When reaching Laurence Jenkell’s workshop, on the outskirts of the village of Vallauris, one is seized by a powerful age-old feeling. Whereas in only a mere dozen years, her candies (but also their more or less direct ramifications, the iconic Wrappings, the DNAs, the Robots, the Butterflies…) conquered the planet, indeed, Laurence Jenkell’s art is found to be deeply rooted, not only in the history and geography of that southern land, but also specifically in the secrets of Vallauris’ very peculiar fireclay.
Yet, in the beginning was the verb, they say. So let’s start with the name, her alias as Laurence Jenkell in a deserted genealogy. For a creator, choosing an alias while denying one’s family name, is to strain one’s lineage, to reject the husband’s or father’s name (often in order to remain sane). Laurence Jenkell’s course is an epiphany; blank of history, she leaped forward on the art stage ten years ago. Yesterday; a lifetime ago.
For, beyond their creations, all artists work above all to invent themselves. While manipulating an inert material until it is endowed with a spirit, the artist must first of all self-generate, reveal him or herself, literally build their own identity. This imperative overwhelmingly defines Laurence Jenkell, whose path to art has been a long, patient, determined conquest. Originating from an environment that was sparesely drawn to culture, the expectations of a first union seemingly blocking any creative possibility, until, in the secrecy of her kitchen, in a silent one-to-one with her domestic oven, true symbol of this alienation, she made fashioned mixes of melted candies, castings of sugary and syrupy colors, locked in crafted resins, the first startling paintings, chance encounters, on a scullion marble, of an ancient frustration (deprivation of sweets) as well as a brand new liberation, that of a torrent of creativity that was now unstoppable.
Similarly, the earth of Vallauris lay quietly in a fluid bed of kaolin until, during the XVIth century, a handful of Genovese families amongst which a few potters, fleeing the plague, started fashioning it into “taraïettes”, miniature and archaic tableware that was easy to rotate. Courage and determination, even then, were necessary to carry down this “culinary pottery” on the back of a mule to the coastline of Golfe-Juan to then ship it all over the world. Utilitarian, finally outdated by the emergence of more suitable materials such as aluminum, cast iron, stainless steel, in the late 1940s, this production yields to this fresh momentum, namely art, brought by Picasso, who settled here in 1947. In his wake, a startling artist takes root here. Born as Anna, Anton Prinner wears a beret, smokes the pipe and dresses only as a man since her arrival in France twenty years earlier. Picasso greets her with a “Sir Madam”, and nicknames her “my little woodpecker”, due to her amazing inclination to sculpt into massive tree trunks. Thus, in the “Tapis Vert”, Prinner participates fully, for almost fifteen years, to the invention of this “School of Vallauris” whose notoriety is today global.
Naturally, Anton Prinner comes to my mind as I observe Laurence Jenkell, on the threshold of her workshop, taking on a Plexiglas block measuring close to twice her height, and weighing at least four to ten times her weight. From the sharp tip of a metal chisel, she methodically rips, one by one, these jagged plastics chips strewn over the workshop’s concrete floor. Some are merely the size of a fingernail clipping, others are as large as a clenched fist. The cuts, accidents, slits and tiny scratches that these missing pieces create in the material design the frosted and changing surface of a candy cellophane that will require months, or even years, to complete, and from which may emerge a figure that is for the moment invisible, and yet contained as a seed, imprisoned in the compact mass. The previous one, unveiled off during the Venice Biennale in 2015, “Ice Candy Man”, is a spectacular frosted Candy with sharp ridges, from which emerges a breathtaking face, mid-way between life and death, Hibernatus hanging from an ice stalactite, as a Vanity from time immemorial, and yet terribly modern.
We usually classified sculptors into three different categories: modelers, molders and stone cutters. The first ones work from a deformable material which they shape until they reach the planned shape. they use earth, wax, etc. The second ones seize a living or inanimate model, and capture its contour, which they then translate into a chosen material, bronze, cast iron, or something else. The third ones carve into a dense block, in general wood or stone, removing matter in order to reveal the wished volume.
I truly believe that, by nature, Laurence Jenkell is not the type of woman who limits herself to a single genre. Fortunately (but certainly not fortuitously), her material of choice, Plexiglas, may be the only one suitable for the entirety of these transformations. Thus Laurence Jenkell is a modeler, molder and cutter of, on and in the Plexiglas sheet. Never far away from her oven (except that now, she is the one who has tamed it, going so far as to have one custom built to accommodate the size of the sheets she manipulates), she generally heats it to a balance point that she now totally masters. There, she can successively, or even simultaneously, mold it (around an existing shape or one created by her) and model it, giving it one of her “wrapping” twists that henceforth symbolizes her art and which has evolved into a spiral in the DNA series.
Each gesture, each wrapping made in the warm and dry serenity of the workshop, is unique. Already in this, it carries, engraved as surely as a tree’s age is determined by its rings, sign of its irreducibility. How can one not see in this an echo of this “self-invention” that sets this artist apart from others? How can one not think of the particular history of this land of Vallauris, reinvented by and for artists? How can one not evoke the figure of Anton Prinner, for whom a deeply seated certitude drew to transform in the transgression of all borders, geographical, of course, historical, but also sexually, physically, to shape her personality in the same manner she shaped wood or earth? Whereas questions on identity, or the revelation of her deepest nature, are at the heart of the art of Laurence Jenkell, how can one not admit that any form created by man is the result of a “personal history” and a “collective memory“ ?
In that perspective, Laurence Jenkell naturally took an interest in flags. If one of her most iconic sculptures remains the “Qatar Flag Candy” of 2010 exchanging with the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on the mythical Place de l’Etoile, the following year, the alignment of 20 “Candies Flags” on the no less mythical Croisette in Cannes during the G20 summit aiming to facilitate international interaction between the 20 major world powers, is characteristic of the scale of her art. No challenge is too difficult for Laurence Jenkell, no matter is impenetrable, and no distance is too great, no cultural difference insurmountable. Her art is meant to speak to everybody, or rather, like her own journey, to seek dialogue with part of us which, since childhood, remains convinced that is still possible to turn the tables and build a more beautiful world.
Transfiguring the utility, transcending the banal to make Art with a capital A happen, is a habit on the hills of Vallauris. Like Picasso or Primmer before her, Laurence Jenkell seized a poor material, Plexiglas, and a very everyday topic, candy, but she knew how to release their throbbing nucleus from the gangue of triviality that imprisoned them, in order to disengage the universal, the unceasingly renewed unique, the troubling experience, “which is, each time, neither quite the same / neither quite another”.
It seems to me her recent series of works around silhouettes of “Buildings” or “Robots” express this eagerness to build, develop, create new identities likely to represent a certain current state of the world, but also to announce, to anticipate its evolutions. From a universal archetype, the Candy, Laurence Jenkell federated, in less than ten years, a spontaneous community all around the planet. Her sculptures have brought her from Valencia to the Universal Exhibition in Milan (2016), from the Venice Biennale (2015) to Singapore, from Abu Dhabi to Azerbaijan, and now in New York, where she will be settling for one year in one of these nodes of communication, one of these hubs which she likes so much, she whose whole art is an invitation to the free circulation of desires and ideas. Already, to get to Vallauris, the visitor only needs to follow her Hansel and Gretel-like sweet route, from the “Sweet Flying Candies” which welcome travelers in the main hall of the Nice Côte d’Azur Airport passing the monumental (5 meters) “Wrapping Candy” of red scarlet polyester, installed on October 9 on the side of the A8 motorway, at the Nice West junction.
Undoubtedly unintentionally, Laurence Jenkell’s Sweets may irresistibly be considered (which I think has never been pointed out) as positive alter-egos of the great post-minimalist American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ packaged treats. Forged in a completely different context – the years of the AIDS epidemic – they are left at the disposal of visitors who are welcome to seize them, carry them away, consume them, and ingest them. The quantity of candy is determined, in Gonzalez-Torres’ work, by the weight of the one whose mound (always placed on the ground, sometimes in a corner, sometimes spread in geometric forms on the ground) is the portrait. In a transparent allusion to Christian transubstantiation, the viewer welcomes in his own body a fragment of the work, on which he feeds himself while participating in destroying it.
Indeed, Laurence Jenkell’s Candies are positive alter-egos thereof because they do not share in any way the same story. Here it is not about real sweets but rather their representation, which echoes her first works in which the artist, already, strove to push away the candy by melting it, by frosting it behind an additional layer of resin, to better soothe, overcome her deadly appetite. She who was so deprived of sweets for so long, and suffered so much about it, has managed to overcome the stage of frustration to now address this topic as a “Placebo” (title of a major work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres preserved at the MoMA in New York). She therefore chooses to remain within the essentially Protestant Duchampian dogma: we commemorate the Holy Supper as a meal of remembrance, we feed on Jesus, but spiritually only. Incidentally, if the viewer is perhaps depriving himself of the “oral gratification” that Felix Gonzalez-Torres evoked with humor about one of these mounds, “USA Today”, he also escapes its inevitable setback, the “Sugar rush” …
America, already … One never fails to recall the “land” on which Laurence Jenkell’s art blossoms, this French Riviera blessed by the Gods of creation on the shores of which art takes root so well. From Monticelli’s sumptuous flashes of light, which dazzled Van Gogh so much, to the artists of Fauvism not knowing where to look in the Estaque, then especially to the fertile 1960s when New Realism, Fluxus, then Support (s) / Surface (s) ) were born there, a whole history of joyful, fraternal, colorful, energetic art in France, was written here. However, even if her sculpture sometimes gives a few nods to Arman, Caesar, Fahri, Gilli or Sosno, these great sculptors of the School of Nice, for my part I would prefer relating Laurence Jenkell to John Chamberlain, the American giant who, since the end of the 1950s, sought unprecedented and surprising forms in the meanders of crumpled, folded automobile bodies. A “quintessential Artist of America”, Chamberlain claimed the car for himself just like as Jenkell has claimed the candy, in order to extract from that symbol of the consumer society abundance unsuspected plastic qualities, using in particular twists, frowns, but also of colored ranges, shades and gradients extremely close to those of Laurence Jenkell. Chamberlain realized in the mid-1980s little known tiny diamond sculptures (“Foils”) that he managed to enlarge in aluminum in the mid-2000s, then transposing them into monumental formats without sacrificing neither brightness nor spontaneity of the original models, dealing with sculptural questions and formal solutions, to which Laurence Jenkell’s current proposals can undoubtedly stand comparison with.
The great freedom and the no less great determination with which Laurence Jenkell conducts her research, develops her themes and enriches her repertoire of forms, forces admiration and reveals an authentic artist’s temperament. Candy remains the hard core of her creative identity, but she cleverly explores all its possibilities: “After having broken down my candy, assembled each part, composed and decomposed the “papillote“, the ellipse, the nucleus, gathered the various components of the core, arranged and organized the sugar crystals, dissociated the phases and associated them again, the evidence of my new line of work imposed itself on me. The spiral or twisting of two” papillotes” that gave my sculpture all its expression and dynamism brought me directly to the double helix of DNA, the molecule of heredity”, she says. Like sugar spins into angel hair of microscopic section but with surprising strength, the practice of Laurence Jenkell self-generates in circumlocutive arabesques, elegant and luminous, trapping the charmed looker in the benevolent trap of the reflections of her spidery seductions.
A self-taught woman kept apart from the standard path of academic art, Laurence Jenkell had to draw from her deepest core the mad energy she generously gives to enthusiasts of her sculpture, growing in numbers every day. She is a true artist, truly an artist. Every day she roams through her workshop, searching for new directions, novel solutions. She brings there her awareness of all the shortcomings of the world, and she wrings their neck in a determined act, just like this energy-consuming refrigerator, this elephant covered with crevices of wrinkles, or this trashcan, the fate of which she turns around with a devastating twist.
Laurence Jenkell is fond of materials with which one cannot cheat, materials which express the truth of a certain state of the world. Her wrapping is the equivalent, in contemporary Western sculpture, of ancient oriental calligraphy; more than a gesture it is a principle, THE principle that engenders all that exists, the fundamental force that flows in all things of the universe. Its preparation, the installation of the equipment, the choice of tools, the temperature rise of the Plexiglas sheet, the selection of the vices, all that contributes to the concentration necessary for the execution of this twist which can never be corrected or erased. Thus, Laurence Jenkell’s sculpture is a martial art, the practice of which requires the most extreme focus as well as total letting go. In this single fast, precise and simple gesture, Zen and Tao must slowly make their way because, as Georges Braque professed, an idea cannot be found at the same time “in the head and at the end of the brush”.
Created in 1972 by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the concept of Borromean knot, knotting of three tori formed by the intertwining of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary, structures the field of analytic experience. The Borromean knot is the only form likely to unite the “internal hole,” that which insists, and the “external hole,” that which exists. Laurence Jenkell’s wrapping is nothing else, which endows it with an unimaginable symbolic power, to use the words of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in The Cheetah, allowing to find in each of us the “deeper roots in one of those reasons we call irrational because they are buried under heaps of ignorance of ourselves”. Indeed, in a simultaneous gesture it brings together time and space in depth, towards a blind spot, half-turning around, and invites one to go forward again and again, sideways, as if to take one final glimpse at the world left behind.