Constructing place
Distress in nature

Constructing place

Between space and place, there is a world of difference. In space we can be transported in a three dimensional way, out into the cosmos or down inside a molecule; indeterminate, he has to be conquered; it has no set identity, it is where anything may happen for anyone. The works of Jean-François Luthy show natural spaces where Man has been and left his traces, but is now departed. Forest, wasteland, city outskirts, railway cuttings, intermediate spaces, often abandoned and left to desolation, without any character, such become the subject of Luthy’s strange paintings, all in tones of black, grey and white. Using Indian ink, Jean-François Luthy paints images that look like photographs (framing and realistic effects), but that are also very near to painting (in the brushwork) and drawing (done on paper). These hybrid images offer, you might say, a brutal cross-section of a landscape. But they are not landscapes in the proper sense of the art history term. There is, in these slices out of nature, something that is much more disturbing, less immobile and even little natural. More than being just spaces expressing territorial neutrality, and other than landscapes where you can see nature invested with human values, in other words where there is a close and very special relationship with the real world, the images in Jean-François Luthy’s work are places. The word »place» describes a space that is inhabited and which has defined dimensions. Aristotle defines place as that which surrounds a body, a kind of envelope, which at the same time forms its boundary and protects it. A place, according to the Greek philosopher, is not evident until it is inhabited by bodies. Remove the bodily presence, and the place disappears, it no longer exists as such but returns to being a space, an expanse. So in that sense a place is the abode of a corporeal body. Such an abode is humble and ephemeral, by contrast with a site, which describes a precise situation in space. A site represents a fixed point in the landscape; it imposes its position and demands to be noticed in its own right. This is quite different from a place, which makes no claims to visibility, and which may constantly appear and disappear.

The places in Jean-François Luthy’s images reveal no corporeal presence. They are empty of any presence, and yet they reveal traces of human action and intervention. The territories selected by the artist have all been somehow manipulated. We not only see the remains of human passage: signs of children’s games, meetings or temporary constructions; but there are also snatches of imaginary things that linger on: the projections of those who at one time fenced in these places. Now deserted, the places only offer us the meagre left-overs of presences that have disappeared. But in spite of the absence of the corporeal beings that made the place, they still have the aura of the beings that inhabited them; they capture the memory of shared moments, the ghostly presence of physical bodies. And that is exactly what Jean-François Luthy succeeds in capturing and holding. Not just absent beings and empty places, but presences in absentia, that is to say, phantoms. His images give a place back to beings who have disappeared, those who have left these places. The artist succeeds in evoking at one and the same time, with dialectic skill, both presence and absence. And thus the images create uncertain places for uncertain presences.

How exactly does the artist go about constructing these places and images? Jean-François Luthy works in ink, on the pattern, his sheet of paper resting flat on a portfolio. A brush and a single inkpot are the elementary tools of his production. The brushwork is very fine, delicate and precise. Extremely subtle strokes are strewn spread out across the blank sheet of paper. Out of these swarming lines grow trees with abundant foliage, planks of wood, benches, stones, fallen branches. There is piercing light and deepening shadow. The white parts are the light, the plain paper, empty space, the non painted areas. In grey or in black we have shadows, filled space, matter, Indian ink. The shade is more material than the light, it has more density. The artist is revealed as a painter of shadows. He works precisely, following the mode of absence and presence. He unifies his subject, using a technique which he has exquisitely mastered, to express the ghostly place he is about to construct. Place, in the pictures of Jean-François Luthy, appears by using a pictorial technique based on touches of shadow.

Place belongs to time and is marked by time. It is made up of a framework of time that belongs in the world of souvenirs or memories. An image created by Jean-François Luthy in shade and light becomes a plastic representation of time, where the past is connected to the present by observations on the territory, and anachronistic absentees are made capable of haunting abandoned places. It is almost as if the artist works at a distance from his subject, that he is using the services of a transcription of reality (the sociology literature encourages us to take another look at the marginal zones of our city outskirts and to redefine our notions of landscape), but this is not the only purpose of this step. The artist’s presence becomes clear during the process of creating an image whose starting point is in reality but which moves towards becoming a visual phenomenon. We have a vision of absent bodies, an intangible vision of tangible objects, a vision both precise (almost hyper realistic) and imprecise (mottled and vibratile) of a reality in black and white, a blinding vision of too strong light. This visual phenomenon becomes even more pronounced when you look at the effect produced by bright and dark touches. We are struck by the instability of the image, its surface movement. The forms are not defined by line, that is to say they are not drawn in but derive, quivering and trembling, rather from an imprint of light. Fleeting and ephemeral, they move together and apart almost imperceptibly, just like the eye of the onlooker, which itself is forever in movement in its act of looking. The image seems to carry an organic charge which transforms the perceptions of the human eye into their physiological forms. But even more than that, the way these surfaces are in trembling movement makes us think that we are looking at out of line, digitalised images. An image by Jean-François Luthy, in truth produced in a simple, classic medium but used quite differently from usual, suddenly becomes ultra contemporary. The brush strokes quiver, calling into question the ontology and configuration of shapes, and matching the ghost-like appearance of the places we are looking at. The places have the same form of existence as a heartbeat or a pulse. What we have, therefore, in these shimmering images is an image of life itself.

This faint rustling in the image has another effect: there emerges a desire for the immaterial. With a vibratile touch, the artist’s hand hardly rests on the paper, just grazes it, may be caresses it. The visual note is here reduced to the merest trace. It is almost as if the artist would realise an image by dematerialising it. A paradox emerges: how to use pictorial matter to express the play of light, how to portray observed reality and at the same time put forward a vision, or to use a more common term, an illusion, a phantasm (a word which by the way has the same etymology as ‘phantom’). And the effect? We could call it glimmer, this irisation of a surface lightly touched by a brush. Glimmer: the action of light on a more or less reflecting surface (such as a mirror, or the pond where Narcissus drowns himself) fascinates the onlooker who becomes absorbed by the sparkling light. Looking at these paintings, the spectator can lose himself in this mass of shifting, scintillating strokes. The image of the world goes up in luminescent dust, splintered into fractions of light. As the image glimmers, it blinks in and out in a movement alternating between appearance and disappearance. The brightness hides the exact outline of a form, strips it of contour and limits, opens it up to space. Fullness and emptiness coincide, just as the absence of physical bodies underlines their ghostly presence.

The places in Jean-François Luthy’s work are constructed by representation or rather by the transgression that the visual imposes to the reality. Even though they exist and have their reference point in reality – and the artist insists that his work is that of an observer – these places are less a recreation of real places and more in the nature of proper places (in the same sense as one can say proper name) recomposing the geographic universe of the artist. In constructing these places of memory, Jean-François Luthy turns them into his proper common places: as territories with relationships that belong to everyone, brought in ephemerally by a few anonymous individuals, they become his milieu. Moving off with his series of pictures in his portfolio, the artist takes away with him the trace of his own way of seeing, the glance that settles like a breath of dark matter on the pure paper, that display of all desire. Place, formed of presence and absence, by the artist’s eye, who transmits him his trembling material form. Place is an outer skin, an envelope, says Aristotle. In the work of Jean-François Luthy, place is a halo of light in the »dark brightness» of the world.

Véronique Mauron
Distress in nature (Malaise dans la nature)

There are certain works that continue to affect you. There are certain artists with whom the dialogue, even at a distance and even when broken off, is never really interrupted. Jean-François Luthy’s Indian-ink and oil paintings form part of my life now and for the foreseeable future. From time to time, they return to occupy my mind and give rise to thoughts that coalesce in the act of writing. The publication in 2011 of this work, which presents the various series of works on paper produced by Jean-François Luthy over a period of almost ten years, has given me an opportunity to return to the studio, open portfolios and display, on the floor or on a work-table, these images in which countless strokes and marks render natural landscapes, fragments and debris. Consequently, I have been able to re-immerse myself in this universe which I had already explored, and which has its unique emotional content and interrogative power. What I am proposing by way of a text consisting of a series of notions expressing absence (and I have already contemplated and written at length about absence with regard to Jean-François Luthy’s Indian-ink works) is an encounter with these works, but not one intended to show these utterly silent images teeming with words and to make them talk eloquently. The purpose is rather to try to show how an artist constructs the presence of an absence, and how our environment (the location of life) harbours this invisible narrative.


Flights of stairs rise to the sky in all directions. On the ground, other stairs cut through space. Metal bars describe heavy diagonals in counterpoint to the inclines. Numerous paths occur as our eye climbs the stairways. Nevertheless, the Piranesian space created by Pièces détachées (Separate parts) is less replete with architectural dreaming and hallucination than with the reality of contemporary engineering. Jean-François Luthy paints a complex of concrete staircases. These new pieces are without any functional purpose, and removed from any context. They look like absurd ruins in a vast sky without depth. These anachronistic vestiges of a civilization which manufactures them on an industrial scale appear like so many monumental mistakes, explosive and exploded architectural forms. They direct us to a non-existent referent, which is odd for fragments that would usually recall the temple to which they formerly belonged. Nothing has disappeared as yet. What is in question is an anticipated ruin: which might be called a ‘prefiguration’. This term was used by the Fathers of the Church (first to fourth centuries AD) to qualify ‘figura’, a representation. For Tertullian, a figura in this sense is a form of prophecy. Accordingly, all the Old Testament figurae are anticipatory representations of the New Testament prophecies. One such image anticipates another which is to come, which in its own turn will precede and anticipate yet another. Jean-François Luthy’s prefigurative ruins do not recall a monument in the past (since it never existed), but foretell a cataclysmic future in which no architectural project will assemble these fragments into any whole beyond floors and ceilings. They prefigure a state of desolation, an impossible meaning, an inconceivable building, and an infinite site. The scene is a sad one, for we have no idea of what has been lost, and the Pièces détachées stand in a lacklustre light reminiscent of the dismal atmosphere of a funereal eternity.


An empty sky. The Panoramas and Pass are produced by a contrast between a sometimes tenuously occupied scene and an immense void. In the first series, executed mainly in 2008, the heaps of rocks occupy the foreground up to the horizon and block the view. The spectator’s gaze slowly takes in the piled-up pebbles, one by one. Holes, scrap and gravel obstruct our view. When we get to the summit, there is nothing there. The sky descends. Although a panorama usually calls on us to consider a broad landscape, in this case the artist adjusts the scene vertically and imposes a close-up view as if there had been a sudden upheaval which had surprised the painter himself. The panorama is swallowed up. In the Passes, the route in the foreground is longer, flat or slightly inclined, and sometimes covered with snow from which rocks emerge and where tracks appear. A broad landscape stretches out horizontally with even more distant summits. We are held in suspense. Like a solitary walker or an emigrant leaving his or her country, we shall reach the Pass and our dream will come true, the goal will be reached. But this hope is dismissed in Jean-François Luthy’s compositions. In the Panoramas, a collection of works that sometimes extend the Passes, but ironically, the landscape gives way, the other side dœs not exist, and the emptiness of the sky occupies the promised land. Then the frontier becomes a line which is no longer that of the horizon to be reached, but a line which disrupts the countryside and prevents any progress. Passing beyond it is difficult and uncertain. The dream dissolves in an excessively white clarity.


All Jean-François Luthy’s works are ruled by calm, immobility and silence. Yet this state clearly follows on another: a state of movement, agitation and turmoil. We are present after the disaster, after the collapse, in this moment of partial loss, of absence indicating a vanishing presence. I would speak of an erasure. The erasure of disaster. We close our eyes, then we feel the shock, a moment passes, and then we open our eyes. It’s also like playing a game, something like ‘What’s the Time, Mr Wolf?’ or ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ or another version of ‘Statues’ in which the player counting has to turn round to see if everyone is still motionless. At any moment the stillness will give way to commotion. The artist concentrates on the intermediate periods between two disasters. A more charged silence reigns, so that absence is marked by the traces of bodies, and the void forms a mass. Every Greek tragedy begins with a ‘peripety’, or a ‘change from one state of things within the play to its opposite of the kind the probable or necessary sequence of events’2 : in other words, a reversal of the direction of the action which upsets the established order. After that the dramatic action can begin, since there is nothing after the disaster. Jean-François Luthy seizes on this after-time, this unspectacular, collapsed, uncertain time. Erasure of movements, erasure of forms of physical presence, and also erasure in the working method. The way in which the artist applies lines and touches to the support has two aspects: the contour lines are defined in pencil. Luthy calls this ‘setting it out’. Then he erases this structure, or initial layout. To reveal the world after the disaster, the artist carries out an act of cancellation: he makes things disappear. Accordingly the world that emerges consists of no more than traces and residues, ghostly suggestions of a vanished reality. The fullness of reality is shown to be impossible, and nature, omnipresent in these works, is not shown as a direct presence but surrenders manifest appearance in order to become an apparition after the erasure, after the deletion. Consequently the works are ‘grey’, taking on the spectral colour of ghostly revival, a colour slightly reminiscent of all colours, the colour of ashes and of an aboriginal world, like the scene on the folded back of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-1504, Madrid, Prado), which depicts the creation of the world in grisaille.


In addition, the reality represented by Jean-François Luthy is continuously overtaken. It is overtaken temporally (the after-time), and there is also an overtaking of presence with the ghostly forms, and an overtaking of the present with the long labour of artistic development. An interval is introduced, and an intermediate area intervenes and fills and swells. We are ‘between’. Everything becomes a borderland. For instance, one series of ink drawings is entitled Intervalles (Intervals) and Lisière (Fringe). The Cabanes (Huts) are ephemeral dwellings, between the built and the natural, and are often implanted in trees, between earth and sky. In the undergrowth and forests the light reveals clearings and the fringes of woods; Pass, as we have seen, exacerbates the fringe between two areas one of which seems non-existent or forbidden. The threshold in its various modes predominates as an obsessional space for representing nature. This passage is a void and proceeds from an erasure. It holds the past and opens on an as yet unknown future. It is a process of becoming that relates elements to each other, and all the elements that are associated are contingent. Jean-François Luthy is concerned with our environment (in the different senses of the term) and indicates the possible and impossible relations that we can create with it. As he frames reality, the artist selects only a part of it, but constructs the frame so that it opens onto the void and the indefinite, that which is in the process of coming to be, and the unstable. There is no transcendence on the horizon, but only a luminous screen, a surface for eventual projections. Here nature is assayed in minimal space of time which is nevertheless extended by the artist: the space of a silence, a sigh, an indistinct breath, time suspended. What will become of nature when its utter depths are explored in this way? Will it succeed in being reborn, flourish, find itself regenerated? Will the frontier become a link rather than a dissociation? Will the threshold be passed, crossed by beings? Even though the title of the series, Renewal, indicates the appearance of a certain hope in Jean-François Luthy’s works, the vision of absence, of loss, of disappearance and erasure is dominant and increases the intensity of inaccessibility and uncertainty. The ‘naturalistic’ or ‘photographic’ type of representation favoured by the artist paradoxically increases the presence of the void and the presence of ‘betweenness’, which thereupon shows as the dark cavern of nature, an abyssal hollow and makeshift home for the many relationships which we, individuals in this world of the here and now, enjoy with our environment. Jean-François Luthy’s works express this place as an unalterable state, an infinite interval.

Véronique Mauron


  1. Véronique Mauron, ’Constructing place’, in: Catalogue Jean-François Luthy (Geneva, 2004).
  2. Aristotle, Pœtics (Aristotle on the Art of Pœtry, ch. xi), translated by Ingram Bywater (Oxford [Clarendon Press], 1920), p. 46.
  3. Here it seems appropriate to refer to Derrida’s definition of ‘trace’ and ‘erasure’: ‘Since the trace is a presence but the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates itself, displaces itself, refers itself, it properly has no site, and erasure belongs to its structure. And not only the erasure which must always be able to overtake it (without which it would not be a trace but an indestructible and monumental substance), but also the erasure which constitutes it from the outset as a trace, which situates it as the change of site, and makes it disappear in its appearance, makes it emerge from itself in its production.’. Cf.Jacques Derrida, Marges de la philosophie (Paris [Minuit], 1972), p. 25; Margins of Philosophy, translated by Alan Bass (Chicago [Chicago University Press], 1984), p. 24.