THOMAS TRONEL-GAUTHIER : From density to dissolution

Thomas Tronel-Gauthier was shown at the 55th Salon de Montrouge in 2010. Since then he has taken part in several group and individual shows in France and abroad. Until 14 February 2014 he presented Matière d’origines (The Matter of Origins) at the Galerie Saint-Séverin in Paris then from January to May he was offered a creative residency at the Yvetot agrofood vocational school in partnership with the Galerie Duchamp.

No doubt as a child he must have received as a gift the Perfect Little Alchemist Set. Indeed, ever since Thomas Tronel-Gauthier has been practicing experiments on matter, any kind of matter. His Paris studio is probably more like a melting pot where polyester foam volcanic sand, colourful candy, tiger balm and a jumble of resins are mixed and smelted. But the young artist, born in 1982, is not interested in changing lead into gold, his pursuits are elsewhere and though more modest they are still essential. 

His work turns nature into artifice, the instant into eternity. His taste for tinkering with matter stems from roaming the studios at the Strasbourg Decorative Art School where he was trained and learned to handle, right from the start, wood, ceramics and metal. However, it was another aspect that drew the attention of the Salon de Montrouge, where he was shown in 2010: the sculptures he produced using elements normally found in kitchens that he re-appropriates with his poetic touch. Thus he scored a tree trunk with the type of red paste used for making sweets and hung fake fruit, actually candies, onto a real raspberry bush. He sometimes also uses gelatin. By gluing transparent squares onto the window panes, he tampers with our perception of the landscape thus composing a nicely myopic stained glass effect, “a skin which becomes alive with sounds as it retracts”. 

Still the young man is not at all limited to culinary elements. He rapidly broadens his scope, starts fossilizing sponges and even manages to capture in paint the fog lacing the bay of Ha Long. “In fact, what I am interested in are the cycles of life, shaping deforming and reforming what has been destroyed”, he explains. Whether at the Villa Cameline in Nice or the Centre d’art de Clamart, he challenges the fleeting instant: the lines left by the tide on a sandy beach, even the wave itself. Thanks to a sophisticated moulding technique, he is able to reproduce elusive landscapes. They become, under his touch, fragments of dark waves, or again a wave captured as it is swelling within an old fashioned bathtub. 
Unsurprisingly, his art bloomed during his three-month residency in the Marquesas Islands last year. Of Gauguin’s paradise he discovered the sad truth: a society seduced by the all-American, stripped of any original identity, a priori. However he probes deeper, hangs around, observes the children he organises a workshop for, and learns the ancestral technique of tapa bark cloth, studies the phallic shapes of the kitchen pestles carved from local lava rock, listens to hopes of renewing ties with the original culture. Then his work takes a turn. With the video, medium yet unknown to him, he captures the graceful beauty of the waters where the amphibious “sirens” – as an endemic fish is called locally – live, clinging to their rocks between sea and air. His photographs freeze the sudden impact of a wave on the black sand. But most of all, he reflects upon the ultimate taboo for these prudish – thanks to evangelization – islands: the consequences of the nuclear tests at Mururoa. He witnesses the unspoken words of some of the many cancer patients. And then, after his initial sculptures representing algae lacework carved in Japanese packing polystyrene, he begins engraving the carefully kept unmentioned nuclear mushrooms on the mother-of-pearl oyster shells. As Gauguin did, he questions the legitimacy of our presence on these islands while actually changing profoundly. 
Clearly it is not by chance that his works speak of transition, the passage from density to dissolution: our contemporary paradises are they not made of such unstable matter.

Emmanuelle Lequeux

Published in The Art Daily News (december 13th 2013) and in the 59th Salon de Montrouge catalogue (May 2014)

Concealed patterns and soft explosions: Thomas Tronel-Gauthier’s biomorphic records

Thomas Tronel-Gauthier’s artistic trajectory emerges over time, like a wake trailing out across the water’s surface. A subtle motion printed alternately in recessed form and in relief by liquid, unfurling and subsiding until it recovers its original vibrant flatness, this phenomenon is one illustration among many of the small ordinary manifestations of matter’s movement. It is these shapes structured in patterns, these traces born from the meeting of the solid, liquid and gaseous particles disseminated in nature that are central to this artist’s delicate approach. Delicacy is undeniably one of the main features of his work—it can be found, for example, in the sensitivity with which he pays homage to a simple tree leaf and the fascinating harmony in the formation of its veins. 

Open air and full matter

The series titled The Last Piece of Wasteland is composed of mouldings made directly on the ground, reproducing the designs printed upon the sand by the North Sea as it retreats, allowing a wet beach with sinuous relief to appear at low tide. These reproductions in the form of fragmentary plates seem to fuse the ephemeral and the eternal, incarnated here by these formations that are fated to disappear and reappear, simultaneously other and similar, punctuated by the incessant cycle of the tides. Although the shape is reproduced identically, the colour applied to the resin is much darker than sand, introducing a strong visual contrast since the effect obtained is reminiscent of volcanic rock or even tar after solidification. Oil spill or scorched earth—disaster does not seem far off. This is at least what is suggested by the title, The Last Piece of Wasteland: a mysterious disappearance is about to occur. But what is the “wasteland” in question? In this strange scenario, “when the sea rises” (1) it is sand that flows in and transforms the enamelled bathrooms of yesteryear into domestic deserts. This dreamlike vision alternately summons uneasiness and reassurance. 
The issue of spatial and temporal scale is central, since these patterns come from a matrix with many variants between micro and macro: the furrows worn by rivers through plains and mountains produce shapes like the ones imprinted upon the beach. This is particularly significant in the photo series Hanamate/Dessins de Sable, which could just as well be aerial shots taken over an estuary or a delta.

For Thomas Tronel-Gauthier, moulding is a way of taking samples, of archiving the natural elements that he selects. This sampling process corresponds to the search for a common denominator whose study is founded on morphogenesis—manifestations making visible the constants of the laws of physics that govern matter. Earth, water, air, the mineral and the vegetable are thus all meticulously observed. They are the materials of predilection that he takes away to his workshop. Thus begins his work of technical experimentation aimed at reconstituting and transforming these phenomena with his own tools: composite materials replace or coexist with the natural elements that they imitate, as in Territoire #2, where resin and sand blur the natural and the artificial into a single texture.

From the organic to the synthetic

The systematic tree structure that can be found in the flowing of water and the formation of the vessels inside organisms that circulate vital fluids, whether sap, blood or lymph, is the focus of a longstanding project initiated in 2009. Bons Baisers d’Halong Bay is the first work in the project, a sort of spluttering heralding a series with media and colour variations that can be seen in pieces such as Native Tongue (A Fresco) in 2010, the series Peinture Noire #1 #2 et #3, La Stèle Morphogénic (Céladon) in 2012, Les Peintures Outremer in 2013, and most recently, Les Peintures en Vert de Chrome in 2014. 

When two surfaces between which paint has been spread are pulled apart, the paint remains divided between the surfaces and tree structures formed by the pulling appear. Fighting the gravity that alternately generates and modifies the formation of the pattern, Thomas Tronel-Gauthier perfects his technique, guiding the paint to control both the overall form of the splotch on the canvas and the unfurling of ever finer and more extensive branches. Bon Baisers d’Halong Bay, a series of unfolded offset paper rectangles, is an excellent illustration of the process’s genesis and the simplicity of the original motion.

Testing the elasticity of the polymer, the sculptor’s material thus takes the same path as the natural substance. We find this same process in the creation of Corail de Terre #1 et #2, but this time it is plaster that infiltrates the fissures of agricultural soil, embracing even the smallest of cracks. The negative image of the emptiness created by the fractures is astonishingly similar to the polymorphous networks of coral reefs, as if even the invisible manifestations of this morphogenic phenomenon were simply the inverted counterpart of existing elements in relief. It is impossible to escape the laws ruling matter’s proliferation, as we see once again from this illustration using a void.

Crossing the borders between animal, mineral and vegetable, hybrid formations like coral and sponges seem to particularly fascinate the artist. The two works Récif d’Eponges (2007) and Alguorescences (2009/2010) share a fragility of material underscored by a crystalline whiteness. Made respectively from porcelain and extruded polystyrene, again bringing together natural and artificial materials, these works have a fragility that evokes the passage of time and the modifications it leaves upon the matter’s state: calcification, fossilisation and erosion are abrasive phenomena that alter solid elements, creating surfaces that may be porous, soft or sharp, smooth or proliferating, compact, brittle or crumbly. An occasional, fluid state, therefore, which he attempts to capture in his compositions.

This friction between two categories that in theory are very different is found in another way in the formation of shells, animals producing the mineral matter that shelters them, which is another recurring shape in Thomas Tronel-Gauthier’s work. Les Coffrets and La Valise aux Morphogénèses (2011) contain shells, a sort of mise en abime, the container contained. The box and suitcase become the playing field for negative and positive: once the box is closed again, the moulds fit together perfectly, resulting in a filled space. 

The artist’s first glass-paste shells in Segalliuqoc Acanthocardia (2007) involve some trickery. Contrary to appearances, he did not mould each shell, but rather the empty space created between them when they are placed on top of each other. Here, again, we have the materialisation of a void and an inversion.

This artist’s three-month residence in Polynesia provided the ideal conditions for a natural continuation of his interest in shells. Les Oracles (2012/2013) is a series of mushroom clouds engraved in the mother-of-pearl inside large shells. The clouds’ geometric shape fits inside the shells perfectly and seems to echo the irregularity of their contours. This dual temporality of the instantaneous and the immutable, the furtive explosion and stagnant radiation are crystallised together on the surface of the shell. The contrast between the inside with its exquisite iridescent fineness and the rough, rustic and stony outside accentuate the visual impact. The symbol persists, since the shell and the ability of its occupant to produce pearls are linked to fertility.

Emptiness or life: beliefs and a search for meaning

During this particularly significant residence, Thomas Tronel-Gauthier’s permeation is simultaneously biological, technical and mythological. Engraving in mother-of-pearl is an artisan technique that he appropriates in Les Oracles, just like the shape of the volcanic rock pestles, traditional objects with many local variations that he creates in Ke’a Tuki (2012), a piece that “addresses the Marquises Islanders’ cultural relationship to copies.” Copying effectively means ensuring that the ancestors’ knowledge is passed on. Starting with a traditional Hiva Oa Island pestle made by a local sculptor, the artist created a series of eight “clones” which progressively lose their pigment to form a greyscale ending with white. (2) 

This polysemous piece again portrays erasure and disappearance, but this time from a symbolic point of view, as in the installation Carte Postale des Tropiques, in which he subjects a colour photo printed on watercolour paper to the action of water, a process of intentional deterioration offering a fast-forward view of the passage of time. This eventually gives the images an outdated look, like memories lost in a past marked only by blurred bearings. 

Thomas Tronel-Gauthier’s work crosses categories, strewn with religious references and shapes linked to the sacred. Different types of beliefs, rituals and spiritualties appear in the background, without any hierarchy: the wooden mason’s trowel of his Nativité (2011) covered with gold leaf seems to have taken on the vestments of the icons of old; his Peinture Lenticulaire #1 et #2 naturally evoke the process used to produce a print with changing relief, but the choice of this format cannot avoid an allusion to the tondo from the Renaissance, which was often reserved for the representation of mythological, religious or symbolic subjects; Petit Fétiche d’Atunoa (Paeore) (2012) evokes Polynesian cosmogony and traditions which have many totem sculptures, in particular involving the mythological figure of the Tikis. 

Between the natural and the supernatural, the sacred acts as the witness to a search for meaning that was the origin of the production of shapes which in turn become a part of his repertoire, much as common or trivial parts of everyday life do. 

The living element itself appears through these clue-fragments that he scatters throughout his travels and transitory states. It is embodied everywhere by its absence. The only piece in which it appears directly is in the form of a mythological creature, at least according to the local name that was given to it, since this Sirène (2012) that he managed to film in Polynesia is none other than an animal whose evolution is at an intermediary stage: this little fish has developed a way of crawling using its fins. Tossed about by the eddies of the river, it leaves its aquatic environment to feed upon the algae and miniscule shells clinging to the rocks. Once again, it is the appearance of mutation and hybridity that transpires. Halfway between two environments, this still-maladjusted being is extremely vulnerable.

At the boundary between different spaces and times, Thomas Tronel-Gauthier examines the relationship between, on the one hand, scientific knowledge gained through physical and biological data and, on the other, a symbolic heritage imbued with beliefs and mythology. The inert and the living appear via the imprints of their perpetual interaction, both products and producers of an environment whose movement tirelessly marks appearances and disappearances.

Noémie Monier