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A calling Card from Philippe Mailhes by Anthony Spira, texte du catalogue Plus, Wiesbaden, 2007.

Brigthly coloured but blank visiting card pinned in a grid to the wall; large grey, framed monochrome canvases with rounded corners; small, white ovoid stickers floating on a glass pane over pale, neutral backgrounds. Philippe Mailhes current exhibition is characterised by absence, an emptiness delineated by formal propositions and systematic frameworks.

Foe each series, Mailhes sets up an organising principle that launches an autonomous creative mechanism that determines its form and content. He creates a number of repetitive systems devised by a series of basic choices, the minimum required to make them self-sufficient. In devising these stategies, Mailhes looks back to certain experimental practices of the 1960s -including conceptualism, minimalism and post-minimalism- but adds to them all the complications and insecurities of making art today.

Like is predecessors, Mailhes is unable to disconnect himself totally from the production of the work, so he makes choices through a succession of negations rather than assertions. This process also reflects that of Herman Melville’s protagonist Bartleby in the famous precursor of absurdist literature who is the subject of the work « I would »… In this series, Mailhes has mapped out mention of the phrase  » I would prefer not to » (in the Allia edition of Bartleby) onto one double page and applied stickers onto position of each occurence. The resulting image is thus determined by the layout of the printed edition, so that the content and process of Mailhes work become inexorably entwined in a succint demonstration of authorial abdication.

The central motiv for the series of calling cards-a hand holding a placard- is taken from a late 19th century engraving of an advert, wich remains blank but is filled here with a single, smooth field of colour taken from the range of gouaches produced by Swiss company Lascaux. The cards are then selected and hung at random in a grid. Alongside these pictures is an archive containing an on-going series of over 400 small versions of this motif filled with a different black and white pattern, their sheer quantity suggesting a mechanical and indiscriminate process of reproduction. Titled « la tentation formaliste », these variations, traced from the forms is standard graphics templates used by designers, engineers ans architects, offer viewers a potientially infinite choice of pictorial effects, reduced to decorative shapes, like samples in a portfolio. Set alongside this series, the large, grey, monochrome canvases uncompromising surfaces function like mirrors that reflect directly back onto the viewer. Having set up an apparently anonymous system that denies the author’s presence, Mailhes literal use of an image of a hand in the visiting cards series clearly plays into an ironic game of reflection and subjectivity.

One additional sheet, pinned up amongst the visiting cards, includes a classic textual diagram from an historical teaching arranged in a circle, titled « interrogating the work of art ». Through their repetition, these basic and rhetorical questions allude to the circularity of arguments about painting. Mailhes continues to explore the possibilities of painting by repeatedly answering these questions with denials, by making paintings that both rebuff questions and deflect any answers. But from an initial point of apparent refusal, Mailhes aknowledges erasure and elimination as the fundamental motors in the creative process. Although the artist’s presence is implied through an ostensible absence, he equally invites the viewer’s subjectivity into a restrained formalist vocabulary.

While clearly taking painting and its possibilities as his principal subject, Mailhes also attempts to practice an unravelling of art that is akin to the process of reading a book. He explores the alternate positions of author and reader, and traces the process that constructs meaning and exchange by inviting viewers into a sophisticated game of engagement and dialogue. More precisely, Mailhes earmarks choice as the subjective determinant that inevitably drives both the production and reception of a formalist practice. Taken as a whole, the blank visiting cards, open-ended questions and stark monochromes provide both a portrait of the artist and a mirror offered to the spectator.

Anthony Spira, Director Milton Keynes Gallery