Michael Wessing, “Zeichen Bild Symbol” – “Sign Image Symbol”, Bielefeld, 1988
"We painters are like poets and fools.
We lay claim to freedom and fill its
place with characters of our fantasy"
A realistic artist is someone whose art is obliged to sensually experienceable reality; which can also be recognized by the observer of this art without further ado as an element of reality.
If, in contrast, it is the depictive object of an artist like Etien to create a work that is supposed to also express the sphere of dreams and symbols, a representation borrowed from reality thus actually disguises the unrepresentable phenomenon. The thus ensuing discrepancy between true - to nature reproduction and the growth of unreal images from the inner realm has been elucidated by Kandinsky in his theoretical work "on the Spiritual in Art" (1), where he makes the attempt of sketching a grammar of painting:
"The element of the abstract gradually moves closer and closer to the fore in art, which only yesterday hid itself shyly and hardly visibly behind purely naturalistic endeavors. And this growth and finally predominance of the abstract is natural. It is natural, because the more the organic form is repulsed the more this abstract element moves to the fore by itself and asserts itself."
Kandinsky outlines with these words the creative impulses that seek inner form from the depths of the soul. In order to convey pictorial expression to his thoughts and feelings Etien has more or less developed an "inventory" of artistic symbols and metaphors: disc and circle, curvy and straight, triangle and cross, eye and fish.
Thus, the circle is nothing other than the expanded dot, an image of the perfect and equal in itself. The dot, the germ of life, has forced itself into the circle, the primal basis of being. According to Plotin (ca. 205-270) the center is the father of the circle - one can understand that in connection with the universe (God) and the (His) creation. The kernel disc, that is the dot in the circle, signifies the symbol of achieved fertilization and stands for a legally binding marriage in the terminology of family science - on from which life will sprout.
Etien's circles, which experience a segmentation through cross-strokes, symbolizes activity and creative work. The stroke lies on the circle, the sign of the very source and attests the work, the creation at the temporal point of evolution - the testifying, working, active world.
The uneasy, frequently occurring overlying direction of the brush strokes signifies elementary, basic images that attach themselves somewhere in "plan less order", work their way in, and thereby elucidate a vital impulse, like an arrow, which points to a ray of sunlight as a life motivator. With Etien the symbolism of the arrow is expanded by the conic forms, appearing to act plastically toward the phallic fertility symbol, like the recognition of surmounting material gravitation.
The repetition of circles, segments and straight lines thicken to an image of eternity, to a cyclic movement within the universe, to the re-beginning and renewal of creation; they imply, though, also the dualist principle whose other side demarcates variability. The phenomenon of maintaining and preserving life is also elucidated in Etien's pictures by forms like water waves or serpentine lines. On one hand, the serpentine line symbolizes the course of fate from life to death and to life again; on the other hand, the serpent implies the significance of the utmost concentration of the negative.
The triangle or- linearly seen- the rafter, as part of a ruse, which stands for the mother as a bearing being, becomes the symbol for a sprout and the childlike strength of the new. The rich symbolic character of the clear triangle is in Etien's painting "Egypt" as a construction form of the pyramid, expanded into a link between heaven and earth. The painting "Earth Symbol" shows a garish colored painted cross on a brown toned base. In color symbolism brown - ranging from ochre to dark earth brown - is considered to be the color of the ground, on which here the symbol of earthly, human creative power - two crisscrossing paths- is superimposed and thus appears as a betrothal of man and earth.
"A fish in a world of its own . . ." is the name of one of Etien's paintings in which a semi-circle with seven eyes, as well as a large fish, at first is the most noticeable.
As an instrument of sensual comprehension the eye is almost everywhere, it is also the organ of intellectual comprehension. When the cherubim of Ezechial's vision (1,18; 10,12) is described as being covered entirely with eyes, the special heavenly gift of comprehension of earthly things is meant. The eye is understood as illumination- illuminatio-, which lends the spiritually blind the light of grace. The fish, which in many cultures plays, above all, the role of a talisman, is not only the primeval symbol of water, but at the same time of life and fertility.
Etien's paintings, with their consistent symbolism, are all technically brilliantly executed and display enormous plasticity. In many of his latest works Etien distances himself at long last entirely from concrete objectivity, only the repeated recognition of a certain object, and not the pure feeling of that which is to be expressed. Etien evokes a world of sensual spiritualization and mystical alienation. He creates a cosmos where often no orientation of single objects in depth is still possible - everything appears to hover between colors and shadows.
Kandinsky already recognized the following as to such problematics; ". . . color offers, if properly applied, the possibility of advancing or retreating, striving forwards or backwards, and can make the picture into an object hovering in the air, which is analogous to the pictorial expansion of space."
Next to color the "structura" of a work is of essential significance. This "structura" describes how the whole appears to be joined together. The individual signs (strokes, points, etc.) are thereby the means of the meaning-conveying structurability of a picture. An imparting of signs and symbols takes place in the picture itself, whereby the style is the dependent variable of the internal structural principles.
The concept of "formed seeing", coined in 1925 by Hans Sedlmayr (2), means nothing other than that both pictorial dimensions - appearance and meaning - can be optimally interpreted. In one direction the relation of appearance and meaning can be pictorial; in the other symbolic. The symbolic-conceptual observational level of the sensual layer and pictorial sense leads to an approach to iconology, the existential basis of paintings, whereby - principally with Etien - contemplation as the recognition of the sensual achievement of the "beautiful" is anticipated.
Etien shows in new formulations how mythical allusions can be found in multi-layered representations, and how these interchange - almost playfully, contrast or combine with detail variations into compositional rows. An immense potential of form and an inventory of forms is now available and can be implemented at random. The abstraction and reduction of forms leads, next of all, to greater clarity, then distinguishes itself, however, by the increasing concentration of structural elements, so that on viewing Etien's paintings, a rational as well as an aesthetic side is satisfied . . . mathematics and lyrics as siblings.
Signals, signs and symbols (numeric symbols included) invite one to research painting in general: a search - also for archetypal ideas - begins, not concerning the establishment of meaning - as sketched at the beginning, but comprehending Etien's world of ideas on the part of the viewer.
Etien fortunately makes the attempt of making space pictorially experienceable, which is not only determined by the spiritual forces at work within him, but also by the special organization, its architecture and structure. Etien is a perfect painter. With him the love of painting of a young generation of artists is not limited to a pathetically tossed-off gesture, but - as the watchfully observing accompanist of the innovative possibilities of previous Pop Art - he employs its principles inherently. This, however is only to be understood optically: his paintings. which look like screen prints - are painted! His collages and paper frottages - are painted! The perfect "trompe l'oeil", from which idea the viewer can free himself with difficulty that the things to be seen are not real, not haptically tangible. Etien, therefore, toys with the viewer and challenges his reaction. Picture titles like "Sign Improvisation" or "Mirrored Perplexity" are valid as indications. A decodation thus implemented leads to the visual education of the viewer.
The power of the painting often evokes the impotence of speech, the language of pictures often left open to interpretation. This is also doubtlessly valid for Etien - with him the question as to the explicitness of a work of art is not posed.
The surprising reality of the material in contrast to nebulous ciphered structures in the sense of a redundance makes up the explosive force of Etien's works. Here signs and symbols become the media of thought and expression - his structure is dynamic.
Michael Wessing, Bielefeld, 1988
(1) Wassily Kandinsky, "Über das Geistige in der Kunst", Munich, 1911
(2) Hans Sedlmayr, "Gestaltetes Sehen", in: Belvedere, 1925, #40
Knowledge of the "métier", the sense for form and color, the arrangement of a composition - the pertinent implementation of all these artistic facets are Etien's fundamental qualities. His skill is considerable, especially at a time when laxity is pervasive.
With this powerfully elaborated art an attempt at analysis by considering virtuosity as a necessity recommends itself. Meditative, thoughtful painting, where the "trompe d'oeil" intervenes according to the perspectives chosen, following the pulsations of humor and of messages at different levels; painting so full of symbols and aesthetic realities can only express itself within the framework of technological quintessence. It serves "cognizant art", proud in dominating complex procedures; rich in fertile conceptual power. Repetitions of modules, geometric figures, but also of fruit and paper "foissés" impose themselves on the fantasy of the background; on the points, the various lines being continued in clear tonalities, on the ribbons traversing space, on the singularity of crescents... a saga of givers elements, natural or artificial, traveling from one place to another, maintains the rhythm and identity of the image.
This inventory, however incomplete and insufficient it may be, must not neglect the picturesque exploit, the extraordinary subtlety, this game of permanent and sovereign illusion. Through ever more superpositions, by the interplay of shadow applied according to contrasts and shades, the "trompe l'oeil" appears, underscores the areas of interest. A new point of focus produces a different vision, as if contemplation became perceptible on the collages and reliefs, introducing doubt, seeming to contest the flatness of the canvas. It forces the viewer to entertain a new approach whose immediate conclusion reveals the duality of vertiginous achievement and imaginative richness.
If it is true that any discernment of this work should not be attempted without this consensus, other trumps are at the disposal of the contemplator, and their value is not less important.
Imagination, after all, is the element that allows Étien to arrange his puzzles, perhaps his rebus, because the connotation of his titles gives rise to inquiry. "Two Triangles", "Three Blind Mice" are hardly major problems. But is it the same with "The Princess" or "A fish in a world of its own"? Glassy eyes staring at us add to the mystery...But fantasy is not merely attached to the details of a single inquiry, to the idea of objects on canvas. With a fecund artist daily adventure flows out in a gesture of another dimension. Étien's imagination asserts itself authentically, free of fashion and convention; his style comprises motions, rhythms serving this osmosis of defined objects and graphic and colored vivacity. If they arouse our curiosity, our constructive perception will guide us to the intrinsic message of his painting. One must esteem his grand elegance: the distinction of his fundamental colorizations, the ochers, the grays, the slightly bluish pinks, whose unity brightens a canvas offering but brittle options; the ribbons undulating cheerfully, these metallic cones, these triangles, these circles, these papers, crumpled in an astonishing manner.
And, of course within the entirety of all these messages created with minute precision one has to feel the sensibility, It overflows, transcends the "tromp d'oeil", placing this aspect in the realm of mere medium. Humor is one of Etien's characteristics, mystery another. Ètien offers us an extraordinary panorama, like a slightly ironical magician to whom life proposes a million choices. He conjures up such local circumstances, such possibilities of astonishing juxtaposition, if necessary creates thoroughly explored by-plays, then with the notion that his art mends our minds and with his very own cunning ease he entices us to a poetic perception, to mystery, to humor. It is up to us to experience his spell and his charm...
Michael Gaudet, Cagnes-sur-Mer, June 1987
REDUCTION AND GROWTH: THE RECENT ART OF ÉTIEN
The history of art in this century has traced a breathless course of accelerating change as rapid and erratic as he social and political changes it reflects. If there seemed a steady progressing toward freedom, spontaneity, and personal expression in the later half of the 19th century, the 20th has been almost from its beginning a period of restless exploration and variation, with the creative instinct in a state of perpetual flux. Styles and theories have come and gone with such rapidity that a bewildered public can hardly distinguish a trendy fad from a true innovation.
Among superficial and uncommitted artists who follow fashions in art as they might follow fashions in clothes or among the corrupt and publicity-hungry who pursue novelty to captivate a jaded audience, some few artists of integrity remain who pursue their own visual paths independently, indifferent to the shifting winds of public taste. If their works change is not in response to pressures from their galleries or the temptations of the marketplace, but as natural internal growth. Such as artist is Étien, who established a solid reputation in the late 1970s and early 80s for a quirky synthesis of symbolism, surrealism, and abstract illusionism, which defied classification but managed gracefully to harmonize several schools. The technical virtuosity in these early pieces by Étien was impressive, but it was not the ingenuity of their technique that gave them their special authority. It was rather the intriguing fusion of the sensual and the cerebral, the haunting blend of humor, fantasy and mystery in which the kernel of meaning was wrapped. The defining device of abstract illusionism- the balance of abstract images and trompe-l'oeil effect of three dimensionality - was given a special slant in Étien's paintings by the use of a surrealist angle of vision: objects which hover at the edge of recognizable reality- forms from solid geometry which might be cut or molded from almost recognizable materials - form tantalizingly suggestive still lifes, their corporeality irresistibly conveyed by the shadows above which they seem to float.
The dexterity with which Étien succeeded in introducing fictive space into abstract or surreal contexts was disarming - and accordingly dangerous. It might have been easy to dismiss these engaging whimsies, with their delicate colors, droll stylization, or elegantly austere regularity of design, as mere ingenuity, a facile manipulation of space and light to trick the eye. Indeed, many of the practitioners of abstract illusionism fell into the easy habit of substituting style for substance. But as masterful as Étien's illusions, and as persuasive as his suggestions of recessive space were, he never allowed his style to become mere mannerism. The eye- and mind-deceiving trick was always used in the service of a larger aesthetic end. Rather than capitalize on the easy appeal of the trick, like a stage magician who used his legerdemain merely to confound and amuse the audience, Étien has from the beginning employed the illusion of depth to lend real substance to his imagery. The clever suggestion of foreground shape floating above receding ground compels not only attention in his work but a certain respect, establishing the fact that even if the cognitive content of a piece is not immediately evident, there is clearly something more than surface to it.
An element of Étien's work that has added pictorial depth to provocative shape has been the richness of surface he has employed since the early 1980s. Complementing the illusory suggestion of texture, he frequently enhanced the place surface of his figures - whether unidentified fragments of reality or real fish and fruit - with a random gestural design recalling the kinetic patterns of action painting. This aleatory embellishment conveys an energy that perfectly completes the unearthly poise of the primary compositions. The complexity and diversity of some of these paintings was the more impressive because it was so obliquely achieved; the elements - ranging from meticulously executed realia through arbitrary, undefined, but still very substantial shapes, to pure, elemental form - all co-exist harmoniously in par by reason of the technical diversity of their rendering, extending across the stylistic spectrum from what would be photo-journalism (if there were anything real to photograph) to the freest and most spontaneous abstract expressionism.
But Étien has not allowed himself to linger and exploit his technical achievements. With the complete mastery of an inventive and provocative manner very much his own, he has progressed yet further along the path whose end may not be guessed but whose general direction has become clear. No longer challenged by the dazzle of illusionism, Étien has grown increasingly subtle, purer in both form and color, and perhaps a little less self-indulgent in displays of technical ingenuity. In his recent work, he has abandoned the slight-of-hand of his magic realism, allowing the imagery to rest on a single plane. He has also receded further into abstraction relying more on non-illusionistic form qua form, with no effort at tricking the eye. The appeal now is a more purely aesthetic one, but, with characteristic conceptual duality, he speaks to the cognitive faculty as much as to the optical.
His titles are sometimes helpful, sometimes deliberately tantalizing. Some are clearly referential: "Fish" identifies the pisciform elements lying starkly immobile against an animated background of irregular cross-hatching; "Bird" contains the essence of the avian although the bright fragments of color resemble nothing known to conventional ornithology. Other titles are less semantically explicit. The Iberian element of "Spanish Light" and "Spanish Sun" is apparent only at a very subliminal level in the brilliantly suggestive abstractions with those names.
While Étien has relinquished some of his showier compositional devices, his recent work contains evidence of all that has preceded it. His mastery of structure is as clearly revealed as in his abstract illusionist and surrealist work, but it is now embodied in simpler, more assured form which bears the stamp of a new authority. A fluid calligraphic element has begun to appear, not only in the backgrounds as before but as a primary compositional element. Like Mark Tobey's "white writing" (but in black against white), he weaves free-form abstract patterns like some kind of teasingly undecipherable scrip in the appropriately named "Forgotten Language."
As Étien has grown more concerned with formal structure, he has begun to evolve a pictorial grammar of his own, and it has become increasingly stable and independent of conceptual demands. He is thus able to support his intuitive impulse without reliance on the aid of overt symbolism, and therefore free of the need for objective (or the illusion of objective) subject matter. The new work of Étien moves freely between abstract and figurative modes, sometimes without clearly distinguishing the two. Incorporation elements of both, the figurative reduced to virtual abstraction (as in his ultimately reductive "Swallows"), Étien has developed a pictorial vocabulary that encompasses both geometrical and gestural imagery.
The effect is one of great economy, often producing significant results with the slightest of means. By the barest suggestion of subject matter, Étien creates rich and substantial associations in work that function at several levels at once.
Born near Washington, D.C., Étien studied art in New York City and has lived and worked in California, the Caribbean, Hawaii, France, Germany, and Greece. He exhibited his work widely throughout France and Germany as well as in the United States.
As his work has progressed, it has shown a steady increase in intellectual complexity while growing more reductive and its content more concentrated. With his latest acrylics on canvas or paper, Étien has become on of the most challenging of contemporary artists.
New York City, March 1991
Beyond All Ideologies
One is not born as an American within the sphere of radiation of Washington, D.C. for nothing. This "Rome on the Potomac", designed from the "Capitoline Hill" as its center by the Paris-born engineer L'Enfant, is a classical city bound to European traditions, but, nonetheless, one characterized by generously lined perspectives and dominated by spatially comprehensive visual axes specific to the New World.
The radical changes in the weather, the glowing sun, the force of the rainstorms and the theatrical play of the clouds in Takoma Park, at the dividing line between Maryland and the District of Columbia, did not remain without consequences for a young boy named Steven. And not without consequences he had a father who taught his children to listen to the message of the wind, water, flowers and trees and who led them to observe the stars and feel their way into the planetary stage across the far-flung horizon.
Thus it is not surprising that the boy decided to go beyond his father's enthusiasm for nature by scientifically occupying himself with the elements and studying meteorology. After all, "gazing at the stars" also included knowledge of the weather and natural occurrences on the earth's surface; the cosmos became a point of fascination. Determining storm fronts, air pressure, atmospheric radiation, investigation of climate and vegetation, of thermodynamics and electricity became his professional goal by virtue of his childhood experiences and astonishment. Even if the magical powers of the ancient rainmakers and cloudburst sorcerers had long since been supplanted by geophysical knowledge and computer technology and seemed to be superfluous and forgotten - one need only think of Hermann Hesse's representation in the first curriculum vitae in Magister Ludi -, the enthusiasm of taking part in the universal performance of the forces of nature had remained alive for the student at that time. Science became a detour.
Furthermore it was not without consequences that this student of meteorology at Rutgers University at the beginning of the 70's became involved in the movement of the "flower children" and, behind all the positivistic search for details, discovered the flower-power trend's yearning for entity as corresponding to his innermost being. Timothy Leary's philosophical foundations were concerned with the revival of those magical powers, with the extension of the power of perception of mankind who had lost whole areas of experience through the narrow confines of logic and "cause-and-effect thinking".
This was the time when the musical "Hair" offered a new perspective of the world whereby not only an increased vital energy was to be attained (even if with the help of drugs). More essentially, this philosophy dealt with the dispersal of the time-and-space demarcation of our consciousness and thereby with a new, more broadly defined concept of reality. This psychedelic path into one's innermost being was, at the same time, a path away from isolation towards a feeling of allness not to be more closely defined, it became an embedding that couldn't be communicated but could only be experienced - a cosmically primeval reeling. The goal, to erase the border between reality and the world of dreams, is as old as time. It became the impetus for many religious cults and always led to the question: What is real, what is true? Having obtained his degree meanwhile, the meteorologist also attempted to fathom the correlations between day and dream. The teachings of the French symbolists, especially of Rimbaud, strengthened his urge to become a "dropout", whereby this "dropping out" and refusing meant at the same time a new allocation of his intellectual energy to esoteric-prophetic contents. For his ecstatic rebirth he chose a new name: the meteorologist Steven became the artist Etien.
The belief that actual, "more real reality" can be experienced in the subconscience, deciphered in dreams and in a state of euphoria and be depicted in pictures has inspired poets and artists since time immemorial. Let us only recall those in our century who sought the path to pre-rational depths: Apollinaire, who, in 1913 announced the "spiritual" as the fourth dimension in painting, or André Breton who in 1924, as theorist of the Surrealists, founded the magazine "La révolution surrealisme". By fragmentation of the accustomed world of tangible objects in his "pittura metafisica" Chirico, in 1917, attempted something super realistic with suggestive intensity and in 1925, in the first group exhibition, Max Erst intensified surrealism in its symbolic super elevation to an abstract language of forms - to an art in which the seemingly senseless, dreamlike and enigmatic, the visionary and mythical, assume the character of reality; not least because phantasmagorias assume shapes with the concreteness of hard glass.
Etien took to traveling after his training with Julian Levi and Robert Brackmann at the Art Students League in New York City. Landscapes became an experience in colors for him. In Greece, Hawaii and Spain he investigated the symbolic power of coloring by painting, in the snow of the French Alps he discovered the mysterious sound of the "non-color" white.
I have now arrived at my own primary theme: We contemporaries look for existential content in the work of an artist, we check on the message of a life-story that he imparts to his work. We take little interest in painting that can only be defined by aesthetic formalism, we are also not in search of something pleasing and tasteful in a commercially puzzled-out work as wall decoration. We rather ask about the message that concerns us as contemporaries. Modern art has a compensating character; in literature, as well as in painting, it looks for the lost and forgotten in our functional environment: in short, for the fulfillment of that denied to us in everyday life. In the created work the antinomy of art and life are brought up: here the artist develops his autonomous ego, freed from constraints, and here he becomes the guide to "more real reality" for the viewer .
Etien succeeds in doing this in different thematic and compositional series that demolish the boundary between myth bound show and reality. In these he shows no negation of material motifs, in the contrary, he lays them on canvas with reproductive precision. We recognize in astonishment a tendency to the old masters, to taking individual details seriously by putting them on canvas with a perfection that cannot be improved upon and integrating them into a composition, thus intensifying them symbolically. His penchant for the fantastic is combined with a preference for cosmic symbols that can be recognized as a game made up of dream images of the past and future, of the upswing of time and space - the usual coordinates of recognition - into the interplay of forces behind the material (or far beyond it). He invites us to a journey into the expanses of the universe and allows an orbis pictus of extraordinary dimensions to emerge, attracted to fantasy and, nevertheless, bound to nature, whereby the knowledge about the confining, elucidating nature of science always shimmers through: away from alienation to a new total experience.
In this richness of ideas, fueled by data and facts, one finds a concentration onto the substantial. An apple in his pictures is an apple as such, the very image of an apple. Etien illustrates the universal and valid characteristics of an apple - a painted concept, so to say. A velvet like wavy ribbon with a refined light-and-shadow texture may perhaps be running underneath this apple, itself depicted with magical realism. It can be taken as a metaphor for change, the flow of time, but it likewise ensures the integration into the depth of the color perspective.
Etien creates a pictorial stage on which all elements are put together in apparently contradictory combinations and thereby change their character, becoming allegories. Think about the ambiguous rhythmization in the banana picture in which the color composition underscores the fantastic aspects of the picture's content: far from all local colors, the fruit lie before us in all their "superrealism", illusion-istically alienated in regard to consumption, haptic in their objective reality and, still, mystically enciphered. And all this with such technical brilliance! What appears to be collages or frottages in some pictures, wrinkled paper, for example, has actually been painted!
I tend to apply to Etien's painting Kleist's words about the composition of thoughts during the act of writing. The intellectual permeation of his pictures, born of a creative impulse, make his paintings most appealing. They have arisen from an immediate emotion, are not ingeniously conceived or puzzled out - but they are extremely clever. The intellectual in Etien recognizes well the sensual import of the depicted objects and ciphers, and likewise their change in meaning within the structure of his compositions.
This critical comprehension of his own work is also apparent in its formal arrangement. In spite of the graphic elements that pay respect to painting as a surface art, the perspective of depth is never missing. Etien gradually intensified this dialogistic way of painting - colors and graphisms are woven into compositional unity. With him the canvas never becomes a place for "pure painting", no self-authorization of color takes place, the script like elements prevent this. The color surfaces pushed on top of each other in his acrylic paintings become determinant for the whole in dynamic graduation. In this composition the abstractly oriented graphic structures offer a framework between which unconventionally restricted color forms - interspersed with symbolic shorthand signs - spread out.
We can discern periodic phases in the work of Etien (who has set up his ateliers in Munich and Vence/France), in which the choice of motifs and material changes, due to his delight in experimenting. The respective canon of motifs determines the changing technique of his painting. The titles of pictures betray the circle of thoughts and experiences from which the works emerged: Spanish Reminiscence, Denia, Veiled Changes, Sign Improvisations, Forgotten Language, A Feeling of Ease, Animal Spirits, Tribal Signs, Birds, Garden, Three Graces. Often pictorial ideas begin with the sound of a word, with an emotion, with a scent; they become color vision, joined with hieroglyphic signs, difficult-to-decipher runes, as in "Concept of Summer", "Carousel" or "Icarus" - the failed flight to the heights, the ascent and fall.
I think especially the biographical element, the assimilation of psychedelic universal yearning with the sober knowledge of the former meteorologist makes these works so exciting: they show the coincidence of the intellectual origin together with the capability to heighten this supply of thoughts and experiences aesthetically.
The spiritual component of his work culminates in a symbolic language that gives it explosive intellectual force: again and again we encounter the circle, circulum aeternitatis. It is open. Did a shattered world emerge from this perfectly geometric figure that has represented the cosmos since the beginning of mankind? Or is this universal circle open for communicating with something that we can only guess? Open for evolving into something new? This circle is often segmented by superimposed rafters or rune like slanting lines, conversions, eclipses.
We find discs like solar signs, and again and again the triangle, already a divine symbol for archaic peoples, a metaphysical figuration which - as, for example, in Kandinsky's theosophically influenced theoretical art tract "On the Intellectual in Art" - is interpreted as the symbol of the ascent from the material to the spiritual.
The fish, that aquatic cold-blooded animal, remains an essential element in Etien's painting. Whether as a shockingly faithful reproduction or disembodied to an ellipse - as an ambiguous symbol it unites something incommensurable: for some a morbid exhortation, for others the prophecy of happiness. It reminds us of the sign of recognition of the early Christian community and of the Oriental fertility omen. Likewise ambiguous are the arrows in Etien's paintings: a life-giving ray of sunshine or a deadly weapon of phallic aggressiveness?
Eyes are important in Etien's work and certainly not only as sources of the artist's cognition. Iconographically the eye was determined by Argos, son of Zeus, and by Niobe, that all-seeing creature whose body was covered with eyes that he alternately kept awake in order not to be overwhelmed in his function as protector. With Etien these eyes not only seem to signalize the vigilance of an Ezekiel or a guardian angel, nor the intellectual visual acuity of a prophet, either, but rather primeval creature fears. The fish in the acrylic paintings, meticulously executed in oil , threaten with the "evil eye", so much feared in the Mediterranean area, as if they were able to produce Gorgonic rigidity, that deadly transformation into stone.
Cone shapes also recur frequently in Etien's paintings: silver cones, enigmatically cool. Are they Valkyrie breastplates - metallic femininity? Cones of light? Or bundles of rays, melted to silvery light? Are they metalized volcanic shapes or perhaps even "funnels", the meteorological signal for bad weather? Such ciphers transmit contradictory contents as artistic unity, the viewer cannot and probably should not decipher them, but acquire a "knowing premonition" from them.
Let us take a look at the backgrounds of these paintings, if we may, indeed, describe such a constituent compositional element as a background at all. Meteoros - literally translated as something hovering (in the air) - these shooting stars and fireballs thicken here into areas strewn with splinters that circle each other, bore into one another, as if they had to withstand atmospheric shock waves. This dust from the universe, from glassy involvements to coal-colored mineral powder, ambiguously swirl through the lower levels of Etien's paintings. He transmits to us a kind of cyclic revolving. Particles of existence rotate swinging back and forth in front of unfathomable distance. Spheric trigonometry as a pictorial occurrence! Greetings from the Milky Way! Motional energy, freed from being bound to restricted bodies! The thundering collision of forces before their solidification into the earthly shape of individual objects! Isn't even the big bang supposed to be relegated to the realm of painting in some of these paintings? At this point one thinks involuntarily of Kandinsky's saying: "The creation of a work of art is the creation of the world".
Meteorites, those bodies of light full of magic from the heavens, are transported into aesthetics and transmit, in conjunction with archaic primeval shapes and those objects included in magical realism, Etien's world of ideas. The fusion of surrealistic characteristics with symbol-laden abstraction was rightly described in one of Etien's exhibition catalogue as a "risky adventure".
Unambiguous pictures are boring. Deciphering them makes an experience out of them. Etien's painting visualize the attempt to recapture the unity of contrasts. He offers mysticism and reason, organic warmth and inorganic coolness, he offers the yearning for pantheistic involvement and free flying, the path inward and spiritual expansion toward the cosmic.
As an artist he combines plastic strength with a surface-oriented method of painting, intuition with methodic investigation, lyrical and dramatic elements, intellectual processes with sensual observation, the finite and hints of the endless, geometry and magic, organization of the canvas surface and the summoning-up of a spiritual field of energy.
Since his temporary psychedelic phase Etien has been well acquainted with yin and yang, those opposing principles from Oriental philosophy that are to be understood universally. Like all pairs of opposites they have a mutual source. Even in their dialectically split state they remain related to one another and force their way out of segregation in time and space to unite again. Life vibrates back and forth between many poles, without this area of tension there would be no motion, no development, no life, therefore, only an eternal standstill. Etien attempts to make this extra temporal unity perceptible in the harmony of his compositions and, nonetheless, his work maintains these opposites in a state of tense calm. He offers dynamism in stillness. He offers flights of memory into the universe and, at the same time, recipes for returning to the earth.
Dr. Gisela Kleine Munich 1992
"Gabriele Münter und Wassily Kandinsy"
"Hermann und Ninon Hesse"
Etien - Strength through Forms at Play
"Color shapes should capture the emotions of past experience." This saying of his New York painter colleague Mark Rothko also characterizes Etien's painting. It emanates from the roots of his origins and a child's wonder at the forces of nature in his native country. He was born in 1948 in Tacoma Park and grew up within the area radiated by Washington, D.C., a city that, although bound to European traditions, is nonetheless dominated by the broad perspectives of the American continent. This dichotomy permeates all of Etien's work up to the present time. At the intersection of Virginia and Maryland he experienced as a child the merciless glow of the sun and the force of thunderstorms - a tremendous planetary staging ground before the far-flung horizon. His astonishment at the spectacle of uninhibited cosmic forces became the point of departure for his choosing to become a professional meteorologist. Aside from his search for details in researching the weather and heavens, however, the graduate meteorologist was soon seeking that unforgotten feeling of all that had enriched his childhood, and he thus broke out of the narrow gauge of logic, that cause-and-effect of scientific thinking, and became a painter. He wanted to create pictures that could depict the indefinable unity of the ego and the world that can only be experienced - one that could nevertheless be expressed with forms and colors. These biographical elements, the former meteorologist's analytical comprehension of reality, and an artist talented in working with myths, as well as his psychedelic yearning for totality, lend Etien's work tension: experienced contradictions super-elevating into the aesthetic and leavened in pictorial form.
After his training at the Art Students League in New York Etien traveled throughout the world. Whether in California, Hawaii, in the Greek island world, the Bavarian Lower Alps or on the Cote d'Azur - everywhere the impression of a landscape was transformed for him into a choir of colors, everywhere he tracked down the play of forces behind the world of appearances he wanted to condense into colorful shapes. Everywhere he encountered the forces of growth between attraction and rejection, descent and ascent, separation and interconnection, becoming and passing, a dance of shapes of living contrasts for which a synthesis can only be created in pictures. Etien paints systems of relationships. The full explosive force of his color creations illustrates the interaction of binding and severing, floating and interconnecting, sinking and rising, thrusting and smoothing, dangerous overlapping and tender touching - exemplary shapes for the natural processes of life. "Playground", "Dancing Forms on a Clear Day", "The Way Back" display shapes made rhythmical with clear lines, interspersed with graphic elements that break up contours and at the same time are pregnant with meaning.
Only little by little did Etien break away from representational art and experiment with elements of shape and color that he subsequently made the sole rulers of his painting. He felt free when he derived pictorial arrangements of shapes from the concrete world of appearances. In the course of his development the missing reproductive character of his paintings was increasingly compensated for by inner experience. Since he never became lost in ornamental or solely decorative flourishes his work eludes purely formal aesthetic judgment, but everything also always has a meaning!
Viewed within a chronological perspective, his rejection of illustrative objects only came about at a late stage after a number of self-contained and clearly delineated phases of development. They are differentiated by series of motifs and the choice of material; but they do stem unmistakably from a circle of thoughts and experiences. The transition from oil painting to the clear graphic lines of an acrylic or mixed technique brought about a stylistic change. But Etien's early oil paintings with their fruit, blossoms, loops, and wavy ribbons, painted with the meticulousness of an old master, betray the will to go abstract: through arrangements and alienating combinations, objects were taken out of their daily context and super-elevated into a mythical realm. Etien's style thus gained in surrealistic conciseness.
His path from this magical realism with its technical brilliance, displaying objects with sharp contours as hard as glass, led to a further consequential reduction to shorthand-like symbols. He placed them in front of a not more clearly definable background as if one were being confronted with infinity where lines and colored bodies jutted out like beacons.
Etien maintains a kind of cult mystery about shapes condensed into symbols that often remind one of rune like magical and tribal symbols which have to assert themselves among geometric elements embedded in deep layers thrusting forward. In an earlier picture cycle archaic, primeval shapes dominated, the circle, for example, circulum aeternitatis, the most perfect geometrical shape that has represented the cosmos since time immemorial. These circles often yawn, seem dissected or pierced - wounded, ravaged ciphers of entirety. The triangles are also pregnant with meaning - the divine symbols of archaic peoples - and the cones, cool metallically volcanic shapes or silvery bundles of rays? Perhaps, also a memory of the funnel, the meteorologist's signal for bad weather? In his latest creative phase presented here, ellipses are also a part of these ciphers, pointing as they do to intellectual landscapes like signposts. Greek elleipsis = a lack of something, since they are lacking the perfection of circular shape.
They permeated an earlier series of pictures as sharp-eyed fishes; we now encounter them monochromically, like growing bodies in plastic form moving toward shadowy shapes, as if they were in search of anchorage there. "Winter Shadow Games", "Summer Brightness" belong to a cycle of pictures of the seasons, formally executed in the same way but with different coloring, in which Etien plumbs the depths of the colors' sensory values: They transmit to the observer by way of association shivering during autumn showers, gentle expectation of spring, the coldness of a frosty winter day, or a feeling of happiness in summer at the sight of radiant yellow in front of shadowy shapes clearing up?
These elliptical bodies appear, merry and sprinkled with colors, in "Dylan's Time", an acrylic painting that reflects the happiest mood in all of Etien's pictures with autobiographical allusions. The birth of his little son enriched his palette with colorful effervescence. This also applies to "Transparent Forms on White", having been executed at the same time, where colorfully checkered seeds glide along in front of rampant vegetable contours, which seem to burst the picture frame in front of the brightly colored brushwork in the background.
Etien, an American who lives in Munich at present, combines the American conception of painting that emerged in the wake of Jackson Pollock with western traditions, whereas his American origins and schooling have become more and more pronounced in the course of the years. It is a wide-ranging, expansive style of painting, which - according to the program of the abstract expressionists - is supposed to correspond to the unlimited expanses of the New World, expanding the surface of the picture into a field of action and giving the impression that the motifs are growing rampant out of the frame and covering the whole wall. In addition, large-sized pictures such as these create the illusion of expanding the painted surface ad libitum and no longer offering the viewer any central focal point. Instead, they seem to be wanting to pull him into the maelstrom of the colorful goings-on. Étien preserves the European factor in regard to the content: The spiritual component of his work culminates in an abstract symbolic language. Moreover, traditional iconography remains recognizable in the compositional area - Étien does not renounce the illusion of space; one's view is always focused on the layers of depth tapped by the perspective of color. The viewer should not lose himself in whirls of color, but maintain his distance through the graphically clear structures and gain a point of view that gives the free-floating shapes of color their quality and direction.
Dr. Gisela Kleine Munich, 1996
"Gabriele Münter und Wassily Kandinsy"
"Hermann und Ninon Hesse"