Friday, March 02, 2012

The Ancestral Worlds of Jacques de Beaufort By John David Ebert

According to Jacques de Beaufort, there are entire landscapes inside each one of us. If the job of the artist, as Marshall McLuhan put it, is to create a counter environment to the prevailing environment that is configured by our present media technologies, then the world that Jacques de Beaufort is making visible in his art is the counter environment of self plus the ancestral ground of its being that it carries along with it. The assumption made by today’s consumer society, on the other hand, is that the human individual is a sort of self-sufficient entity unto himself, a figure minus ground, you might say.

Following the evolution of social deformations exerted by industrial society upon the family unit, we can track its development from the extended, tribal family of the agrarian society extending all the way back into the Neolithic – and which is retained and fossilized today in Hispanic culture -- to the nuclear family of mom, pop and the kids characteristic of 1950s Cold War America all the way down to today’s single parent family in which the children are shuttled back and forth from one parent to the other in a desperate bid to retain some vestige of the biparental ground that gave rise to the child in the first place.

In consumer society, the individual is all that matters. He is cut out from the rest of his world as a figure without a ground, in which he is to be regarded as self-sufficient and capable of realizing his life on his own. Such were the hidden assumptions of the Jungian process of Individuation, in which is concealed the idea that the individual is a sort of lone castaway of industrial society working it all out for himself, by himself, with a little help, perhaps, from the archetypes.

But in the counter environment to the consumer society – or what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has termed the Individualized Society – created in the visionary works of Jacques de Beaufort, the individual is not a self-sufficient entity at all, but is rather seen for what, in reality, he or she really is: a figure embedded in a landscape of ancestral forms. The individual is, so to say, a kind of knot in spacetime which, if cracked open, reveals an entire landscape of ancestral figures, hominid memories and cast off structures of consciousness, such as Jean Gebser’s magical or mythical consciousness structures in which ancestral beings, gods and spirits compose the tissue of the individual’s consciousness and indeed, make it possible in the first place.

To attempt to isolate the individual from this matrix of ancestral beings, as contemporary consumer society does, is to miss the crucial point of the individual’s existence, which is to function as a nodal point through which to make manifest in spacetime the will of these archaic beings. This is less a Jungian than a Deleuzian point, for Gilles Deleuze, in his Difference and Repetition, discussed how the virtual realm of the Ideas becomes manifest in the realm of extensivity – the concrete spatio-temporal world – via the intensive realm of structural morphogenetic properties such as tension and rest, speed and slowness, pressure and volume, etc. (This is his earliest sketch for his later famous Body Without Organs, a sort of morphogenetic potential that gives shape and form in a virtual sense to the actualized human body.) The ancestral landscapes depicted by de Beaufort function in a way that is analogous to the virtual Ideas of Deleuze, which is to say that just as Deleuze’s Ideas are actualized and actually make possible the extensive world of concrete reality, so de Beaufort’s ancestral beings make possible the human personality, through which such beings are actualized under the specific and very contingent circumstances of modernity.

This becomes clear by examining the evolution of de Beaufort’s paintings. The earlier ones from 2001 – 03 are depictions solely of these archetypal landscapes, pure ancestral grounds of fetuses, witches, hominid memories, astral spirits, deities and demons. But long about 2006 – 07, with such paintings as “Trona” or “Kinetosis” we can see these archaic landscapes beginning to disappear and dissolve inside the mask-like faces of a single iconic personage or complex which seems to be engulfing them. The landscapes are in process during this period of draining off into the iconic masks of single beings that are beginning to differentiate from their matrix and stride forward as lone complex entities. In the more recent paintings, such as “Astarte,” “Hecate” and “White Goddess” these landscapes have disappeared entirely and have crystallized into single iconic beings which have absorbed them. These later paintings constitute a veritable pantheon of modern icons, mask-like apparitions that the contemporary individual can choose to put on or take off at will. In putting on the mask of “Astarte,” for instance, a dimension of erotic possibilities will open up; in putting on the mask of “Hecate,” a darker, more primitive, vengeful self will configure, and so on.

In today’s electronic media landscape, at the speed of light figures tend to simplify and compress into these mask-like apparitions on a routine basis, a rather banal phenomenon which we now designate with the label “celebrity.” Marilyn Monroe as a modern incarnation of “Astarte,” for instance – originally “Ishtar,” the planet Venus and goddess of love and sexuality – is apparent. Madonna has donned the mask of Hecate on more than one occasion, and the White Goddess, Robert Graves’ goddess of the moon, has appeared as a mediatic structure in the lives of Princess Diana and others.

These are the masks of contemporary electronic society. At the speed of light, objects flatten out into two dimensions, according to Einstein, and time stops for them. They also gain infinite mass. Einstein, though he meant to describe the phenomena of physical properties of material bodies, was nonetheless also unknowingly talking about the rise and emergence of mythic – that is to say, two dimensional and timeless forms – under the circumstances of electric speed up, which flattens information out into iconic patterns which compress and embody such information just as de Beaufort’s iconic beings are in reality compressions of mythic landscapes.

The artist has today become dangerously superfluous, having withdrawn into private, solipsistic realms of signification that convey little meaning to the outsider and so, rather than communicate, tend rather to dis-integrate and introduce ruptures and schisms into the contemporary semiosphere, rather than harmonizing it and integrating it into systems of coherent, and intelligible, meaning. But the art of Jacques de Beaufort is an exception to this rule of contemporary art in which, as Jean Baudrillard has pointed out, there is no longer anything to see precisely because transcendence has disappeared from such works, leaving them shorn of larger significance. The work of Jacques de Beaufort, on the other hand, contains plenty to see, for it is making visible a hidden reality that undergirds and underlies, in precisely the virtual way meant by Deleuze, the visible and rather slick surfaces of contemporary two-dimensional society.

If, as Martin Heidegger said, the gods have withdrawn into concealment, leaving modernity stranded in a destitute time, then it is the job of the artist to retrieve these gods and bring them back into visibility where we can see what they are doing to us, with us and even against us. If the individual does not know where he stands with the gods, then he is in big trouble, because, as Jung put it, “Invoked or not, the god is always present.”

John David Ebert is a cultural critic who has written several books, including most recently, "The New Media Invasion: Digital Technologies and the World They Unmake" (McFarland Books, 2011); "Dead Celebrities, Living Icons: Tragedy and Fame in the Age of the Multimedia Superstar" (Praeger Books, 2010); and "Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons: Film as the Mythology of Electronic Society" (Cybereditions, 2005). His work has appeared in various articles, journals and books, including most recently "The Paul Virilio Dictionary" (Edinburgh University Press, 2012). He is also an editorial contributor to Univocal Books.

Jacques de Beaufort: Strike Through the Mask

Preface by John David Ebert
cover image: "Eos" with Kira Alvarado

softcover, 40 pages
signed by the artist


available for shipping March 7, 2012

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