The paintings of Isabelle Geoffroy-Dechaume alternate between two opposites which define the boundaries of her artistic territory. On the one hand, one finds some very small square unprimed canvases, painted in earthen or shrill colours, often crude oranges, whose pigments she has always liked to grind herself – a fastidious frugality disguised as sketching, imbued with an exacting delicacy of feeling and bordering on abstraction (yet even at their most monochrome, such pictures remain haunted by figurative art). On the other hand, there are the large symphonic paintings which Isabelle Geoffroy-Dechaume is gathering today in series – figures by the sea, still-lives, views from her studio – in which, like a pianist who has finished practising her scales, she returns to what are undoubtedly more traditional and ''legible'' subjects, but with a masterful inspiration and a sovereign freedom that raises her art to new heights.
Both approaches are unquestionably necessary to each other. Yet, by taking a step back and giving her paintings the space and time they needed, Isabelle Geoffroy-Dechaume has allowed them to acquire a syntax which appears, with hindsight, to have always been a decisive element of her art. Even her long-lasting fixation with sketching, deep down, speaks eloquently about the nature of her ambition and the difficult balance she was already trying to establish between structure, gusto and transparency. At work, here, is an intimate classicism, requiring lengthy, sometimes arduous, elaboration, all in fits and starts, nearly always unsure about the right time to conclude. Hers is a slow yet hazardous process of distillation, so typical of those who combine a certain degree of individual vulnerability and an impersonal idea of their art, striving towards self-effacement.
Such a welding of freshness in inspiration and mastery in construction is particularly apparent in the important and beautiful series of pictures Isabelle Geoffroy-Dechaume has painted of the trees that she sees through the window of her studio, under the Paris sky. Here, one could say, she has found her own special theme. Not that the subject matters in itself (though even this is debatable); rather, it has offered her a perfect visual frame, sufficiently spacious to let her art unfurl. Her manner has gained, paradoxically, in speed and freedom of movement.
The variety of brushstrokes in these pictures, the sheer inventiveness of painterly effects, are refined to the extreme. They range from sweeping to static, from the severe to the whimsically ornamental. Whether through jerky mottled strokes or spongy impregnations, chalky swathes of full colour or liquid blotches, mists, fine lace, whirlpools, whitewash or trembling outlines, her practise of oil painting borrows as readily from the translucent curtains of lithography or watercoulour as from the lacklustre of fresco or Indian ink's shiny glee. The leaves are set against the light, and their dark invasive anarchy as well as the branches' contrapposto serve to fragment, upset and refashion the urban pattern beyond, whilst large patches of naked canvas leave the tree as rootless as a question mark. Further on, the skies back away from the cityscape's assault, retreating into the distance, yet more heavily laden with tumultuous impasto and lively restlessness than the ghostly façades. All is upturned and broken up, yet recovers a strange sort of balance in the process, at a slight tangent from reality. Degrees of speed and accentuation vary, from wild gestures to self-effacement; line and stroke simultaneously cancel what they describe. We are not quite there anymore: paint alone trickles, vibrates, explodes inside its own circumvolutions, where the image is stated.
In these pictures, the interplay between nearness and distance takes on a structural function, almost summing up the two abstract and figurative tendencies of her work. Indeed, what is furthest away generally turns out to be more precise, whilst foregrounds are often blurred, confused, difficult to grasp. As if the art of painting were hanging on to its own threshold and exploring a state before all perception, inviting the discerning eye to project itself onto those large formless blurs and blotches and see itself seeing, however painful or restful the resulting obscurity.
Nothing has yet been said of the purely chromatic appearance of Isabelle Geoffroy-Dechaume's paintings, of their subtle colouring and consummate art of dissonance: the musky entanglements of brown and ochre shot through with dirty fuchsia, the warm pallor of grey-blue, the twilight burgundies, the glorious rust, the allaying beiges, the infinite sadness of khaki green. As with Bonnard, visual perception is infused with all the resonance of memory and emotion. It takes a different route, however: not Bonnard's sun-drenched saturated vibration, but an unbalance, a dislocation, a draughty construction full of blanks, open to all winds, infinitely suggestible. Yet always the patch of colour is there also to give structure, to build, untie or connect, to modulate space and, as with Bram van Velde, draw without the means of drawing. (Bonnard, incidentally, is certainly an important figure for Isabelle Geoffroy-Dechaume, as are Degas, Dufy or Vuillard. Other painters, closer to our time, have also clearly met her eye: the French Marc Desgrandchamps, Joan Mitchell, Howard Hodgkin, Roger Hilton and others.)
In Isabelle Geoffroy-Dechaume's most accomplished pictures there is something alive and breathing which gives an underlying unity to the relationship between details and masses, a quivering tension created between the isolated figure and the circumambient air, between the rugged windings of colour and the evaporating picture planes, between the faraway and the close-at-hand, the blandness and the glitter. It is a rare thing indeed, most difficult to obtain, and which gives even her most abstract work its true depth, the sign of supreme inspiration. There is something almost meteorological as well as musical in the moving texture of Isabelle Geoffroy-Dechaume's paintings, in their constant echoing and contrasts of pictorial events. Alternating light and shade, impastos and glazes, are to the eye like sheets of sounds, the friction of strings in a violin, the soft and sombre oboe, the distant bugle. Music for the retina, admittedly, laying claim to nothing else but the surface, and which takes the risk, in the land of the deaf, of remaining unheard. But therein lies its honour and its glory.