‘The aim is to bring together in a single gaze various different moments of the gaze. The result is a mechanism similar to what in music we call polyphony … It seems to me that anyone who wants to communicate an idea of what is happening in his or her mind at any time can only do so by way of a cacophony of dissonant elements’
Amidst a vibrant, swirling painterly vortex, three figures hover in total isolation; mute and alone, they lie dormant within bleak, colourless chambers. Executed in October 1980, Jean Dubuffet’s Lieu indécis stems from the series of Partitions that, along with the Sites aux figures, Psycho-sites and Sites aléatoires, brought about an increasingly psychological turn in the final years of his practice. Seeking to map out mental rather than physical spaces, the works produced between 1980 and 1982 imprisoned their protagonists within airless vacuums, surrounding them with impulsive, neuronal streaks of bright pigment. Dubuffet’s figures – who had once ridden through the desert on donkeys, frolicked in country fields and danced through the streets of Paris – were now recast as figments of the imagination, trapped within the chaotic wanderings of the psyche. Following on from the Théâtres de mémoire of the 1970s – collages woven from fragments of pre-existing paintings – these works inaugurated a trajectory that would eventually lead to the complete dissolution of the figure in the Mires and Non-lieux of 1983-84. As Valérie da Costa and Fabrice Hergott have written, the Partitions ‘seem to question the place of everyman in nature … Alone or in pairs, with no communication between them, they are absorbed by the surrounding matter, swallowed up by the importance of the place’ (V. da Costa and F. Hergott, Jean Dubuffet: Works, Writings and Interviews, Barcelona 2006, p. 91). Though the composition pulsates with the wild rhythms of the Paris Circus and Hourloupe, recalling graffiti and cave painting in equal measure, it is ultimately – as the artist himself put it – a “landscape of the brain”. Like images locked into a memory bank, Dubuffet’s captive figures inhabit the unknown spaces of the mind: places ‘indécis’, buried in the depths of subconscious thought.
After four months of artistic inactivity, due to his ailing health, Dubuffet returned to painting with a renewed sense of vigour in April 1980. Though aware of his impending mortality, the last five years of Dubuffet’s career were marked by new directions in his lifelong quest to capture reality in its most raw state. His early pursuit of what he termed art brut – visual languages unmarred by cultural tradition – had led him to psychiatric institutes across Europe, where he examined the art produced by their inpatients. Fascinated by the multiple and unknowable different ways in which the human brain might perceive a single object or event, Dubuffet sought to ‘represent things as we think them rather than as we see them’ (V. da Costa and F. Hergott, Jean Dubuffet: Works, Writings and Interviews, Barcelona 2006, p. 91). By the early 1980s, his subjects had morphed from recognisable places, people and things into feelings, sensations and mental processes. Figurative subject matter slowly became subsumed by primal abstract gestures that sought to convey the diffuse, indeterminate and simultaneous nature of thought and vision. ‘The aim is to bring together in a single gaze various different moments of the gaze’, Dubuffet once wrote. ‘The result is a mechanism similar to what in music we call polyphony … It seems to me that anyone who wants to communicate an idea of what is happening in his or her mind at any time can only do so by way of a cacophony of dissonant elements’ ( J. Dubuffet, quoted in V. da Costa and F. Hergott, Jean Dubuffet: Works, Writings and Interviews, Barcelona 2006, p. 90). In the looping arabesques, smudged impasto and empty spaces of Lieu indécis, this notion is brought to a head with powerful, visceral immediacy.