It’s spring all year round for Lionel Sabatté as he bounces from one exhibition to another, one project to another. Art Media Agency visited him in his studio to learn more about his news, his work, his evolutions. A portrait.
Lionel Sabatté started 2017 under the sun of Los Angeles where he’s occupied a studio for the last two years. He went on to the refreshing coolness of his second studio in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, just next to Paris – which still offers a fair share of fine spells. The youthful forty-something originating from Toulouse is currently showing his sculptures in the courtyard of the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris while hundreds of his works have been chosen for the “Golem” show at the MAHJ (Paris) and “Vies d’ordures” at the MUCEM (Marseille). On top of this, Galerie C presented a solo show of his work at Drawing Now in March, and – the icing on the cake – he won the prize awarded by the fair. Yet another honour after already winning the awards distributed by the Institut Français in Mauritius, Yishu 8 (Beijing), and the Prix Patio La Maison Rouge last year.
This rhythm confirms the brisk pace at which things are moving ahead for Lionel Sabatté. Already in 2010, Éva Hober included him in the “La belle peinture est derrière nous” exhibition, shown at Sanat Limani (Istanbul) before travelling to Ankara, to the Lieu Unique (Nantes) and to Slovenia. But the critical shift to the next gear occurred in 2011 when the artist was shown by Patricia Dorfmann at the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, as part of the FIAC’s “outside-the-walls” itinerary. Here, he presented La Meute in the Galerie de l’Évolution, a series of five wolves made from clumps of dust gathered from the entrails of Châtelet metro station. Since 2013, the number of his exhibitions has multiplied, with five or six solo shows per year – which doesn’t intimidate him in any way. “Before, I used to overproduce, and I’d only show a small part of my work. Now, I can make a lot more visible. There’s a sharing dimension that has set in. I’m more aware of the viewer, and this is positive,” he enthuses.
To discover this artist, it’s best to head to “La Sélection de Parentèle” at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature – an event presenting three sculptures that reflect his work nicely. A triangular installation composed of a dead olive tree on which are attached flowers fashioned from skin from human feet; a human silhouette from his recent Human Condition series which he began in Los Angeles; and an acephalous animal. The last two works are made from iron rods to which the artist has added concrete, vegetal fibres and spices. Two rough, matter-based, raw sculptures. La Sélection de Parentèle alludes to William Donald Hamilton’s theory called “kin selection”, published in 1964, attempting to explain the appearance, over the course of evolution, of altruistic behavior in certain organisms. “The way things are these days, it’s positive to recall these theories in the context of our Economic Darwinism,” the artist says.
Art and life
While the MAHJ and MUCEM museums have also chosen to show Lionel Sabatté’s sculptures, let’s not forget that this artist is also a painter, who cannot conceive of one medium without the other. He often works on several projects at the same time, both paintings and sculptures. His paintings are produced over a two-stage process. First, he places a canvas on the floor and covers it with diluted paint – initially acrylic, now oil paint. Next, he works over the forms obtained from the first stage with a brush, sometimes at great length. “My paintings are unknown forms of life in non-identified universes, whether subaquatic or microscopic,” he explains. “On the other hand, my sculptures are easier to identify. My trees are trompes-l’œil, my flowers imitate nature.”
Between William Donald Hamilton’s theories and this desire to represent life, biology stands out as a preferred domain for Lionel Sabatté. He also explains that as a boy, his first structures represented “the skull of the missing chain”. But he also insists that things aren’t always as simple as they may seem: “We reason by characterizing and classifying; we separate things.” But if Lionel Sabatté is interested in the notion of living things, it is with the aim of extending their scope: “What can we say is living? In other cultures or for children, the notion of life is expanded.” At a time when New Zealand has recently recognized one of its rivers as a living entity, the work of Lionel Sabatté invites the public to “return to wider visions, through these hybridations”.
And hybridation is everywhere in his work. His sculptures depict all types of creatures, both natural and fantastic: wolves, golems, unicorns, deer, birds, phoenixes. His newest creations are crude and unidentifiable, produced in concrete even if they are beginning to show traces of polychromy, absent from his sculptural work until now. Hybridation also characterizes the techniques and materials that he employs. Often, Lionel Sabatté relocates gestures and materials from one medium to another; in this way, dust is found both in his drawings and his sculptures. Above all, when using his selected materials, he combines different kingdoms: the organic and the vegetal, the living and the dead, the artificial and the natural…
Meaningful matter and prospective time
The residual aspect of the materials used by Lionel Sabatté might seem repulsive… Fingernails, dead skin and dust from the metro are part of the off-putting arsenal of materials that the artist calls on. “These materials are deemed consumed; they are in a cycle of death but in fact they’ll survive longer than us.” Just think of the skin found on mummies, the last witnesses of bodies practically reduced to dust.
“Residue says more than what we want to hear,” continues Lionel Sabatté. “Language structures reality. Words and the categories that they construct may prevent us from seeing, from feeling.” We recognize the same desire to shake free from categories in these words… Lionel Sabatté also plays with the symbolism of his materials. Waste or residue isn’t always dirty; it can also express something else, or even be a receptacle of beauty. And viewers have to admit that the bits of skin from feet, found on the dead olive trees in his studio or at the Musée de la Chasse, are stunning: translucid and white, fragile and marked by the delicate grooves of footprints. It’s a work of “recontextualisation”, of artistic “requalification”. Lionel Sabatté speaks of his “love for what’s around me”.
But the wonder is not merely artistic, and the artist’s aim is not to recover waste. What he seeks to encourage is also wonderment at time. “My work tends to be prospective. I don’t use residue that is already historically loaded, but that will become so in a few years’ time,” he says. “In 100 years, the dust collected at Châtelet will bear witness to men and women who once lived. The skin on my olive trees will be skin from people who have gone. What I use will become loaded over time.”
He came across a shock of this type when he visited the rock paintings at the Chauvet Grotto as a boy, and felt the immense density of time contained in the works before him. “Dust is waste, but also an indicator of time past. This is a similar experience even if it’s incomparable with what I experienced at Chauvet Grotto.” Sensing time, past or in the process of passing, by gazing at forms of life that seem to hang suspended in it.
“Golem”, until 16 July. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, Hôtel de Saint-Aignan, 71 rue du Temple, Paris 75003. www.mahj.org
“Vie d’ordures”, until 14 August. MUCEM, Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, 7 promenade Robert Laffont, Marseille. www.mucem.org
“La sélection de parentèle”, until 4 June. Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, 62 rue des Archives, Paris 75003. www.chassenature.org