If Guillaume Bresson's never-before-seen paintings of Los Angeles were a Hollywood movie, they would warrant the typical disclaimer: "This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental." In Bresson's most recent suite of cinematic oil on canvas artworks, all characters, scenes, and backgrounds are indeed fabricated, although based on real people that the artist met and real events that the artist experienced during the ides of March, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
What was a French artist doing in Los Angeles just weeks before the COVID pandemic took hold and shut-down the county? Toulouse-born Bresson was there to teach a series of creative workshops at the invitation of HOLA (Heart of Los Angeles), an association that offers free after-school mentorship programs to children from underserved communities. Under Bresson's tutelage, teenagers first learned about the story-telling techniques of traditional European "history painters" like Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David, whose oeuvres greatly influence Bresson's own artistic practice. Next, Bresson conducted an indoor studio photoshoot in which the students applied their art history discoveries, posing in ways to convey meaning and communicating with their peers through body language, much like the models depicted in history paintings do. Finally, in the last workshop, which happened remotely due to COVID, each participant collaged isolated images of themselves from the photoshoot onto images of places in LA that were meaningful to them.
The results of this exercise are inspired photomontages with compositions similar to those of history paintings and subsequently similar to Bresson's hyperrealist signature works, in which dramatically lit and theatrically posed figures are rendered in architectural settings. Bresson's three large-format artworks on display here at The Armory Show are painstakingly-painted reproductions of photomontages that he himself made alongside the students during the workshop. The figures pictured are based on the actual students who participated in the workshop, modeled after images from the studio photoshoot, and the panoramic background settings are based on actual locations in Los Angeles nearby HOLA headquarters, modeled after snapshots taken by Bresson while driving around the area.
HOLA's headquarters are located in an area of downtown Los Angeles close to MacArthur Park, which was once known in its heyday as the Champs-Élysées of Los Angeles, a vacation destination full of luxury hotels and shops. But the neighborhood that Bresson encountered in 2020 and captured in his paintings, has since lost its luster, marked by an increase in crime, violence, and homeless encampments, while fanciful palm trees and blue skies remain. In the midst of the workshops, this neighborhood began to suffer tremendously from the COVID pandemic, due to its community's lack of access to affordable healthcare, cramped living situations, and families full of essential workers. For the students who participated in the workshops and are seen pictured in Bresson's paintings, this neighborhood is first and foremost home, as most of the kids live within walking distance of HOLA and rarely have had the opportunity to leave beyond a 20 block radius. For the Frenchman artist in residence Bresson, this location in LA became familiar and meaningful to him, albeit in a different way, over the course of the workshops.
Bresson illustrates these various perspectives and perceptions of this LA neighborhood quite literally in his paintings, converging vanishing points, elongating horizon lines, and bringing both foreground and background into sharp focus. He uses the old-school technique of chiaroscuro to obstruct the signs of joy and play on the figures' faces, and to emphasize the violence of sharp shadows cast by bodies in motion under broad daylight. Bresson renders volume in such high contrast and definition until it is overwrought, at which point it amazingly begins to distort the overall image, and ultimately leaves the viewer in a puddle of uneasiness, questioning who and what they are actually looking at.
Left untitled, Bresson's works do not depict or reference a specific narrative episode from current events, literary, historical or religious sources, although they do have a basis in very real experiences. Incredibly self-aware, and intentional about his visceral work, Bresson paints scenes that resemble memories, but in actuality are composite recollections, faithful representations of subjective realities. Another disclaimer should be issued here: Bresson is not a history painter. He is a hindsight painter; an artist who shares perspectives on the past to reveal that there is darkness even on the brightest days.
Text by Brittany Richmond