Gallery: Geneviève Seillé - Essay by Roger Cardinal |
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“Geneviève Seillé: Beyond Reading” by Roger Cardinal

If writing remains one of our most cherished modes of communication, then it is because we associate the effort of transcribing words onto paper with a genuine desire for clarity and contact. Often of course, a person's handwriting is ungainly or crabbed, yet we still attribute purpose to its markings. Messages matter to us, and we are seldom blasé when we trip over a phrase in a loved one's postcard and struggle to disentangle the scrawl letter by letter. What we cannot decipher, we gawp at in bemusement.

Such bemusement remains an essential ingredient in the artmaking of Geneviève Seillé. As a child at school, she fell in love with the sensation of her nib scudding across the paper during handwriting classes. "It was a magical moment", she recalls, "the quiet only interrupted by the scratching and the dipping of pens". Nowadays she will still experience an electrifying thrill if she chances upon a piece of handwriting (as well as certain printed texts). What is unusual about her is that reading comes a poor second to the act of simply gazing wide-eyed at a body of letters: she cultivates bemusement, as it were. For Seillé, a text is first and foremost a visual and indeed an aesthetic entity; its value is independent of its semantic content.

Recent studies of the word/ image interface have demonstrated that this alternative construal of textual formations — a shift of focus from the verbal to the visual — is something which has cropped up very insistently in the artistic practices of the twentieth century. Some of the major references here would be the saccadic scribblings of Henri Michaux, the "white writing" of Mark Tobey, Jean Dubuffet's Hourloupe idiom, the elegant pictographs of Christian Dotremont, and the typographical collages of Kurt Schwitters or Jiri Kolar. And within the realm of Outsider Art in particular, one can cite dozens of creators who exploit the pictorial or 'concrete' aspect of writing, among them Emmanuel Derrienic, Dwight Mackintosh, J. B. Murry, Constance Schwartzlin-Berberat, August Walla, Adolf Wölfli and Carlo Zinelli. I don't think we should expect to find a single easy explanation for this widespread aberration, although most instances seem to involve a steadfast refusal of cultural orthodoxy. In Seillé's case, it may have something to do with the artist's bilingualism, and perhaps with other kinds of vacillation in her life — for she has hesitated between cultures, between countries, between levels and modes of expression, and she seems intellectually most at home within paradox or on the margins.

A couple of summers ago, I drove to the village in south-west France where Geneviève Seillé lives with her husband in a narrow four-storey house pressed up against a steep slope below ancient ramparts. Upon the lofty rooftop perches, turret-like, a tiny wooden outhouse. This aerial lookout is her studio. From its window, the artist can gaze across to the skyline, where clouds cruise along the smudged peaks of the Pyrenees. Local people tell how, during the Second World War, British airmen having crashed elsewhere in France would pass through this place on their long trudge to Spain and freedom. I was impressed by the sense of precariousness: the studio struck me as truly a site 'on the edge', a remote eyrie at the outer limits of the art-world. Somehow was both wobbly and reassuring, an allegory of contrariness.

Inside, Seillé's work-space is just a few metres square. It remains practically unfurnished, with scarcely anywhere to sit down. The white walls announce the austerity of an ascetic's cell. What dominates the space is the presence of the dozen or more drawings in progress, which hang clipped to a wire along one wall, like clothes drying. A tiny framed replica of a Russian icon is set high in one corner. In another, there linger, half forgotten, one or two totemic works which the artist has carved or assembled from rough branches and off-cuts of timber. Among a few natural objects I noticed a section of worm-eaten tree-trunk: its intricate texturing had, Seillé indicated, made her think of some non-human script, all the more beautiful for being indecipherable.

To this solitary workplace, the artist climbs nearly every day, dedicating the whole morning and part of the afternoon to her art, and working uninterruptedly for as many as three hours at a stretch. She possesses no easel, and has few of the accoutrements of the conventional artist. Working at a picture means spreading it flat on the wooden floor and kneeling over or even lying next to it, amid pencils, crayons, scissors, paste and loose papers.

Seillé's way of making pictures starts with an accumulation of miscellanous doodles and drawings, along with material cut or torn from newspapers and other printed sources. Gatherings of irregular segments are then scattered like the fragments of a puzzle, and shifted about the floor until they are judged to have adopted an appropriate position. Separate zones of imagery are then glued together to form meaningful clusters, which gradually cohere with other clusters to make up larger composites. These eventually become conglomerates of roughly oblong shape, often as large as posters. For a long while these may continue to exhibit disquieting gaps, which are filled in only at the last minute. It is as if Seillé secretly revels in their glaring incompleteness.

This creative process is accumulative and generative, and seems the very antithesis of an artmaking based on the diligent refinement of drafts and sketches. And yet the apparent complicity with chaos and irrationality is qualified by the exercise of a more 'reasoned' faculty, though it would be hard to call it intellectual. There is, so to speak, a subliminal agency which monitors what might otherwise seem to be haphazard and uncaring gestures. Gerard Frykman goes so far as to claim that Seillé exercises a strong, if unconscious, formal control over her artmaking, arguing that the work reflects rigorous design principles, even if these are at odds with orthodox notions of symmetry and classical harmony. He writes: "I once coined the expression 'fluid geometry' to try to convey this very strong presence of interlinking and intertwining fields of gravitational influences, rules which govern the structures from within". The notion that an orderliness (or at least a coherence) can emerge out of disarray suggests that the artist is at once wriggling free of convention and straining to assert a new sort of order. Indeed we can say that she is seeking to exploit an alternative way of construing things, to propose a new way of seeing, giddy and challenging. In a letter, she once wrote that "there is a need to reinvent the world, to create your own world".

The imagery of Seillé's recent pictures is likely to strike the viewer as dark and fearsome. Some very large drawings from 1997 are done in an aggressive, scribbled graphite and are referred to as "Carnivorous persons with wings". Other drawings are more suavely finished in black ink on white paper. A set of composite drawings represents portraits of tragi-comic dignitaries, one-legged and with torsos composed of textual fragments and bands of colour. They sport tattoos on their limbs and circles on their bellies. For some reason they also carry telescopes. There is an eerie tautness about these portrayals, as though the figures were deliberate allegorical projections of psychic material. The artist, however, will disclose nothing about their origins, and indeed seems to find psychological speculation irrelevant to her production.

It is typical of Seillé's work that she makes use of multiple components, layered, glued and laquered. "I have a horror of blank paper", she observes. Some of the collages are thickly padded agglomerations which spread outwards like tangled plant-life. Elsewhere, we find austere monsters whose erect anatomies incorporate dozens of segments, like organic cell-structures. Some of these works have a vague resemblance to rough quilting or mosaics.

Many of the earlier works lack recognizable figures; several are reminiscent of maps. At times there arises a forceful patterning, as if there were a need to set limits upon proliferation. Significantly, for a while in the early 1990s Seillé concentrated upon quasi-architectural designs in which façades, windows and niches are subsumed within a busy interplay of surfaces and recessions. She finds that such configurations grow almost without her thinking about them. "Something starts up. A square, some towers. Then, things move." Each segment intersects with the segment next to it, initiating further segments. "I have no idea how it will come out. There is simply this architectural idea which regulates things."

Though a native of France, Seillé spent some twenty years of her adult life in England, living near Lichfield and later in Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire. Despite coping with various teaching jobs and developing her career as an independent artist, she seems never to have fully settled to this country, although I somehow feel she is hardly any more at home in her native land. Perhaps what she requires to fuel her creativity is the very sensation of unsettlement — what the French call dépaysement, a term which is nowadays culturally coded to mean a state wavering between bewilderment and ecstasy. What is noticeable is that, having returned to France for a number of years, Seillé repeatedly harks back to England as the source of everyday experiences which have somehow shaped her understanding of what it means to be an artist. Gerard Frykman once described her as "an expatriate artist continually bombarded with word-forms devoid of intrinsic, internalised and emotional meanings", as if to suggest that a certain cultivation of linguistic estrangement may have been part of the story, at least during her early days in the anglophone environment.

In conversation, Seillé typically alludes to impressions from her English past. For instance, she recalls being fascinated by the foreign phrases on shop-fronts and billboards when she first rode through town on the top of a double-decker bus. She once acquired a brass-rubbing from a church, a male figure with an ancient inscription across it; she also remembers taking a rubbing of the lettering on a gravestone in Stoke-on-Trent. She makes characteristic references to the grimy beauty of industrial cities, and positively enthuses about the graffiti of the industrial North, those lettered annotations which dramatize the in-between spaces of the urban environment.  

One telling memory is of a rail journey she repeatedly took from Burton-on-Trent to Birmingham. As the train slowed at the edge of the city, it would trundle past a kilometre-long stretch of soot-laden brickwork along which processed a whole cavalcade of spray-can graffiti. "The beauty of this wall is that the writing is done entirely in white. It unrolls very fast like a large scroll..." This "white writing" evidently imparted the revelation of an aesthetic and visionary ideal.

Another anecdote also takes place on a train from Burton. Sitting in the carriage, she once watched a man take out a sheaf of light blue sheets, upon which he entered convolutions of figures and shapes with a biro pen. Holes began to open up as he scraped and gouged the thin paper, yet he carried on, producing what was for her a dense and intoxicating palimpsest. 

Seillé maintains a home-made scrap-book which she has dubbed her Scriptionary. It is an album of typographical cuttings culled from a variety of sources, including extracts from old dictionaries, snippets of Arabic, Hebrew or Indonesian typography, crossword puzzles, illegible ribbons of computerized gobbledygook. From this reservoir, she can cull specimens through photocopying and recycle them in her pictures and objects. The texts which she composes herself are typically fragmented and resistant to normal reading, as is the case with the eccentric calligraphies of her "Polygraph" drawings. All the same, I did notice how a single word tends to crop up every so often, like a tiny oasis in a desert of non-meaning. When I spotted the words MEMORY and BLUES, I couldn't help wondering if they were accidents, or whether they carried genuine connotations — of nostalgia, for instance.

But it could be that the whole point for Seillé is to shed the reflexes of normal writing and reading. "In my view, scribbling is very important", she insists. Her inscriptions aspire to the condition of the artless scrawl, if not the uncanny, ethereal fluidity of automatism. "I think I really enjoy filling things in" is another of her comments. Some sort of primordial passion for fragmentation and texturing lies at the heart of her "calligraphic landscapes" or "polyscapes", where, like generations of children adding graffiti to a playground wall, she will scratch and scratch, laying down fresh marks over old.

What may seem odd is that these apparently anti-cultural procedures should give rise to the production of that most culturally marked of objects, the book. Seillé loves making home-made volumes in which to store the scraps she has collected. One of these bears the title Dictionnaire illustré, as if to claim mastery of a whole realm of knowledge outside language. Sometimes the book turns into an assemblage or a box. Many of these mixed-media constructions have the character of reliquaries with hidden compartments, like miniature mazes. One bears the suggestive title Navigational Pathways (Appendix), and Philip Vann has written of this fascinating object that it is "at once a mathematical and a cosmological treatise, a bestiary, a calculator and a masterpiece of exquisitely variegated calligraphy. At the same time, it is none of these things". Secrecy and enigma are of the essence here, and the laquered finish she gives to such works is redolent of some solemn, even ritualistic purpose. Though the artist sometimes dismisses them as "toys for adults", I believe they are nothing less than machines for daydreaming, invested with a thousand clandestine associations.

In common with many marginal artists, Seillé seems to operate under some kind of pressure. Do you feel compelled to create? is the question I put to her. "I can't explain", she replied, then added: "there is a need". It is clear that her work induces a form of creative trance in which she feels suspended, at a remove from normality. She spoke to me of "a world closed off" and tried to explain the feeling: "It's a bit as if one were reciting a mantra... Consciousness drifts away. It is still me writing out all these letters. My body is there, and yet my mind is elsewhere, it's a very curious effect. (...) It is a bit automatic. (...) The work carries on in my head. (...) There are associations which fall into place. I move out from that. (...) It's a funny state of mind; and it's also very tiring!" 

Perhaps it is in the very nature of the beast that Geneviève Seillé should feel unable to lasso it with a definition. What I think she has discovered through her artmaking is that our Western cult of articulacy suffers from very real blind spots, and that there are vital meanings to be grasped if only we can step away from words and sentences and cultivate an unfocused gaze. Beyond the order of the text, as it were, there opens up a free and fecund space, a realm of pure texture. It is rather like the peaceful wood "where things have no names" through which Alice rambles, bemused and blissful, on one of her Looking-Glass adventures. This realm may be illegible but is no less eloquent; its alluring speechlessness may equate with that magical tranquillity of childhood, "only interrupted by the scratching and the dipping of pens".

© Roger Cardinal
August 2000