One might imagine that growing up on a small island where the most notable geographical feature is an active volcano would produce feelings of anxiety and insecurity. Not so for artist Brice Guilbert, who has fond memories of his island childhood and the volcano that has become the main inspiration for his oil-stick-on-wood paintings.
"Brice Guilbert: Fournez" is on view at Pace Gallery until Sept. 2 and will be the last exhibition at this West Coast outpost of the New York-based conglomerate.
The show consists of four large-scale canvases and a series of smaller works that all seem to depict the same thing, a volcano in the process of erupting. While the subject matter may be the same, each painting has a different color palette that ranges from soft pastels to very strong, deep hues. Guilbert was in Palo Alto for the installation of the show and offered some background on his working method and muse, the Piton de la Fournaise, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
The volcano is located on Réunion Island, which is a French Department located in the Indian Ocean. Its major claim to fame (besides idyllic beaches) is as a climbing destination. The draw for climbers is the Piton de la Fournaise, which measures over 8,000 feet. Guilbert spent his youth on the southern part of the island and says that because he never actually saw an eruption, "I paint the volcano by imagination."
Even after leaving Réunion to attend high school in France, the lure of his childhood memories drew him back. "I always work using my roots, my childhood," he said. Currently living in Brussels, Guilbert said that depicting the volcano also has a practical basis, "By painting fire, while living in a cold place, it brings spring to my long winter."
The paintings vary in terms of size and color, but all capture a sense of movement and the awesome power of nature. Some are highly textured and the layering of the color is apparent. Just how Guilbert achieves this is quite unique: he makes his own color sticks.
"It's a creative activity," he said, "like French Creole cooking, to 'cook' my own tools." A combination of oil and beeswax, the sticks are custom made for a specific reason. "I put a lot of beeswax in my mixture so the result is matte, not glossy." Guilbert said that he prefers the feeling that he gets using a stick instead of a brush. "I like the link with the hands and not having to hold a brush." His process also requires that he works with both hands, one holding the oil stick and the other a heat gun. "I like to paint fire with fire," he laughed.
Making his own oil sticks also means that his colors are very specific to his needs and not limited to what can be obtained commercially. Looking closely at the paintings, which are done on wood, it is possible to ascertain layers upon layers of pigment, leading to a textured surface.
"I try to find a dialogue with the colors," he explained. "I never paint the real colors of the volcano," he said, "Every painting is a projection of an idea, a feeling, an effect."
In the gallery entry, the large-scale "Fournez" (all the works bear the same title, the island name for the volcano) is a powerful, dramatic vision of nature's force in the form of lava spewing from a dark and ominous peak. "This might be the most literal, photographic version," Guilbert explained.
The paintings in the main gallery are more subtle in their depiction and rely more on various gradations of color, from light to dark. They are at once both recognizable in subject and yet abstracted enough that the viewer can ascribe any feeling or mood they want. Guilbert admits that the paintings fulfill both a need to create and to return to the past. "They are a pretext to explore painting, color and to come back to my roots."
Guilbert said that all the paintings were created specifically for a solo show in Palo Alto but that the timing was a "surprise." Exhibitions previously planned for this space to the end of the year were canceled as a result of the decision, announced last week, to consolidate operations on the West Coast to the new Pace Gallery in Los Angeles, which opened in April.
The closing of the Palo Alto gallery is a major loss for the cultural community on the Peninsula. For the last six years, Pace has presented blue-chip, museum-quality exhibitions that would ordinarily require a trip to a major art center like New York City. There have been exhibitions featuring well-established artists like Pablo Picasso, Louise Nevelson, Agnes Martin and James Turrell as well as younger, emerging artists like Adam Pendleton and Loie Hollowell (both of whom would go on to find recognition in the international art scene and auction sales in the six-figure range). After hosting several pop-up shows on the Peninsula, Pace began its Palo Alto tenure in 2016 with a bang: a huge exhibition of immersive, digital art by Japanese collective teamLab that attracted over 200,000 visitors.
Over the years, the exhibitions have been varied, interesting and well presented. Reaction to the closure among the art community has been, collectively, one of sadness. Collector and arts advocate Pamela Hornik recalled, "From gathering with friends at a Tara Donovan opening, to hearing Alex Nemerov speak about Picasso, Pace provided museum-quality exhibitions to the Palo Alto community. Liz Sullivan made Pace a welcoming space."
Gallery owner Pamela Walsh commented, "I am so sad to hear that Pace will be leaving Palo Alto. As a neighbor and art lover, it has been such a pleasure to frequent the gallery and enjoy each of their exhibitions. I actually visited the Arlene Shechet exhibition four times and felt more inspired with each viewing. Pace presents a level of art that is rarely found outside a major city, so it is a real loss for the whole community."
Pace has been an important component of the arts landscape in Palo Alto and will be missed, said Palo Alto Art Center Director Karen Kienzle. "We've appreciated the collaborative spirit of their wonderful team. A great example is the recent exhibition showcasing children's artwork from East Palo Alto Charter. I have wonderful personal memories of the incredible recent Pablo Picasso and Louise Nevelson exhibitions."
Elise DeMarzio, Director of the Palo Alto Public Art Program, shared Kienzle's sentiments, saying, "I would like to add that Pace has been an amazing partner in public art events such as Code:ART, when they offered special experiences and refreshments for festival attendees and promoted the festival." She added that one of her personal favorite exhibitions was the JR show that opened at the same time his large installation went into SFMOMA. "That opening night was a fun star-studded event I will not forget," DeMarzio said.
Pace Gallery Vice President Elizabeth Sullivan has overseen the Palo Alto gallery since its opening. "Pace Palo Alto has been a jewel of a space to exhibit Pace's lexicon of great artists," she said via email. "Our space in Palo Alto was very special and we're happy to have been able to introduce our wonderful exhibitions to this beautiful community over the years. We will continue to work with our new partners in Los Angeles to remain committed to the West Coast region and our loyal supporters in the Bay Area."
"Brice Guilbert: Fournez" is on view through Sept. 2 at Pace Gallery, 229 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto. For more information, visit pacegallery.com.