THE ART OF MARIE-JOSE DANZON (from the 2007 Retrospective catalogue)

Artwork by Marie-Jose Danzon

Archéologie du silence / The Archeology of Silence (1988)

There is nothing, said the philosopher Derrida, ‘outside the text’. Outside the text-ure; the text-ile; the woven. Our words weave a meaning; our meanings are woven, of words for example, but also of many other fabrics, other makings. Our meanings are woven of wordless experiences: of a look, a kiss, a touch, a taste, an odour; of the sight of a bird winging into a sunset; of the intimation of a divine presence; of the warmth of a coat or a blanket on a dark and chilly night. Our meanings are woven, too, of art: of the sound of a cello playing a chord by Bach; of the perfect harmony of a Raphael or a Titian; of the pungent colour and form of a Van Gogh or a Rauschenberg. And so our meanings are woven also of this weaving of wovens, these texts of textiles that are the works of Marie-José Danzon. They weave our meanings, as well as hers, and theirs. Our meanings, because they interact with us. If we are silent, they will speak to us in their own language; and if we reply, they will hear us and quietly answer back.

Much of all art, and even more of modern art, is a placing, an arranging, a choreography of elements. Compared with painting, for instance, photography consists at least in part of taking a found scene and arranging it by the framing of the viewfinder and/or within the computer screen. This perhaps provides a clue to Danzon’s work, and to Danzon’s history. For her beginnings were in interiors, her other passion. For fifteen years a decorator and interior designer in Paris, she arranged: with elements she composed harmonies, and was most satisfied when clients did not consciously distinguish the arrangings but unconsciously felt good in the mysteriously-harmonious resulting space.

‘Patchwork’ as it is called in France, was and is an art that continues this arranging by other means, though often with the same materials. Yet the work that Danzon came to do, over the quarter-century of her textile art, could be called by other names. ‘Soft mosaics’ comes to mind: the piecing together of small elements of colour to form a whole that coalesces with distance and fascinatingly disintegrates with proximity. ‘Glueless collage’ might be another: scraps, bits, found flotsam disposed upon a ground and fixed there, trapped into glowing forever in one place. ‘Non-virtual pixels’: images, abstract or figurative or somewhere in between, that when magnified (or approached in intimacy) turn out to consist of tiny units assembled by something no computer can hope to equal.

There is nothing outside these mysterious yet compelling texts. They draw us in, by their immobile play with distance. They call us by their defined undefinable forms. They lure us by their silent vibrant colours. And when we have responded and approached, they touch us with their textures, tiny variations of the rough and the smooth, the fresh and the silky, the weighty and the airy. And in doing all this, they are weaving meanings in their conversation with our wordless selves. It is this, perhaps, that accounts for the extraordinary effect these works have on people. Having seen them exhibited time and again for twenty years, I have seen the most remarkable reactions. One woman held both the artist’s hands in her own, looked deep into her eyes and murmured with great intensity, ‘Thank God that you exist.’  Another looked for twenty minutes without moving, then burst into tears.

How do these works work? Danzon collects, and collects, and collects, the leftover bits of the textures destined to line our lives: drapes, upholstery covers, dress fabrics, silks, organzas, polyesters, metallics, everything. Sometimes these are old: among her trim collection is a piece of ribbon from the late seventeenth century, contemporary with Louis XIV. Sometimes they are so new that they do not yet have colloquial names: some of the manmade fabrics look like arrested chemical reactions. As she composes, she says, ‘I listen to my fabrics’. The essence of this art is to have an inner ear as fine-tuned as a composer’s or a concert violinist’s. As often as not, when the work begins, on the basis of a simple compositional and coloral idea, it is the fabrics that dictate the movement: the colour, the texture, the pattern – one leads to the next, and in this pointillist way the whole is gradually formed.

Time is a constant presence, much more than in the work of modern painters. There is the time of the textiles themselves: their age, their era, their experience. Something of what they have seen and witnessed remains in their woven air- and light-pockets. A Victorian ribbon or piece of beadwork has trapped something of its age, retained to be shared with the artist and the spectator, slowly and gradually. The scrap of a wedding-dress keeps some atoms of joy and maybe of a later sadness. Bits of text, labels perhaps, murmur words in a wordless environment and remember now-forgotten workshops.

Then, there is the time of making. Few other visual arts, especially in our speeding times, ‘take time’, take so much time. An average-sized piece takes three to four months of intense studio work from its inception to its delivery. During this time, patterns and relations form and are altered, they grow and develop, and the artist changes with them. This time-element allows for human time and life to enter into the texture of the work, making of the work also a text of the artist’s life – it may span, and therefore incorporate, a voyage, an illness, a wedding, a grief.

The time, finally, that the work spends with its owners – or, as the British say charmingly of their cars, its ‘keepers’ – and they with it. For this is very emphatically art that can be lived with. Not that it is self-effacing: these works are a presence as much as a person is. But they are a presence with which one interacts, into the relation to which one’s own life too can enter. This time is amongst other things a time of perpetual discovery. Discovery of the actual elements by close reading: the different fabrics that have gone into a work (and many have two thousand or more) all have their own voices, and entering into familiarity with these takes time. Discovery of the tranquil conversation the work holds with light in all its forms, from morning till night, from daylight to festive candles. Discovery, too, of what one sees in the work. No two people see quite the same sights in the patterns and colours of a Danzon work; but everyone sees something. And what one sees one day can be replaced a week later by something quite different, and equally true.

This is an art of extreme delicacy and subtlety. Like much modern art’s, its modernity is surprising, challenging, stimulating in quirky and unexpected ways. Unlike much modern art’s, its modernity is in no way strident, in no way hectoring, in no way cynical or even ironic. There is about it a wholeness, a kindness, that quietly draws us in and finally makes us glad to have responded.


RECENT WORK (since 2007)

In the work of Danzon’s later period, from 2007 on, we see an accelerated development away from the roots of traditional patchwork. On the one hand the visual structures move closer to painting (the influence of Abstract Expressionism is still dominant); on the other, the detail of textile and texture has grown exponentially subtler, creating in effect a parallel text. More than ever, the spectators’ movement is implied, is demanded: standing initially at a distance, they will see the work as a painting, yet with a difference (surfaces both matte and intricate); moving nearer, they will discover the text of the texture, gradually arriving at the astonishing intricacy of detail that a true close-up reveals. Gone are the visible structural elements (e.g. squares) assembled to form a whole; they still exist, but they are irregular and shape and size and are made almost entirely to disappear in the final work.

The spectators’ movement, implied and demanded, reminds us that these are works made to be lived with: the time of our life is an integral part of them. Just as their constitutive elements are (mostly) used textiles, which bring with them the aura of their history with humans, so their variety and their interaction create a surface dimension of the work which is alive in ways that even the most dramatic impasto in painting cannot equal. Alive in colour, but alive also in the density and movement of light on surfaces: twisting threads, colour seeping through layers of veil, weaves and prints, silks, cottons, wools, polyesters – a text as polyphonic as the score of a symphony.

Roger Kuin