Pierre Millotte: The Sleeping Man

Jean-Marc Huitorel, art critic and teacher
excerpt from Les règles du jeu, édition de Frac Basse-Normandie, 1999

Though it appears today as the most visible -because most frequently experienced- aspect of Pierre Millotte’s art, painting is only one instance of the work he undertook in 1989, the date of his first series of Urban portraits.

In 1983 his taste for inventories took the form of a map of Europe where all the places where he made love were materialized as points. Around the same time he planned to realize maps (of France or Europe) systematically indicating the places he went to as the corresponding journeys, to see just how far the space would fill up, to verify the density of black that would be produced. From 1984 onward, he has been exhaustively photographing the houses where he has slept, and through a meticulous research process he has managed to find the maternity ward where he was born. So far, this complete inventory of the places where he has slept exists only in the form of little prints without any particular qualities, carefully classified and preserved in envelopes.

The Urban Portraits are easel paintings. They appear in the form of abstract paintings where, against a white ground, one sees a network of colored, curving, or rectilinear lines, slightly variable in thickness, which may cross. This mesh of saturated colors is sometimes dense, sometimes loose. Approaching the white ground, one remarks that a first surface has been covered by another, also white, portraying traces which one soon identifies as rivers, or as the shores of seas and lakes. Thus these backgrounds are maps. Millotte’s method is founded on this use of urban cartography. The frame (in every sense of the word) always preexists human invention. It can be a complete city map or it can focus on a single part, generally the hyper-center. The choices, in this first instance of the process, concern not only the scale but also the form of the city, the visual impact it can provoke. In this sense -and even though this inscribes him in a vast tradition- one can well understand the artist’s interest in the maps of American cities and particularly of Manhattan, whose abstract geometry contrasts in an eyeblink with the more lyrical curves of the Old Continent’s city-centers.The added colors respond, for their part, to purely biographical and therefore extrapictorial considerations. The result may be a “self-portrait”, but most often the people involved are third persons, intimate or not, from whom Millotte asks a precise and exhaustive account of the places they have slept, if only for a night. The work may cover a limited lapse of time, or a year, or an entire life. Whether the person spent one night1 or a decade in a given street changes nothing : the street will be materialized along its full length using a color chosen by the artist (this is his most obvious concession to “taste” and to the decisions that derive from it). On the basis of this initial protocol all variations are possible, those involving time as well as space. The size and density of the pictures vary, the one according to the artist’s formal choice, the other according to the caprices of existence. In a certain way, as in Lemée’s production, we are witnessing a delegation of the brushstroke -in this cas not the execution (though nothing would necessarily preclude that) but the placement of the stroke itself. A double abandonment : the line ot the street is left to the urban planners, the selection of the brushstroke is left to the “sleepers”. Indeed, we may note that this recourse to an exterior mechanics, this voluntary dispossession of the traditional prerogatives of the artist, corresponds perfectly to the parameter chosen, that of sleep, whose fortunes since the surrealists and indeed since Goya are well known. Yet there is this one difference : in Millotte’s work the sleep of reason does not engender monsters, but simply the colored lines of his paintings. In addition to the topographical structure, the artist has recently developed a chronological approach to his nights.On a gridded canvas, one square marks each twenty-four hours ; each daily unit is painted with the color linked to the place where he was on that date. The choice of color are multiple and produce paintings of geometric appearance.

In parallel, Pierre Millotte writes narrative texts, sorts of non-fiction scenarios in the sense that the information they contain corresponds stricly to the lived experiences from which the pictures are generated. For example, Millotte has written the chronological narrative of the various places where the person slept, as well as the particular circumstances of these places. The result is a small volume entitled Claude C., New York (2). The texts, in association with the matching photographs of buildings, have also been framed and presented in series, in a form evoking On Kawara which is also employed in the entire set of Urban Portraits. This reference to On Kawara calls for two remarks. First, it confirms, if needed be, how much the attitudes of many artists in the nineties owe to the pioneers of Conceptual art. Second, it testifies to a current position, rather free, liberated in any case from the anxieties over the future of painting, which marked the cusp of the sixties-seventies. Having finally digested all the ponderous creations of post-modernism, the spirit of the times has at least this to its credit : it allows artists to paint paintings once again, without complexes, to find a subject for their work and to play with codes and lures. Thoroughly imbued with Conceptualism and narrative art (Sophie Calle, Didier Bay, among others), Millotte’s work also straightforwardly admits all that it owes to Georges Perec, with his inventories and his Species of Spaces (the title of one of Perec’s books, L’homme qui dort -”The Sleeping Man”- is used here more as an allusive wink than as a semantic comparison). But beyond the use of neighboring methods, what brings the young artist and the writer together is above all the intimate relationship that both establish between a system of pre-established rules and the affirmation of a possibility to represent individual and collective destinies. The only function of the objectification to which a constraint necessarily leads is to mark out a propitious terrain for the publication of a life, for the possible exemplarity of any life. The characteristic of Pierre Millotte’s work is to result in pictures which are also paintings. The subject “I”, disciplined by the protocol viewed as a system of metrics, is to be found among the majority of the artists discussed here. For some of them, the “I” survives to various degrees ; for others, it has disappeared in favor of the sheer logic of process. In all cases, it opens up to the surprise of the painting, its obviousness, its evidence.

1. Night, understood here has a restorative separation between two phases of activity, can easily be out of synch with the hours of the day, if, for example, the person works at night.
2. Published in the Propos d’artistes collection by Edtion Jeune Peinture, 1997.