Italo Calvino once said that his method consisted in eliminating everything that was superfluous. There is a ravaging beauty in a work of art that has been reduced to its essence. The consummate work, like a perfectly cut diamond, is no longer held down by any ballast. It says what needs to be said with the strictest economy of means. This is also the method that Jean-Marie Bytebier uses. He paints and repaints his canvases until there is nothing left that is not entirely necessary. However, in doing so, he does not aim to create a crystalline perfection. By eliminating the superfluous he opens up an infinity inside the image.
Jean-Marie’s paintings constantly withhold their meaning from us. His canvases have an ambiguity that is nowhere resolved because there are no iconographical holds at hand to ground his images. We recognise the sky, foliage, some details that might suggest the presence of birds or even wind, but there is nothing there giving these images narrative content. Treetops seem to have been indiscriminately cut off by the edge of the image. The distance between foreground and background, between heaven and earth, is disrupted because these canvases deny us a human measure to fathom them. The images remain indifferent to our need for legibility. They lack all points of reference. Therefore they take away the possibility of an ending. There is no closure in these works. The viewer who tries to penetrate them is constantly thrown back upon himself.
The absence of visual or narrative closure takes an image to the very edge of abstraction, confronting the viewer with a new question concerning her own point of view, in the sense that she must ask herself where she stands in relation to this image. The viewer is compelled to take the elements in the image and construct her own meaning. She must figure out for herself where she stands, both figuratively (what does the image mean to me?) and literally (from which vantage point can I conceive of meaning in this image?). By constantly folding back upon themselves in this way, Jean-Marie’s paintings generate infinite movement. Constantly shifting, the works retain their autonomy in relation to their audience. This also means that they cannot be consumed in a passing glance. The images demand our attention. Jean-Marie likes to call this the third dimension is his work: an invisibility, something that disappears in the folds of the image.
This third dimensions lies in the fact that the images are not objects, but a dialogue that keeps repeating itself with new variations. This dialogue is at least partly set in motion by the creation of visual hybrids: Jean-Marie brings together elements that have no intrinsic link with each other. If this sounds like alchemy, it is meant to, because Jean-Marie does not bring together incongruous objects in the surrealist way of, say, Magritte. He combines properties. For instance, the blue of the sky will be painted over the hue of skin. The resulting tone is an amalgam of both layers of paint, a new colour that dialectically transcends its component parts. But not just properties create infinite movement in these paintings.
The very instruments of Jean-Marie’s painting are involved in this process. For instance, Jean-Marie does not dilute his colours with clear water, but with rainwater that has turned green in its cup. This brackish water is a carrier of history: during its life cycle it has made contact with many objects and surfaces, sliding along them and picking up minute particles. In using this water to paint, a fetishistic deposit of all those materials occurs in the painting. That way, an invisible infinity is locked inside the materiality of the image. The work is more than the sum of canvas, pigment and water, it is a reservoir of meanings and memories, laden with hidden history.
Window frames are a central motif in Jean-Marie’s paintings. The motif was lifted from a fresco by Fra Angelico in which the image of a small barred window occurred. Jean-Marie integrated this image in his own paintings and started to create variations on its theme. Frames have a double function in his work. On the one hand they obviously frame the composition. On the other hand they look out at what is on the other side of the window. Thus, the frame of the painting and the window frame (which might be the subject of the painting) are very often conflated. The result of this framing is that the image seen through the window is set apart from its surroundings. It becomes an enclosed area that attracts the gaze, a field of vision where the common rules of looking no longer apply because the link with the everyday world has been cut.
But Jean-Marie often paints not just a window frame but the very frame of the canvas. Instead of framing his works, he paints them as framed. And once the frame is painted around the image, he will often open it up again. This is done in a series of canvases called Unfinished in which either the image itself or the painted frame around it are left unfinished. However, this suggestion of nonfinito is itself an illusion, because Jean-Marie has really taken these paintings beyond completion. They are not really unfinished: the Unfinished paintings are finished paintings that have been painted over again to make them look unfinished. The actual image has been covered by a new image that suggests a prepared but empty or unfinished canvas containing hesitant shapes, smudges of paint and lines that halt without purpose.
In making such seemingly unfinished works, Jean-Marie almost refrains from painting. It seems as if he is only handing us the tools with which to construct an image. By stressing the fact that paintings are objects made by human hand, the image-maker himself seems to take his leave. But this is the illusion, for the leave-taking is the image. What these paintings portray, is the halted movement of a painter preparing his instruments and then failing to construct the anticipated image. If any image is to appear, the viewer will have to construct it in her mind from a vantage point she herself is going to have to determine. The gaze only meets its own tools. What it is hoping to see, the finished image that would give it closure, is indefinitely postponed. Jean-Marie paints this postponement. That way, his paintings resemble objects receding into the distance. But there is often a moment when they seem to linger on the horizon before disappearing entirely. It is within this fault-line between the visible and the invisible that Jean-Marie is painting, creating images that halt time and capture the fleeting moment of its disappearance.
Playing with time is a cinematic endeavour. Within the visual arts, painting and cinema seem to be at opposite ends. The painter is condemned to work within a single image, whereas the filmmaker can create endless series of images. This makes cinema very well-suited to narration: it has an element of duration, and duration enables the exposition of elements in time. Painting cannot do this. That is to say: if painting wants to introduce a temporal element, the duration must be condensed into one image. This is exactly what Jean-Marie’s paintings do. Whether they are involving their spectators in an endless circle of meaning or entertaining their departure through fragmentary framing, they always lock us up in the moment. They are an invitation and a task to take time to contemplate the inward infinity of a moment: an elusive lapse in time that is given precarious form in Jean-Marie’s paintings. The third dimension in these works is therefore what it always was: depth. But it is not the depth of the visual field. It is the depth of a moment, digging up infinity. To look at these images, is to defer to time.
Christophe Van Eecke