Hervé Télémaque review – ‘His work is just waiting for some pretentious fool to decode it’

ou can’t accuse the Serpentine of relentlessly reciting liberal orthodoxies. One of the biggest paintings in its retrospective of work by Hervé Télémaque celebrates conservative Jacques Chirac’s landslide victory in the 2002 French presidential election. It’s a carnival of democracy with caricatures of Chirac from Le Monde. At the bottom of the jovial canvas, tuttavia, are figures appropriated from a painting about lynchings by the great African-American artist Jacob Lawrence. And there’s the sombre undertow. Chirac’s rival for the Élysée Palace was National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. That’s what made the victory so sweet, even if you were not a conservative, but also threaded with anxiety.

I was neither cheered nor worried by this sadly irrelevant work of art. It does not make recent history come alive. That’s the trouble with painting. A canvas from centuries ago can be devastatingly immediate, while one done the other day can be a dusty relic. I’m not sure if the 2002 election is remembered all that much even in France. And this is a fairly recent event by the standards of Télémaque’s art. US military activities in the 1960s and the death of André Breton are among the stories this Parisian pop artist tells. Nothing dates more badly than pop art. Most of its practitioners are museum artists now, lost in time. Who wants yesterday’s papers?

But let’s try to read through them. Born in Haiti in 1937, Télémaque fled the brutal rule of “Papa Doc” Duvalier a 20 and lived in New York before moving to Paris in 1961. As soon as he arrived, you can see him grappling with the paradoxes of francophone culture in one of its quintessential modern expressions – the Tintin books of the Belgian cartoonist Hergé.

At the front of the show is a circular 1966 image of a caricatured black face that could have come straight out of Tintin in the Congo. But it is both an absurd self-portrait and a backhanded homage to Tintin’s creator. If Télémaque can show the ugly racist side some see in Hergé, he also admires his crisp, sharp lines. In front of the face float two pairs of underpants in Hergé’s own style.

Where Roy Lichtenstein saw the beauty of American teen comics, Télémaque ransacks the bandes dessinées. Il suo 1966 work Inventory, an Interior Man features a big blue tent so Hergé-like you half expect Captain Haddock to emerge from it. But the fun ends there. This may be a quintessentially pop image, yet it’s part of a totally enigmatic constellation of stuff that is supposed to be autobiographical. Télémaque tries to communicate an inner mystery, rooted in his experience of psychoanalysis as well as colonial history, which explodes the apparently solid, everyday forms of pop art into abstract nebulae. You start out assiduously trying to decipher them but are soon defeated by the indigestible melange.

I was almost grateful for the didactic captions because at least they offer something to hold on to. How can the fairly simple visual language of pop simultaneously encompass expressive autobiography, the history of empire and politics of race? Turns out it can’t. Like the anglophone pop history painter RB Kitaj, the more depth Télémaque tries to add to pop’s ephemeral surfaces, the less convincing, or moving, his paintings become.

There are sculptures, pure. The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock takes a single line from TS Eliot’s poem of that title – “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” – and illustrates it by painting a piece of roughly carved wood with coffee grounds. Once you know it was made with coffee, there are resonances of exploitative labour in the Caribbean and Africa. But nothing visual in the work suggests that. And the Eliot reference seems a bit heavy to rest on a piece of driftwood.

His paintings just hang about waiting for some pretentious fool to decode them. Drift n1 is about Africa and the Americas, says the caption, “while at the bottom of the canvas is a reference to the history of slavery through the semi-abstract depiction of a chain gang”. Semi-abstract is a polite way of putting it. I dare anyone to recognise this painting’s content without being told. It just looks decorative, overcomplicated and hermetic.

The real drift here is in the Serpentine’s programme. Why is it suddenly so urgent to exhibit this recherché Parisian artist? Because he deals with race? Bene, he does so in such an odd, vague way that it barely seems his real theme. Infatti, I see no theme here at all.

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