Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise. The early bird catches the worm. The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work. Yes, the Protestant work ethic has reasserted itself with a vengeance. The dual facets of visible labor intensity and philosophical obscurity induced by over intellectualization are evidently common trends in plenty of contemporary art production. Through some misplaced sense of guilt, it has become fashionable to tout how hard we’re all working. The mere term "art production" appears to demote the artist from gallant creator to proletariat production-line laborer. How to escape this rut of over-worked, over-civilized stagnation? Maybe run away and join the circus. That’s what Jacques Flèchemuller did after a stint at Paris’ Beaux-Arts when the weight of French culture became unendurable. Now play, with its child-like spontaneous risks and joys, is more important. "But play is also serious, like when a child tears the wings off a fly to see what will happen," said the artist during a recent conversation. Flèchemuller’s seriously playful investigation is apparent in "Sophie at Night," a selection of recent works at Schroeder Romero. "THANK YOU GOD FOR PROTECTING MY ART DEALER" is the prayer of thanks intently lettered over a grisaille snapshot study of a mischievous looking lad in a striped shirt. With a raised eyebrow and his right hand on a stout staff, this kid looks to be a sentry ready to clobber anyone who might offend. Tango #2 (2003) depicts two Chihuahuas in a startled embrace, as if spotlighted during a slow dance at a make-out party. When asked about influences, Flèchemuller is quick to express his preference: "Between the two, Picabia is definitely the name more than Duchamp, because of the anarchist idea. Also the idea of being able to change every day because your mood changes, and you have the right to do everything."
Flèchemuller’s straightforward handling of paint is light, and shows facility without being finicky or technically overbearing. This seeming ease belies a skill that is hard won, and a proficiency that knows when and where to bolster a passage or enhance a detail for effect. The paintings are rife with sexual innuendoes, pictorial double entendres, and adult attributes grafted onto children or animals. The palette is mostly neutral tones with myriad shades of gray that one might see in poorly preserved photos. Birthday Cake (2002) and My Cousin from Margaretville (2003) illustrate another aspect of play that delves into the subversive, and shows the artist’s desire to "high-jack" the banal. The former pictures a group of babies, all identically dressed, perhaps quintuplets, eating a birthday cake. Normal publicity fluff, except all the kids wear Yves Saint Laurent glasses. In Cousin a young girl stands casually facing forward, but on second glance you notice the nipples under her sheer blouse seem just a little too pronounced, too mature. Shades of Lolita! Here the concept of play might be likened to what a fisherman does beyond setting the hook. After the first glance, somehow the viewer’s eyeballs return to the supposedly benign image, but this time with a sense of malicious interest; something is just a bit off, a bit weird, a bit nasty. Your perceptions are altered. You find yourself scanning your horizon for odd congruencies, and opportunities to subtlety subvert reality. And now we can say: all work and no play makes Jacques a dull boy, and finally, you can only work so hard then it’s time to work smart, and smart should be fun.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.