Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne opens an exhibition of works by Jean Otth
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Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne opens an exhibition of works by Jean Otth
Installation view.

LAUSANNE.- A pioneer of video art in Switzerland, Jean Otth (1940–2013) began using in the 1960s the visual possibilities being made available by the new technologies of the day, i.e., the slide as a projected and dematerialized image; television and its particular idiom; and the shifting experimental character of video. Whether we are talking about Otth’s moving images, paintings, drawings, or installations, it is the questions and issues of representation itself that lie at the heart of his experiments more than his attachment to any one medium in particular.

The show offers an overview of nearly fifty years of artmaking, all mediums included. It allows visitors to take stock of both the depth and diversity of a body of work that is centered on the dialectic tension between representation and nonrepresentation, visibility and obliteration, presence and absence, in an endlessly renegotiated balance on the shifting line that marks the limit. Painted (on canvas, paper, mirrored glass), drawn (in pencil, spray paint, gloss paint), manipulated (with the use of a monitor and video, and later with the computer and its screen), and projected (on the wall, paper, objects), the image as a recording of reality can by turns be seen and drop out of sight, be present and go missing. For it is the very possibility of its materialization, and hence visibility, which is in play in Jean Otth’s work. The female body and the desire to see or, more precisely, the desire to know formed for a long stretch of his career the visible pivot of his questioning. Experimentation with different mediums was an attempt to enlarge the space of possibilities and would lead to the abstraction of his video installations over the last decade of his career.

Gallery 1

Following graduation from the École des Beaux-Arts of Lausanne (1961–1963), Jean Otth spent the first years of his career exploring perception through painting, initially on canvas and later on mirrors. He captured the tinted dampness of Jorat landscapes or the light of Lake Geneva by modifying classic supports and techniques, worked with sand, pure pigments and acrylic binder paint, and transposed the curve of a hill to the surface of a mirror to conjure up the silhouette of a body. In his paintings on mirrors, abstract signs applied to the surface are seen in dialogue with the parts of the surroundings they reflect, making these artworks “a true light machine that all the variations of the daylight activated,” as the artist himself remarked.

Starting in the early 1970s, Otth turned to a new medium, video, and became one of its pioneers in French-speaking Switzerland. He explored its potentialities while pursuing significant work in the medium’s theorisation and distribution. With Impact, a group of experimental artists in Lausanne, and in close contact with René Berger, the director of MCBA at the time, Otth took part in organizing exhibitions devoted to video art, in which he also showed his own work.

His initial videos focused on “the language of television,” which, he explained, “more than any other medium, processes reality. In it everything is artifice, everything art.” As an extension of his paintings on mirror, he introduced his “Obliterations”, masking part of the image by applying adhesive tape to the television screen or using spray painted drawings to point up the two spaces that comprise the video installation – the material space of the support that is the monitor, and the “simulated” space of the image. In other instances, Otth would disrupt the image by manipulating the electronic signal in a play of abstraction and figuration, while in the series titled Les Limites (The Limits), he questions the “reality” of images by juxtaposing in the same video piece different types of representation – drawn, filmed, screened, created by the electronic signal, and so on.

Looking back, Otth would say of the video works that he created throughout the 1970s that the myth of Plato’s cave was “the iconic theme and epistemological turning point” of his experiments, allowing him to navigate between “the object, the idea, and its image and shadow, without neglecting light or even its source.”

Gallery 2

In Jean Otth’s work, the 1980s witnessed a return to painting – on both canvas and plastic, often executed using black spray paint and from projected video images – and the development of a significant body of drawings in mid-sized notebooks, as well as on very large sheets of paper. The human figure is by turns completely absent or unmistakably present in the form of schematic signs – the outline of genitalia or a face – in a repeated shift back and forth between figurative representation and the abstraction running throughout the artist’s work.

Otth often reuses identical processes, which he transfers from one medium to another. Thus, his “obliterations,” which he had already employed in his videos from the 1970s, would surface again in his drawings, collages, photographs, and installations. The method involved applying, for example, a mask to an image or covering it with strips of adhesive tape or spray paint. “Obliteration, masking, and disturbance are the tools of my stratagems of voyeurism,” the artist wrote and he never shied from invoking this last term. Indeed, his whole practice speaks of his desire, the sensual desire he fostered with his models, but also his “desire to see,” know and explore the differences between reality and its possible representations. When Otth cancels out part of an image then, he heightens its erotic potential while piquing the curiosity of our eye, which indeed seeks to recreate what has been obviously hidden from it.

In the late 1980s in a series of works grouped under the title Partitions (Scores), Otth continued developing his thoughts on the painting’s space, annexing the canvas’s surroundings through protocols that he painstakingly recorded and collected in a number of binders: “I wanted the painted space to explode rather than implode in a meditation with the wall and [the painting’s] surroundings. So it was no longer the picture alone that was the site of an imaginary or an imagery but the space taken over in its entirety.”

Along with his painting, Otth began making his first computer-assisted works in 1985 and later in the 1990s started projecting these images, with the use of slides, on objects that freeze their transience in a dialogue between light and matter, image and support, “the real” and “the virtual” that recalls his explorations of video in the 1970s. The resulting artworks look like a fusion of two usually separate elements. But as the artist said, “In film don’t we forget the materiality of the screen in order to privilege the imaginary of the projection?”

Gallery 3

In 2000 MCBA organised a show of Jean Otth’s work called Pudeurs, highlighting his return to video art. It was devoted entirely – for the last time in Otth’s work – to the female body as alternately the support for projections, in both the literal and figurative sense of the term, and an image to be revealed through obliterations. The exhibition comprised video installations and monotypes, including some of the pieces seen in this gallery. Using projected infographics, Otth illuminated or concealed the body of the model he was filming. Through this play of covering and uncovering, he underscores, as he himself said, the “process of looking,” or more precisely the “stratagem of voyeurism.” For Otth though, the use of video constitutes in and of itself an initial form of modesty. Because “by holding up a mirror to the model, who sees and discovers herself with a certain otherness,” video “makes it possible to eliminate two difficulties of voyeurism, i.e., the fear of the ‘painter’ of being surprised by the ‘model’… and above all his ‘distraction’ while making the image.”

During the last decade of his life, Otth continued to work between installations and video, abstraction and figuration, the latter giving way increasingly to the former. In his final series of pieces, which he would work on right up to his death in 2013, he notably revisited the history of painting, adding to it the movement which the stationary image – the painting – had deprived it of. To that end, he projected video loops on zones of black paint that were applied directly to the wall or on objects which the projection seemed to complete. The images would vibrate around those dark patches, simultaneously screens and black holes, which suggested image and movement much more than they revealed a representation. Support, surface, the stable matter of paint and the moving energy of photons, suspended time and the running time of the projection form an image while refusing to be anything other than what they are – the plastic formulation of the very possibility of the visible. “If no paint finishes the painting, if no piece even is absolutely finished, each artwork changes, alters, clarifies, deepens, confirms, exalts, recreates or creates in advance all the others,” Otth declared towards the end of his life. “If artworks are not a certainty, it’s not only that they pass on like all things, it’s also that they have nearly their whole lives ahead of them.”

Exhibition curator: Nicole Schweizer, curator of contemporary art

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