Sylvain Ciavaldini

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In the great pit of forms lie broken fragments to some of which we still cling. They provide abstraction with its material. A junkyard of unauthentic elements for the creation of impure crystals.

Paul Klee, The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918 [III], Berkeley, University of California Press, 1964, p. 313.

A rich image, at first hard to take in. What are we looking at, exactly? A retouched photograph? A drawing? What does it show? A collapsed, ruined architecture, the traces of a wounded humanity. But what has happened? War? A natural disaster? Or is this simply the labour of time and of forgetting? And what, then, are these enigmatic forms that structure the image, that cut across its composition? Let’s take our time.

In the 1990s, Sylvain Ciavaldini began to grow interested in the status of the artist, a line of inquiry which led him to question the origins of creation, the significance of gesture, the genesis and the ends of form. This research proved fruitful and eventually took on a material form in two dimensions, in paintings and in drawings, whilst occasionally leaving the flat plane behind to extend into three-dimensional space. For over twenty years now, through drawing and sculpture, through painting and the modification of photogravures, Ciavaldini has interrogated form. Whether tightly structured or chaotically overflowing, stripped down or proliferating every which way, form remains central, and questions us in turn.

Let’s take a slight detour, a little trip through space and time. Here we are in Assisi, during the twilight years that saw the fading duecento give way to its illustrious successor. A young prodigy steps outside of and beyond the byzantine tradition to reinvent Western painting. As he daubed the walls of the upper church of the Basilica di San Francesco, Giotto inaugurated an innovative and vital form of painting, structured by a nascent perspective. On the tenth of the twenty-eight panels that make up the fresco, the stacked forms of the city of Arezzo cut a striking skyline against tenebrous clouds. Blues, yellows, reds and whites fill the space and seem to be on the brink of overflowing. And yet their rigorous formal construction – in contrast to the frenetic capering of the demons warded off by the saint – lends them a stable presence. This composition left a lasting impression on Ciavaldini. Mind precedes form, constrains it, perhaps even makes it possible. Giotto’s panels set off a train of thought and a series of interrogations that continue to underpin Ciavaldini’s research: form, conceived or projected, form that bypasses the subject, or conversely reveals it, form that is crafted, shaped, worked. 

This encounter was the genesis of a series of works where brightly coloured volumes of varying complexity work their way into 19th and 20th century photogravures. These black and white reproductions, which played an iconic role in the history of cultural reproduction and circulation, here feature a naturalist painting by Léon Lhermitte, there an academic composition by Lucien Mélingue, augmented and transformed by a wholly unexpected form. These latter shapes immediately arrest the spectator’s gaze. From form comes the background, from the image comes the interpretation, and our visual analysis is unfailingly conditioned by the presence of these forms that our perturbed mind judges as strange. Ciavaldini’s work pivots on these formal intrusions. At times he uses them to disguise the meaning of an image, replacing the fallen Robespierre in Lucien Mélingue’s Le matin du 10 thermidor an 11 with a large blue volume. Elsewhere, rather than obscuring, they underscore, as in Ciavaldini’s version of Le jugement de Pâris by Jacques Wagrez, where a slender pink form escapes from the young warrior’s hand and traverses the pictorial space to clearly separate Aphrodite from Hera and Athena. The judgment of mount Ida and the destiny of Troy are here materialized by a simple, serpentine line.

These coloured volumes are also present in some of Ciavaldini’s drawings, which also stem from an initial phase of documentary research. Rather than the photogravures used in his paintings, these drawings are based on images of destroyed, razed architecture, found for the most part online: abandoned places, void of human presence. Through an exacting process of tracing, he reproduces these spaces on paper. Their temporality is that of the gesture, a manual one close to writing; they offer a reflection on the trace, an incarnation of memory. Executed in black pen, they also recall etchings, as successive cross-hatchings fill the blank page and give form to these images of doomed architecture. Space calls forth form, and at the heart of these places a colourful structure suddenly emerges, a simple, mathematical volume that breaks with the chaotic proliferation of different elements of the surrounding environment. Beyond the visual rupture effected by this sudden intrusion, the geometric volume and the new image that it creates allow for a third level of formal perception: alongside the constructed, architectural form and the destroyed formlessness of the ruins appears a projected form, akin to a mental representation. 

In more recent drawings, Ciavaldini has drained the bright colours from these volumes to leave immaculate, empty zones that thread their way through the landscape of ruins, segmenting and dividing it in places, and constantly modifying our perception of it.

The purity of these simple forms contrasts with the tortured fragmentation of the architecture which they traverse. The aesthetic of ruins present here does not belong to a romantic or melancholic register, but rather points to a fascination for architectural precariousness and the proliferation of different elements. Ciavaldini draws this formal abundance, which at times borders on anarchy, first and foremost from the study of favelas. In these informal settlements, colours and volumes stick to one another without apparent logic to constitute an unstable, shifting patchwork that always seems to be on the point of rupture: a living, febrile architecture that spreads outwards into space, that fills the horizon and that piles up in an uncontrolled, uncontrollable movement. 

This dynamic that sees form transform into formlessness, or rather that unshackles form to reveal the inform, finds an echo in ruins. Left to take its own course and given over to nature, the abandoned building enters into a period of decline, of deconstruction. It thus begins to encroach on its environment, creeping outwards as it disintegrates like a slow wave composed of various materials. Here, form is in constant evolution, slowly but ceaselessly driven by an internal motor and further propelled by exterior factors. In this way, ruins ultimately offer a subtle metaphor of artistic practice.

An aesthetic of the ruin is undeniably present in Ciavaldini’s works, with their accumulation of plastic forms of all kinds, and their light, their black and white tones, their saturation. This fascination for rubble and for the infinite repertoire of deconstructed forms that it offers recalls the etchings of Piranesi. They bring to mind in particular the Vedute di Roma, Piranesi’s iconic plates that magnify Rome in ruins, as well as his cycle of Imaginary Prisons with their unstable, fantasy architecture.

What are these places that Ciavaldini transcribes? A painful memory resides in their broken architecture, a sense of perdition. We cannot help but think of the catastrophes, both natural and man-made, that condition our collective imaginary and that punctuate current events; of historical awareness and the duty of memory; of war and cataclysm. Yet such considerations are not at the origin of the artist’s creative process, but rather emerge from and orient our own internal perception these images. Ruins thus take on a political and social dimension, and carry the works with them.

Faced with Ciavaldini’s work, we are invited to take a voyage through form: imagined, perceived, projected or détournée. Through these broken architectures, form regains its liberty and reveals its vitality: here we confront both insignificant forms and the significance of the inform.

Grégoire Prangé