John Armstrong

Roland Jean
I am the greatest

“Caricature is a double thing; it is both drawing and idea — the drawing violent, the idea caustic and veiled.”
Charles Baudelaire, “On the Essence of Laughter” (1855)

Roland Jean’s personal trajectory is readable in the accomplished caricatures found in his preparatory sketches for this series of five 1996 paintings. Jean emigrated from Haiti to Canada in 1979, and lived for five years in Moncton, New Brunswick, before moving to Toronto where he has resided since 1984. Moncton, a bilingual city, provided a segue for Jean between francophone Haiti, with its ties to France, and a North America that was still predominantly anglophone. As a recent art school graduate, Jean found work in Moncton in commercial drawing: first, he worked for Radio Canada drawing caricatures of local luminaries and politicians on camera for Coup d’oeil, a mid-day TV show; subsequently, he worked as an illustrator for the Moncton newspapers Évangeline and The Moncton Times. Jean emphasizes that the work he did during this period is caricature not editorial cartoon. He presented big-headed likenesses perched atop diminutive upper bodies — the exaggerations were playfully offset by a mock “academic” crosshatched drawing style. Jean’s caricatures offered “apparently” friendly spoof and parody.

A painted quotation from Jean Baudrillard in a 1996 painting by Roland Jean titled Cassius Clay 1

The presence of illustrative drawing in contemporary Francophone culture is huge, due in large part to the popularity of les bandes dessinées — hardcover children’s and adult comic books which, despite their enormous popularity, are criticized for their far-less-than-friendly gratuitous violence, misogyny, racism, jejune plot lines…. (In anglophone culture, adult comic books are decidedly underground. Not coincidentally, the California artist Robert Crumb, creator of “Fritz the Cat” and other 1960s adult comic “classics,” now lives in France.) Despite the notoriety of individual dessinateurs and even the recent creation of publishing houses in France that focus on “serious” experimental (read not exploitative and surrealizing) work, the genre has largely not been considered in the context of contemporary art production and retains an outsider status. In using a signature caricature style in his paintings, Jean encourages a slippage between illustrative drawing’s exteriority to “institutionally sanctioned” French art and its acceptance as a vital — and often problematic — French pop cultural form.

A painted statement by Roland Jean in a 1993 painting of the same title

Jean's relationship — like Haiti's own — to French and North American culture is complex. The near universal presence of the Belgian dessinateur Hervé’s comic books for children in la Francophonie points to the heart of this ambivalent relationship; his popular Tintin series recounts the “adventures” of a young French reporter who all too often encounters stereotypically colonized “types” when visiting former European colonies. Jean, trained in a beaux-arts school in Haiti in the 1970s, was presented with the notion of the appropriateness of Paris-approved modernism. At the same time, a sophisticated naïveté associated with traditional Haitian religious art was widely used by Haitian artists in the 1960s and 70s to develop a rich symbolic vocabulary to treat subjects such as stylized characterizations of the natural environment, Vodou-inflected religious narrative in church murals, or political commentary in street murals. Jean made a conscious decision not to work in either a French modern or intentioned naïve manner, and was particularly impressed by the example of Haitian artist Hervé Télémaque, an émigré to France whose paintings from the 1960s were associated with the Nouveaux Réalistes' (French Pop Artists') working methodologies — both Télémaque and Jean juxtapose language and image to create paradoxical collisions, use collage and assemblage in an open celebration of American Pop Art, and render letterforms and images in a decidedly tachist manner. Importantly, both artists chose to establish careers outside of Haiti, and to incorporate models current in their adopted cultures. Jean’s paintings are less mellifluously finished than Télémaque’s, reflecting Jean’s interest in more recent, expressionist-mode American painting. If Jean’s work in some way mirrors Haiti’s own move away from French cultural influence towards American models, it does so conditionally.

A painted statement by Roland Jean and Dany Laferrière in a 1987 untitled painting 2

In this series of paintings, Jean juxtaposes a caricatural portrait with an appropriated image from a recent American or European painting, most often adopting a diptych format. The appropriations and portraits have a certain “product recognition value” within their restricted economies. An art-magazine-literate art student would be able to guess most of the attributions in Jean's works: Andy Warhol's Brillo Soap boxes; Jean Michel Basquiat’s jazz album credits and song titles; a 1950s ersatz biomorphic glyph; Roy Lichenstein’s trigger-fingered pistol. The splayed reclining nude, however, might be a bit trickier to source as Lucien Freud’s. Jean’s manner of working embraces the graphic expressionism and materiality of Cy Twombly, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Julian Schnabel. Unlike these artists, however, Jean works repeatedly over his motifs, covering his roughly-stapled-together plywood surfaces to create layer upon layer of contour lines enclosing aureoles of rag-applied paint. These surfaces read as palimpsests: beneath one art reference are the still-visible contour lines of another, serving to unsettle any sense of the predictability of Jean’s choice of sources.

A painted statement by Roland Jean in a 1987 untitled painting 3

Despite the fact that Jean’s caricatures are based on widely circulated images — magazine and album covers, dust jackets — their identification depends on a wide-ranging knowledge of American culture in general and of black American culture in particular. In these paintings, larger-than-life-scaled monstres sacrés à l’américain — Muhammed Ali, James Baldwin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, William Burroughs, Miles Davis — exude an imperious, Bronzino-like chill as they gaze out through the corners of their eyes. These visages are secure in the pantheon of notoriety and privilege accorded to public figures (those whose faces are most often caricatured). And yet, the caricatured rendering mischievously unsettles the pomp of large-scale painted portraiture and reiterates the temporality of its sources: journalism and the publicity photograph. These paintings are most often untitled and variously contain either French or English text: both of these strategies (which may alternately appear either as antagonistic or as a playful series of winks) provocatively exclude those viewers not within specific loops of experience. Jean pokes fun at the suggestion of obscurity in the obvious dichotomies he sets out — high art/caricature, black/white, French/English — and hints at a complexity behind these simple juxtapositions that is inscribed within the messy archeology of contemporary culture. Just whose cultural icons are these cited artworks, contentious written statements, and looming male portraits? His? Yours?

Charles Baudelaire, “On the Essence of Laughter,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne (New York: Da Capo Press, 1986), p. 151.

Translations of quotations from Jean’s paintings:

#1 Art still claims to be art, while it is really no more than a kind of metalaguage of banality.

#2 Do anything as long as you can call it art.

#3 What do I know about everything or about anything at all?

(Translated by J.A.)

Roland Jean: I am the gretest. Toronto: Mercer Union, 1997
(Published by Mercer Union, Toronto, in a 1997 exhibition brochure)