Belgian-Canadian artist Jean Detheux creates exquisite, rapturous digital paintings and otherworldly videos inspired by his philosophical studies. For over thirty years he worked in natural media, but he made the transition to digital media when he found that the materials he used were causing severe allergic reactions. His experience with natural media “paved the way” for his digital work, his story of personal reincarnation. His use of digital media is both eloquent and innovative, simultaneously sublime and transcendental, a “visual phenomena.” Jean is involved in the Film Board of Canada and is frequently invited to show his animations and lecture at film festivals and other events open to experimental art.
Jean Detheux's transformation from the "natural" media to computer media seems, although most certainly significant to the artist, to be a logical continuation of the substance of the work itself. His work is rooted in his understanding and practice of Phenomenology and Zen, two disciplines he views as interwoven. According to the artist, within the constructs of Phenomenon, there is no instant truth associated with what is normally construed as "real" and what appears as "hallucination." In the Zen tradition, the "seeing of no-seeing," the truth of no "self/other," present a similar interpretation of reality. The incorporation of these concepts in his art dissolves any boundaries between Jean's "natural media" works and the computer constructed works – what propels them into natural transition. It is his immediate sensing and experience of the moment that is reflected and manifest in his work. This is done without placing value on the experience, the very essence of Abstract Expressionism itself, and this is what makes Jean Detheux a vortex point in the Abstract Expressionist genre, independent of the sources that have shaped it previously.
Jean Detheux's words and insights are as multi-textured and fascinating as his visual work. It was a pleasure to gather the following communications:
: Are your images inspired and derived from the actual musical piece that accompanies them? Or are they two separate entities that join together after the fact? Are the visual images computerized (music fed in?) or is there a direct hand in this?
: The first few pieces posted on my web site are usually done after/from the music, meaning i had little to do with the musician(s),with the exception of "G1," "Image 4," "CP1," "Fish 2" ("Liquid
Fish") and "Voyage."The music for these pieces were created by Scott Lahteine, a musician and
programmer with whom I used to work, after the images had been completed.
Since then, I've been working regularly with two great musicians, Thierry Van Roy, who composed the music for "Terra Artella Nova," and Jean Derome. Thierry and I made several other pieces together not yet on the web but circulating on DVD. Jean Derome is a musical genius from Montréal. We recently created two films commissioned by the National Film Board of Canada ("Liaisons" and "Rupture" --
more on that on the NFB site).
I am involved in a fascinating "back and forth" process, whereby a piece may evolve through several exchanges that feed on each other: "Liaisons," for example, was made by my first giving Jean Derome a silent 30 seconds clip for which he wrote the music. I took that music and made a new 30 seconds animation for it, he took the new animation and made new music for it, and we went at it that way for a year and a half (changing the length of the clips eventually), ending up with nearly 50 minutes of original material from which, with which, we made the final 9 minutes film, plus a short sequel, about 2 1/2 minutes, "Rupture."
Here's some info on Jean Derome: http://www.actuellecd.com/bio.e/derome_je.html
So I can honestly say that by now, I work in those two different ways constantly, before and after the music, and I find that over time, the music has had a tendency to become my "motif" in a way very similar to what a still-life or model used to represent for me when working "from the visible" (which, contrary to the appearances, I feel I have never stopped doing).
This series of drawings leading to one of my first ever animation may throw some light on that, especially if you follow it the way it is set up: http://www.vudici.net/awn/images_intro.html
: When I see "Sonata," I have to believe that you were personally involved in it, as it is so emotive -- it feels as if one's body is dancing just to look at it. This, and "Sonata Mirror" put one in mind of embryonic life. These videos in general feel so life-driven - I get a sense of growth from them - life metamorphing, origins of creation. How much of your work is inspired by this organic growth, the natural world in general? Is there any background you might have in microbiology?
: "Sonata" was done in a very different way from all the other pieces. I was actually drawing to the music with a process that makes the images appear in real time in synchronicity with the music. By doing this several times, I was able to combine the better parts of the different attempts and put them together in/as the two versions of "Sonata" you have seen on the web.
This feeds right into a big desire I have had for some time -- the hope to be able to work in real time with musicians, interacting with them in a "performance-like" setting. I recently came very close to that at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in Montréal, where we presented a "happening" during which Jean Derome, Pierre Tanguay and Joane Hétu improvised their music to images/animation I was projecting
on five large screens simultaneously. I was not yet able to create images live, as I lack computer resources for being able to do so, but I was able to manipulate already made images in real time, so I am getting closer. It was a fabulous evening, we all want to do it again, and as it was both recorded and filmed, I will soon make something with that and likely have it all on DVD.
No background in microbiology here, but a serious background in both Phenomenology and Zen practice.
That means that the process that creates the images is similar (hopefully) to the process that creates all life, macro and micro, and especially similar to the process of attention itself, something I have written at length in the articles that are accessible from the Vudici site front page (those 6 articles forming the "Notes from the Underground" series published by the Animation World Network).
One more thing about this "organic" aspect of "my" work: one day, Pollock was asked by a visitor why he no longer painted "from nature." Pollock was annoyed by the question and he answered: "Fuck man, I'm nature!" I agree with him, it seems to me that when we are at ourbest, we become like a medium
through which the work does itself, and in that situation, our most essential task is to be a witness and not "get in the way" of the process, a process which absolutely needs us in order to take place,
but with which we must make sure we do not interfere.
: The beauty of this work is that the visual propels one into the depth of the music - I have never made an association between Beethoven and the notion of growth and decay until I saw your visual interpretation. In this way, music is enhanced visually, and the part of the brain we seldom use is made use of finally!
: I do recall the working on "Sonata" and being in the midst of a huge sense of near "terminal" solitude, and still finding overtones of that when I look at the two versions of that animation today. But to quote a Belgian writer (I can't recall his name but he is still alive today): "The artist is experiencing the horror and immense pain of the world and, in order to survive, he transforms it all into beauty." In that sense, pain becomes beauty by not being fought against, but also by not being succumbed to in a fit of self pity or sterile despair, a strange "balance" if there is one! I think the very best example we have of that is the music of Mozart. By temperament, I am much more Beethoven-like, but the one that keeps bringing me back "on track" is Mozart.
: The images "CP1", "Fish 2," and "Voyage" are practically living organisms themselves! It seems that this work actually hits the source of pulsating, creative life. Was that an intention of yours?
: Nope, I am only a medium, remember? If anything, my work really starts once I have reached that
point at which it is very obvious that my intentions are really futile, and I finally surrender to what needs me in order to come to visible life. The few times I have managed to do what I wanted to do, it was really pathetic.
This of course brings us to that paradox, a real dilemma: how does one intentionally work unintentionally?
: The "Dilemma" pieces are absolutely hypnotic. "Afghan Buddha" immediately puts one in mind of the "disassembling of the mask" - that even the concept of "Buddha" is a transient one and acts as a veil over itself. How does this relate to your intentions in this piece?
: "Dilemma" came out of nowhere and was never intended as an animation. I was then discovering a new (to me) process, called morphing, and a mere exercise gave birth to a piece, and then to a second one (as is so often the case, I hardly ever "get" a piece when I set up to make one).
The "Afghan Buddha" was my pitiful way of dealing with the blowing up of those tall Buddha statues by the Talibans. Creating the piece, I felt as if I was simultaneously "in" the Buddha statue and
out looking at if when it was exploded.
I guess that was just a way of getting all that off my chest.
: Your still images appear as painted images - the dimension present, which I think, is rare for digital painting. From what I have observed and what has passed my way through my virtual gallery space, most digital work tends to stay on the surface, being more concerned with color and process. This has its merits, I think, but your digital paintings seem to take the process one step further - not that the paintings are "concerned" with dimension or appearing as "paintings," but simply that they actually do! How did this come about? I would imagine, from what you have already stated, that it simply happened as you were working. I feel as though I can crawl inside the images. They absolutely resonate with temperature, leading one deeper inside them, a tactile nourishing and nourishing experience.
: Most digital images are not made by "artists." They are the products of technicians wanting to dab in art. So much is left in "the hands" of the software, and so much is controlled by the computer's "attempts" at keeping everything clean, under control. I have always worked by way of fortuitous accidents, and when I started with computers, I was determined not to let "them" have the upper hand in this struggle. Also, most people's relation to paintings is based on magazine or computer images, and they sure lack that tactile experience so essential to any painting that "works." So there too, I wanted to bend the computer's thin and phony images and continue with what I was so familiar with from my pre-digital days. I would lie if I claimed that computers did not change my work, did not change me, but nevertheless, the kind of "dirty" organic world I am comfortable with when working is still very much alive in the work even after I abandoned natural media.
: I would be willing to bet that this painting comes about on its own, without your giving a thought that "I am using Digital Media" as you work. It is simply your tool.
: As it is above all about the quality of the experience through which the images are "born," I never do think about the painting as a painting, or if and when I do, I end up with very depressing garbage.
: I would imagine that there are new programs erupting on the marketplace all of the time. Are you interested in pursuing them as they become available, or are you, at this moment, more likely to keep using your present media?
: I have some software I am partial to, like Painter (now made by Corel) which is the application that saved my life when, in despair, I had to leave natural media. I was tricked into trying Painter on a Mac (that was around 1997). Within minutes, I was right back in my painter's bubble, so convincing an experience that I went out and bought a computer days after that, and I was neither rich nor much interested in playing with those infernal machines. I now have a network of Macs here at home (and one lone PC); little did I know then what I was getting into. But there is one application I am extremely partial to, Studio Artist. This is a paradigm shift in what can be done with 2 D images and animation, and I have been beta testing it for a little over 4 years now, a very exciting and ground breaking tool.
: What are your thoughts and visions for the future of Digital Media in general?
Hard to tell, now that we have fabulous tools for exploring further that 2D world, I see 3D gaining a lot of ground and making it even easier for "plumbers" (those technicians I speak of above) to delude themselves and others into believing that their work is art.
What interests me may be a lost cause, but if so, the more reason to do the best I can at it. One thing the digital tools make possible in ways that are a lot faster than before is the exploration of time, and in film, animation and music. This is where my interest goes the most these days. I suspect we are at the very beginning of something that could be very exciting and enriching, but we'll see if I am dreaming in colours.