The L'Hourloupe style, of which the present work is a masterful example, "is conceived as the figuration of a world...parallel to ours...within [which] imprecise, fugitive and ambiguous figures take shape" (J. Dubuffet, "Remarks on the Unveiling of The Group of Four Trees, New York, October 24, 1972," trans., Benita Eisler, in Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, p. 35). Canotin Mâche Oeil, its single eye, a darkened menacing void, the body, lurching and swaying, a chaotic jumble of markings that seem to menace as they seduce, conforms to the artist's description: the figure compels as it checks the viewers attraction. Born into the milieu of European modernism, Dubuffet absorbed the Surrealist procedure of automatic writing, as the proliferation of cellular structures over the surface of Canotin demonstrates. An expression of reactive immediacy and physical spontaneity, the artist's hand responds to cues from the eye, what Dubuffet refers to as "hyperactivation of the visionary faculty" (Ibid., p. 35). The "mashed (or chewed) eye" of the title, literally present in the figure, is delineated by the single black strip with cross-hatched highlights, a maceration of the eye amplified through all-over "graphisms," a cellular proliferation that interlaces, links, and combines sinuous lines and flat colors. Both structuring and dissolving corporality, Dubuffet fuses traditional categories of painting, drawing, and sculpture in Canotin, a work central to Dubuffet's output and to his desire to create not sculptures per se, but "drawings which extend and expand in space" (J. Dubuffet, Ibid., p. 36).
That such replenishing invention characterizes Dubuffet's series of creative break throughs, is due, in no small measure to the permeability between categories of painting and sculpture over the range of art-historical activity in the years during and after the two World Wars, where boundaries in all levels were being transgressed. A prodigious producer, the alternation in production between two-dimensional "easel-painting," reliefs, and thee-dimensional work in Dubuffet's output is staggering. A master in his own right, Dubuffet nevertheless acknowledged that artists are "never quite alone" in their artistic development (J. Dubuffet in J. Planque, "A Reminiscence," in Jean Dubuffet 1943-1963: Paintings, Sculptures, and Assemblages, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, 1993, p. 39).
The notion of frontally oriented works in three-dimensions can be linked to Picasso's The Bathers, Cannes, Summer 1956, a monumentally-scaled group of wood sculptures, supported by planks and frames, which records Picasso's interest in constructing planar sculptures during the 1960s. Cubist planar facets lead to the sheet-metal-cuts-outs, in, for example, Homme au mouton, 1961, dating only a few years before Dubuffet's Canotin, where intersecting planes are constructed on vertical axes. Picasso understands his steel cut-outs, modeled as they are on cut-outs in other materials both by Matisse and in his own early work, as dissolving traditional art-historical categories: "I painted them to start with, then I sculpted them, and then I painted them again in a picture of the sculptures. Painting and sculpture had a real debate" (Ibid., p. 67). So, too, with Dubuffet's Canotin, which materializes in three-dimensions the L'Hourloupe production since 1962. A dialogue between easel painting, sculpture, and collage techniques, Dubuffet fused them all in an effort to destroy them. Seeking to repel the rationality of composition and the seductiveness of color, Dubuffet looked to the margins, "between the imaginary and real....[that]pos[es] the threat of slipping from one to the other, [to] that point [which] produces in me uneasiness and discomfort, but at the same time...exerts a fascination over me to the point of not knowing if I fear it or if I seek it out and solicit it" (J. Dubuffet, "Note to Max Loreau on the painted styrofoams of the Hourloupe cycle, July 5, 1969," in Jean Dubuffet, L'Hourloupe, Kunstalle Basel, 1970). What Dubuffet was striving for was a strategy that would move him closer to a "celebra[tion] of the aberrations of the pre-reflexive mind," where perspective, illusionism, and composition are in effect, shattered (M. Rowell, "Jean Dubuffet: An Art on the Margins of Culture," in Jean Dubuffet: a Retrospective, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1973, p. 29).
The Hourloupe cycle, for Dubuffet the culmination of a struggle to disarm the historical values of color by restricting his palette to red, white, blue, and black, becomes for the artist a deliberate substitution, a resistance to mimesis and expressivity. A corollary to the absence of associative color, then, is the presence of the delineating line either cut into Styropor with a heated wire, much like a brush, or drawn with black markers. As the artist once doodled with a ball-point pen while on the telephone, here, too, a proliferation of cellular structures organically evolves, flat continuous lines, weaving and unaccented, not unlike a stream-of-consciousness effusion. The use of felt-tip markers and synthetic materials moved the artist into the impersonal and anonymous modern world. An Existential pessimism was elicited thereby and incorporated into his working processes. Fragmented surfaces and collaged forms are in a sense a dystopia of contingency, lacking balance and center. The surface distortions--the chain of cellular squiggles and cross-hatchings--mirror the imbalance of their structures. Particularly here in Canotin, which seems to teeter and sway with an almost menacing grotesquerie, the looming form is a reminder of the seriousness of Dubuffet's project. Amid the play, the dizzying antics, is the tragedy of a generation of artists who lived through two World Wars and whose sense of the real and the possible was irretrievably undermined. The artist acknowledged as much when he described not only the aural origin of the word, but also its real-world significance. In the Houroup cycle, then, a utopian vision has gone tragically awry, a reality remarkably and magnificently manifested in Canotin mâch oeil: "L'Hourloupe is a word whose invention was based upon its sound. In French, these sounds suggest some wonderland or grotesque object or creature, while at the same time they evoke something rumbling and threatening with tragic overtone. Both are implied" (Jean Dubuffet, "Remarks," in op. cit., p. 35).