‘Western civilization literally cleared its space in the midst of forests,’ writes Robert Harrison. ‘A sylvan fringe of darkness defined the limits of its cultivation, the margins of its cities, the boundaries of its institutional domain; but also the extravagance of its imagination.’1 At Chambon-sur-Lignon, a town in Auvergne with some 2,500 residents, this image of the border is especially keenly felt. It is along haphazard trails, inside the dense fabric of the forest itself – cleared for a time that now seems numbered – that the immense site of the former Collège Cévenol, converted in 2015 into ‘Parc International Cévenol’, deploys its buildings, lawns, and stadiums; as well as the barn with thick rough-clad walls that houses the Innsmouth exhibition by Pierre Unal-Brunet.
With this exhibition, Pierre Unal-Brunet affirms his membership to the community of artists who are fans of Lovecraft. In ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’ (1931), a short story from which the exhibition borrows its title, a rather over-curious narrator moves within the grandiose and crepuscular decor of a city populated by strangely deformed inhabitants. It is this setting that literally serves as a backdrop to the exhibition, painted in broad brushstrokes of anise green shape against a jute canvas deployed across the full length of the space. Towards this uncertain horizon heads a series of sculptures in wood and canvas, made of twisted organic forms, some kinds of hybrid beings that seem to answer the call of this city with fish odours and a reputation for sulphur. Innsmouth, the mouth of the inn that swallows up bodies, is also a portmanteau word that in itself sums up Pierre Unal-Brunet’s experience of the location during his first creative residency there. During the night he spent alone with his dog in the dormitory of the former collège, he saw the place in a new way, suddenly experiencing the oppressive presence of the objects around him: equipment, machines, detritus, crates still crammed with stuff, Chinese dragon costumes… ‘An orgy of materials, textures, and smells’ that he projects into the stories that haunt this place and in the midst of which Pierre Unal-Brunet transforms the real into a Lovecraftian experience, proving, if it were still necessary, that reality is written by the stories that haunt us.
The exhibition that results from this is populated with marine creatures washed up on the floor, which seem to have been placed there by some fantastical high tide, like in another one of Lovecraft’s stories.2 Designed from pieces of wood enhanced with bright colours and strips of canvas that look like dead skins, they attest to a slow labour of encounters. Brushed at length ‘to bring out the larvae’, as Pierre Unal-Brunet explains, the wood only retains the toughest zones, revealing a secret architecture, like the pink layer covered with green pustules that evokes the skin of an eccentric reptile. A kind of green crawls across the floor, the texture of the wood wide open in a golden yellow mouth, while its other extremity ends in a ruff of veined pink skin. Pierre Unal-Brunet works only with the basic materials of painting – wood, canvas, gesso, paints – allowing himself to be guided by the logic of animal and plant forms, which he truly loves. He admits he has his favourites, such as the electric eel, which has already inspired him to create several versions of a large painting on jute canvas in electrifying colours. Many of the materials he uses are found during his residencies, like this piece of rounded wood glimpsed at Moly-Sabata in a lock, caught in perpetual motion. But it is at La Feyssine in particular, a Villeurbanne park on the edge of the Rhône, on a polluted and flood-prone plain where shanty towns rub shoulders with joggers and the adepts of ‘cruising’, that Pierre was inspired by images from a hybrid world in the making. And it seems to me that it is there that the exhibition escapes the easy temptations of dystopia – that is, the imaginary of a mutant world resulting from the destruction of ecosystems. The work of Pierre Unal-Brunet is firmly rooted in an intimate experience of margins and borders; from this ‘provincial’ zone, as Robert Harrison would say: from the opaque border ‘where human habitat reaches its limit’.3 There, it is still possible to remember that the forest is our origin, our foundation, without giving in to nostalgia. There, thinking can still be radical.
Born in 1993 in Lyon, Pierre Unal-Brunet lives and works in Sète. He obtained his DNSEP at the ESADSE (École Supérieure d’Art et Design de Saint-Étienne) in 2019. Prior to that, he had undertaken a residency and held a solo exhibition in 2016 entitled Bundle Process, at Galeria V9, Warsaw (Poland). Pierre Unal-Brunet has participated in various collective exhibitions, notably at the Galerie Municipale Jean-Collet, Vitry-sur-Seine, Une année en peinture acte 5 / Novembre à Vitry 2019 – Prix de peinture, 2019, and at Mécènes du Sud, Montpellier, Vallauris morghulis in 2020. He was selected for the 2020 Salon de Montrouge.
- Robert Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), IX
- In the narrative The Whisperer in Darkness (1930), a violent flood ravages the most remote zones of Vermont, covered in dense forests. We then see, adrift on the flooded rivers, strange marine creatures that look like shrimp. We can also ponder this surprising image – from the depths of the forest the sea ascends – as though a secret affinity existed between the abominations of the abyssal zone and those of those of wild forests. Howard Philippe Lovecraft, ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’, in Weird Tales (1931)
- Robert Harrison, op. cit., p. 345