal. The immediate, dazzling act of recognition (the Aha-Erlebnis described by Karl Bühler) thus provides pleasure. But the repetition of a joke doesn't make anyone laugh, for the economy of psychic expenditure is no longer operative. In the some way, our discovery of the point of view seems to satisfy us - there is no need to go down the same path again. Once the figure has been re­p;cognized, it is known to us, it is familiar. But Varini's advantage over the joke is enormous: the pleusure of play can be transformed (sublimation !) into an intellectual pleasure, which consists in drawing parallels between what is before our eyes and what is known to art history (perspective, anamorphosis, the primary colors, geometric abstraction, monochromy, etc....), or to ethology, philosophy, psychology...

And there we have it: the passage from spatial dispersion to the readable figure, from chaos to order, in a progressive illumination that recalls what Freud (him again!) called the "dream­p;work" - that is, the passage from the unconscious to the conscious, or more precisely, the introduction of the dream's latent thoughts into its manifest content. Freud describes the unconscious as being a­p;spatial. The dream­p;work is what "changes temporal relations into spatial ones and represents them as such." 9 The dream­p;work favors representation (the creation of a plastic situation), 10 condensation (the fusion of several latent elements into a single manifest image), 11 and displacement (the transferal of an emotional charge from its real object to another object). 12 These three processes of transformation all leave traces in Varini's art, which ultimately refers us to ourselves, functioning as a catalyst that reveals our position "in reality." For the works function as dreams - and "the dream is the theater where the dreamer is all at once actor, stage, prompter, director, author, audience, and critic." 13
Theater, metaphor, witticism, dream: sites wide open to the most varied mechanisms of substitution and transference, places of potentials and realizations. Space - Felice Varini's material - is always another space. Its ambivalent nature lends itself as much to formal analysis as to speculative research: "..for if space is ambivalent, that is no doubt because it is linked to many more themes than initially meet the eye." 14

Of course these questions only apply to the painted works. The photographic pieces present a clearly material character determined by their support medium (waxed canvas of a specific Format), their texture (the grain of the photo) and their color (most often black and white).

2 With respect to the photographic works one would have to say : "even if the space has perhaps undergone a transformation between the exposure of the film and the exhibition (APAC Nevers 1986)..."

3 The ideal point of view is also the privileged point of view : it cannot be occupied simultaneously by another person by a second eye.

4 On this subject see : Yve-Alain Bois "Perceiving Newman " in Painting as Model (Cambridge Massachusetts: 1990) pp. 187­p;213.

5 Also see Hans Vredemon de Vries, Scenographiae, sive Perspectivae (l560)

6 Jean­p;François Lyotard Discours, Figure (Paris: 1974), p. 378.

7 Jean Molino "La métaphore" in Languages # 54 (June 1979) p 7

8 Sigmund Freud Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (Standard Edition vol. VIII) p.l28: the activity of play releases "pleasurable effects which arise from a repetition of what is similar a rediscovery of what is Familiar similarity of sound etc. and which are to be explained as unsuspected economies in psychic expenditure."

9 Sigmund Freud New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (Standard Edition vol. XXVI) p. 26

10 Representation: "On this path... the dream-thoughts are given a pictorial character and eventually a plastic situation is arrived at which is the core of the manifest ´dream-picture´" (Jokes... p. 162).

11 Condensation: "...an element in the dream corresponds to a nodal-point or junction in the dream-thoughts and as compared with these latter must quite generally be described as ´overdetermined´" (Jokes... p. 163). The term "overdetermination" is particularly interesting with respect to Varini's work. The manifest content of a dream or joke represents the overlapping and common end-point of two or more associative (signifying) chains. The overdetermination subtends the work of condensation which is Finally a superimposition of signifiers. Which brings us back to metaphor.

12 Displacement: "This is exhibited in the Fact that things that lie an the periphery of the dream-thoughts and are of minor importance occupy a central position and appear with great sensory intensity in the manifest dream and vice-versa" (Jokes..., pp. 163-4).

13 Carl Gustav Jung L'âme et la vie (Paris: 1963) p. 94.

14 Gérard Genette "Espace et langage" in Figures I (Paris: 1 988) p. 102.

Bernard Fibicher