At the very back of the gallery is a girl against a wall.
She is standing there, atop her cube-shaped pedestal, a silhouette against an overly white wall.
We feel a peculiar emotion coming from this pale—too pale—girl suspended in the distance.
This place suits her. She can scarcely be seen.
A sculpture should be viewed from all sides, but here there’s no need.
This sculpture is trying to disappear, to fade away, and it is only our looking at it that holds it in place.
That is how all Agnès Baillon’s figures appear: as if to apologize, excuse themselves for being there, even just for being.
Yet their hesitant, unobtrusive presence somehow catches our eye. What is it they stir in us?
And though they may be dancing or singing, such actions appear futile. The figures still don’t matter.
Here is another one, a young girl standing stock-still against the white wall, her arms lowered, her hands serving no purpose. She looks like she wants to dissolve, to leave this world.
As I approach, a detail stops me dead in my tracks. I am devastated.
Her feet are turned slightly inward and her toes curled under. The girl seems to be clinging desperately to this world, or maybe she is withdrawing into herself—a first step towards disappearance.
Then I remember when I was a child how my toes would hurt whenever I was forced simply to exist. But I could never just exist, so I would disappear, feet first. The more I was urged out of my shell, the more my toes suffered within the confines of their shoes. I wanted to die.
Other features in the girl’s face hold our attention.
A faint blush suggests sudden embarrassment. Is it at being noticed when she thought herself unnoticeable? Say nothing, do nothing, dare nothing, know nothing: just try to exist, in a world in which you do not belong.
In her face there is not the slightest trace of fear, nor is there the least anxiety in her eyes. In any case, what does this girl have to be afraid of? Her innocence shields her from the world’s brutality and harshness. In her gaze lies just a hint of self-doubt, as revealed by her soft-focused, delicately painted eyes. How else to describe them? We are not used to seeing such eyes in sculpture. They are the work of a painter, not only because they were painted, but because of the inexpressible evasiveness they contain.
Agnès Baillon is a painter.
She rarely mentions it and only inadvertently reveals her enthusiastic and boundless admiration for her teacher Léonardo Crémonini, whose words and ideas inspire her to this day.
She is a painter imbued with the idea that painting has little to do with technique and everything to do with another dimension, one that is poetic and free.
I believe that an artist can be a sculptor while remaining a painter or even being just a painter. Agnès achieves this, no doubt through the subtlety and depth that make her work so remarkable.
Agnès’s handling of the material she sculpts is both unique and understated. Details and delicacy combine to create an unusual style in which sculpture becomes painting.
Those details form a transcendent whole. Take this well-behaved little girl. We are blindsided by her power. This translucent white doll is anything but a doll and should never be mistaken for one. It is she who grabs hold of us, and we are imperceptibly transformed.
I want to dwell on another detail, or rather two that combine to make one: the nose and the barely visible pubic area.
It is interesting to observe how the nose and sexuality of adolescents develop simultaneously. The torrential flood of hormones that announce adolescence transforms the face by way of the nose, that awkwardly noticeable part of the prepubescent anatomy that elsewhere changes so much more discreetly.
Agnès’s figures, such as this suspended girl, are transfixed, frozen in a timelessness capable of deferring all future growth. Development of the nose and genitals seems to be on standby. The girls are not eagerly precocious, and the boys don’t seem ready yet to leave behind their strange tranquillity. They are like buds, but without the rising sap that would unleash their dreams and desires.
How then can we grasp what we see?
Is there a part of us in those figures that has stayed on that faraway shore, so quiet and familiar?
When we observe the closed world of Jean Rustin’s figures—as gently painted as Agnès’s—a troubling thought arises: Are we and they the same? Or rather, are they what we will become? But this time it is Agnès who raises a less-painful and different sort of question: What in us is so hopelessly stuck? In this motionlessness and incapacity for ambition is there not, deep down, the longing for a time when life sheltered us from our absurd struggle to control our own existence? More than nostalgia, is there not regret at having abandoned childhood’s innocence and naïveté, the purity of unspoiled times? Only the mentally retarded have the privilege of staying behind, relegated to endless childhood. At times our thoughts turn to them as we look at Agnès’s sculptures.
Agnès doesn’t look anything like her sculptures.
Never mind her appearance. As a child she was probably like one of her fair-skinned, polite little girls with a small nose and azure eyes. Today she is a dedicated artist—vivacious, energetic, and ambitious.
And that precisely is the tie that we sometimes seek between the artists—what we know and feel about them—and their work, or what we see and think we see.
A dichotomy often catches us unawares.
It is obvious that we cannot limit a work of art to being a simple reflection of the artist.
But can’t a work of art also be what we no longer are, or no longer are exactly: the reflection of nostalgia? Can’t a work of art reflect what, to the contrary, we hope to become? Miro proclaimed that by painting he aimed “to escape his natural inclination to pessimism, through work that is resolutely optimistic.”
Can’t a work of art project a make-believe world inhabited by people we’ve imagined and by people we miss?
Such questions aside, isn’t there always a wound at the genesis of a work of art? If so, what happened to Agnès Baillon?
She doesn’t open up easily.
Jean Genet wrote, “Beauty has no other origin than a wound, different for each person, hidden or visible, that every man keeps inside, that he safeguards, and to which he withdraws when he wants to retreat from the world for a temporary but profound solitude.”
All art is mysterious. Even artists can’t see their way through, but that is probably for the best. For if their work is to be considered authentic, shouldn’t artists be surprised at, and occasionally even pleased with, the questions their own works ask of them?
In Agnès’s highly cultivated work we find varied and numerous influences, from ancientEgyptto the latest contemporary art, and both Flemish and Quattrocento painting. Although Agnès’s work is intelligent and complex, her views are simple, reserved, and of no help to us whatsoever—as if she had crossed over for a moment into her figures’ world through a sort of naïve amazement that, in the end, leaves the mystery fully intact.
The privilege of knowing an artist only encourages us to ask further questions, as I have endeavored to do.
There the trail goes cold. The hunt gives way to silence and sudden emotion, such as that felt when I beheld the girl that morning, from afar.
Occasionally art bestows on us this gift, a precious confusion that, far from being an end, surprises us with an invitation to travel, if only for traveling’s sake.
Marc Perez, October 2011
Translated by David Jester