Preface : Interview with Henri-François Debaileux, art critic and journalist
In 1976 Benoit Luyckx decided to devote himself totally to sculpture. He started to work on soft limestone at a stonemason’s close by the Saint Restitut quarry, on the fringes of Provence. There, he carried out a number of works and had several exhibitions. However, very soon the material no longer suited him: rather brittle, the stone did not allow him to obtain the finishes he required. So, in 1978, he set off for Carrarra (Italy), to engage with the famous marble, harder and more fine- grained, that he worked over until he obtained a very smooth polish. He was extremely attracted by white marble until the day when, in some artisans’ workshops, he came across black Belgian marble blocks. Benoit Luyckx was instantly attracted to this denser, stronger, more mysterious material, doubtless more dramatic and which, more than white marble, allowed him to interiorise shapes and to strengthen them. It was the very start of the eighties. Benoit Luyckx settled into a workshop in the Paris suburbs, and made regular trips to Belgium in order to choose his blocks in the quarries, the ones he worked on almost exclusively until 1990. During his trips to Belgium, he came across another stone, the “little Belgian granite” or “blue Belgian stone” and he decided to grapple with it. He has never used anything else since then.
You have been working on that “little granite” for nearly fifteen years now. What are its particularities and what does it allow you to do?
I love this fossilized, dense and hard, sedimentary stone, that is stronger inside and which, because it can be extracted in large blocks, allows me to make monumental sculptures. From fractured shimmering blacks to polished blacks – using traditional tools like hammers, chisels, abrasives and particularly the latest diamond disk – I can now carry out research on reliefs, textures, various shades of gray with their different meanings (skin, fur, sand, water, knits, etc). I was able to invent a sort of vernacular, a rather subtle graphic palette, close to drawing, to capture light, refract it, scatter it about, because, owing to its intensity and its various shaded areas, the sculpture takes on various aspects.
Why do you mainly work in quarries and not much in your studio?
I always enjoyed going into quarries seeking adventure, discovering the extraction, searching for the material. On site, there is enormous intensity. I can sculpt in the open air, and I feel free to make as much noise and dust as is implicit in sculpting en direct carving. That approach helps me get closer to the material as well as to nature itself. I find there a specific ambience, a sort of spirituality. At times the environment seems harsh, but there is nonetheless a human contact with the people working there. All that combines in a true dynamics. In my workshop I make the models, small pieces and I also finish some of the sculptures sketched out in the quarry.
The diamond disk seems to be your favorite tool. What does it do for you?
From the very start in Carrarra, I used those disks. They allow me to sketch out a shape pretty quickly, a honed shape it would take too long or might be impossible to carry out with traditional tools. It cuts through the material without harming it. It has also allowed me to evolve progressively towards a better approach of modernity. For instance, by crossing vertical and horizontal sawings that let through some light at their intersecting points, I can summon the architectural constructs of our environment, and I can simultaneously combine rigorousness and suppleness when seeking elevation. The diamond disk also led me to explore and develop new fields, particularly those pertaining to the rhythms of the notches in the material, to reveal its virginal state once again, while also emphasizing the traces of wear and tear due to the disk. For other sculptures, the variations in the saw’s ribbed textures bring me closer to the plant world. The notion that I can invoke the poetry inherent in the vegetal and the mineral worlds thanks to an extremely contemporary tool interests me enormously. I feel that the tool’s imprint is like a signature of our times engraved in the stone. Today many artists work with new technologies, which I actually find very interesting, but I personally prefer to confront the stone’s hardness, its weight, and to make contemporary sculpture with a material that has been used throughout the ages.
What themes and forms have you broached thanks to these different materials?
At first, I was particularly interested in the idea of the body in motion, frequently inspired by dance and amorous body movements. But I have never really represented the body as such. It had more to do with seeking out a synthesis of motion; a work based on balances, on sensuality. Moving from limestone to marble, the shapes became lighter, more refined. Afterwards, with black marble, my work increased in rigorousness. I outlined volumes through geometric surfaces, then I fashioned and rounded out the shapes so as to enliven that overly strict, linear geometry. Between 1982 and 1990, during my various stays in New York, I became fascinated by geometry, the thrusting upwards, the grandiose aspect of its architecture, but I also sensed the dangers inherent in those strict lineaments, too often oppressive and inhuman. I wanted more curves and waves. I dreamed of curving the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers to make them livelier, more humane. That is why in works like Deux Blocs amoureux, or Transportées, I carved out the encounter of two blocks of stone meeting in an amorous embrace. Within the same notion of the play of attraction, I carried out the series Duos, in which each sculpture was made up of two shaped and stretched forms, but each one dressed in different and complementary textures, inspired, respectively by nature and modernity. At that time, architecture was evolving in more supple lines and my works, with their curves and counter-curves, were close to these concepts.
Meanwhile you were also broaching the theme of the body and more specifically the torso.
I no longer use the word body. I speak only of torsoes since it corresponds better to what I am seeking, in actual fact an interior and existential representation of the inner being. The torso is the part of the body that corresponds to breathing, it is the life-source, and the place of interiorization. I approached it by suggesting its molded form, circumscribed within a minimal and geometric volume, and I usually outline it trapped within a trapeze, with no figurative desire, without showing the breasts’ outline, for instance. Like a remembrance, in fact.
With my first torsoes, I attached great importance to the surface of the work: I smoothed it out, scratched and carved it to provide the appearance of fur, to bring man closer to his animal origins, and to suggest sensuality and timelessness. Later on, I continued in the same vein by always making the torso a support for various textures and as an excuse to think about human beings. I liked to point up the contrasts by acting on half the torso in a patterned manner, squared off like a grid, a reference to the enclosure of building’s façades, and for the other half I worked roughly, breaking the rigid pattern in opposition to the modernist side, and its refusal, as a revolt, destined to find its initial, primitive appearance once more. In the same way, I often split the torso in two: its right side gentle, smooth and the left roughened, to point up the duality, the ambivalence of a human being with his wish for serenity and his sufferings. Like yin and yang. Basically, the torso becomes practically abstract. Frequently when barely outlined and imperceptible, it becomes a basis for writing, describing the various textures and material effects that reveal different aspects of our being.
That frontier between abstraction and figuration is also to be found in your most recent sculptures, which, nowadays, remind one of plants.
They are allegories of nature, close to a symbolization of its sensual texture, based on touch, form and rhythm. At first, it arose from a wish to get closer to the natural world, to its essential components. And what particularly interested me was quite literally to position myself between abstraction and figuration, like in my torsoes, in fact. That explains why each flower, each plant, has a symbolic, metaphorical shape, simultaneously recalling a corolla, a leaf, a pistil….Therefore it is an invocation, a symbol for the awareness of a need for nature and the fascination it exerts. I am not remotely interested in representing either a specific flower or plant, identifiably so. It would not be fascinating in any way. I far prefer this relationship between shapes, that interplay along the borders and evocations leaving the viewer that much freer. Basically, I invoke nature without representing it.
Why do you mostly use spirals to represent these plant forms?
Quite simply because it is a basic shape, as much in the plant as in the animal world. I chose it to outline the upward path of the living being seeking light. Inside the spiral, I enjoy progressing by playing with the furrows, waviness, variations in openings, crevasses, outlining their veins with the disk. At first, the curved approach revolved around a vertical axis, then I narrowed that axis to endow the spiral shape with more life, more movement and thus make it dance. At the same time, I also increased the base’s volume, like a metaphor for a belly. Then I lengthened, pulled out the support-basis, it began to look like a stalk on which I placed a spiraled corolla and pistil to recall flora. But once again, what mostly intrigues me is simply to suggest plant life, without any specific references. Recently, I have taken to laying down the spiral, I place it horizontally to see it differently in space and increase the diversity of viewing angles.
If someone who had never seen your works, asked you what do you sculpt, what would you answer?
That ever since I have been making sculpture with direct carving , as our long-ago ancestors did, but in my case using up to date tools, I am trying to signify human beings in their environment, be it natural or psychic. Currently I feel more attracted to nature, seeking for a balance, between it and modernity. I am trying to develop my imaginary through nature, be it human, animal or plant life, in order to come upon certain sensuality, a certain dynamics, and a certain basic truth.
Interview with Henri-François Debailleux, art critic and journalist
Translated in English by Ann Cremin