Jean-Marie Appriou: At the Intersection of Reality and Mythology

“It’s about taking a piece of the earth and humbly trying to make it stand up and questioning others with it. And questioning means challenging technique.”

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Photo by Saffron Liberty

The work of French artist Jean-Marie Appriou has frequently been described as surrealistic owing to the merging of fact and fantasy seen in pieces like The Seahorse Shaman (2022) and The Berry Keeper (2020), which reference human and animal figures like seahorses, snakes and dragons. Since graduating from École régionale des Beaux-Arts, in Rennes, France in 2010, the artist has manipulated sculptural materials like aluminium, bronze, glass, clay and wax to create a world that exists both in the past and the present, in reality and mythology. 

Speaking about the materials and techniques he chooses to use in his sculptural work, Appriou says that there is an idea of both enchanting and questioning one’s own medium. As someone who has throughout his career adopted a DIY approach, he sees experimentation, failure and continued attempts to develop new processes as essential to his practice. There’s a constant need to push the boundaries with each piece, a particularly massive undertaking given the scale of his sculptures. He states, “Using the same techniques would be too boring and redundant. For me, there’s a quest.” 

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Photo by Saffron Liberty

The artist remarks that by experimenting with foundry work at his home in Brittany early in his career, he was able to understand the metals he was working with and their transformation from liquid to solid. Being part of a generation that had access to the internet with relative ease has granted him the ability to learn different techniques by watching YouTube videos. Through these interactions, he was able to watch videos of foundrymen, like those in Africa who fabricated ovens from limited resources. It was videos like these that encouraged him, as he was preparing for one of his first exhibitions, to build a kiln to make ceramics, a medium in which he hadn’t worked before. 

He has recently begun to work with a foundry, which is sure to open innumerable possibilities for new creations. Discussing his work with the foundry, a typically immense space in which metals are manipulated in potentially dangerous processes, the artist mentions that they deal with cold and hot materials that cut, wound and slice, likening it to the primordial. It is, he says, a reminder of the hazards of art-making. Appriou sees this as being the definition of sculpture, saying, “It’s about taking a piece of the earth and humbly trying to make it stand up and questioning others with it. And questioning means challenging technique.” The artist views this new phase in his career, as well as his partnership with the foundrymen, as a chance to challenge the traditional methods of the medium. 

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Photo by Saffron Liberty

Anyone who has seen Appriou’s work up close is familiar with the sheer size of his figures; the way they tower over spectators. Though they are at times unsettling due to their otherworldly characteristics, their scale, and the exchange between abstract and figurative, the sculptures implore viewers to engage intimately with notions of an uncertain future, Biblical figures and the possibilities of other worlds. Quoting Michelangelo, the artist says “In sculpture, bodies have to be smaller or larger than life. There has to be a slightly larger or smaller scale to create a disturbance of reality so that we could project ourselves into the universe of the work and be transported ‘elsewhere.’” Despite the immensity of sculptures like The Murmur (2020)and Hades (2020), Appriou says that he creates work on the scale they should have. His models and sculptures are produced on the same scale, eliminating the need to enlarge or stretch. 

That the preliminary work and moulds the artist creates and works with are built on the same scale as the completed pieces is particularly impressive when looking at sculptures like Le Guernier, Les Amants au Bois and Le Jouer,which he was commissioned to produce by the Public Art Fund in 2019. The finished sculptures were displayed at the Doris C. Freedman Plaza, the southeast entrance to Central Park, where they welcomed visitors for almost a year. The artist says that placing sculptures in outdoor sites provides an opportunity for them to engage with the surrounding vegetation and trees, initiating a conversation between the differing scales. He says, “A dance, a rhythm is created between the initial impulse I wanted to give the work and the environment in which it is set.” 

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Photo by Saffron Liberty

Appriou places a significant emphasis on research. While he is researching, he takes notes and writes more than he draws. If he has an idea, he may do a quick drawing, but he ensures that the idea doesn’t develop into a complete piece before the sculpture can flourish. He likens building his sculptures, from research to finished product, to performing a piece of music, such as jazz. He says, “I often associate the sculptor’s approach with free jazz: a jazz player, any musician, has his scales, he has his universe, he knows, he has his instrument and then he goes into a kind of trance, he enters the moment of representation and lets himself be carried away.”  

Through myths and ancestry Appriou may cite the past, but there is also a look to the future, that is, a future that seems to have been pulled from science fiction. Although his finished pieces adopt a fantastic, futuristic and dreamlike quality, traits that tie into the myths and ancestry in which his work is rooted, his extensive research process presents a link to real-world political, cultural and socioeconomic implications. For the artist, this reference is reminiscent of Tolkien, or films like Dune and Star Wars, saying “There’s always something in fantasy worlds, science fiction or even futuristic films that’s a harsh critique of society.” This can be seen in pieces like L’homme qui marche (Lévitation) (2023), which features an astronaut, a recurring figure in his work. 

His travels and the discoveries he makes on trips serve as a never-ending source of inspiration for his work, such as the recent piece The Traveler (2023), which is currently on display in Neviglie in the Italian region of Piedmont. The aluminium sculpture, which is representative of the artist’s concern with the cause of Indigenous people, their languages and civilisations, depicts a boat adorned with the heads of the critically endangered monk seal, a species of which there are less than 600 today. Through this piece, Appriou is also commenting on the future of the planet, and the impact of climate change on these communities.

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The Traveler, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber

For any artist, it is inevitable, and necessary, that their work progresses. Appriou, whose career began over a decade ago with a window installation at the Air de Paris gallery, sees this not as change but as continuity. It’s not that the subjects, techniques and themes artists explore at an earlier stage of their careers are completely abandoned, but more that artistic practice consists of loops and cycles. Artists may revisit, or build upon past work to resume cycles. In discussing how an artist’s work evolves throughout a career, he brings up an age-old philosophical question, “When does one become an artist?” It’s not a question that necessarily has an answer, at least not one that comes easily. 

While working on his first catalogue, Appriou had an opportunity to reexamine the last ten years of his oeuvre, leading to rediscovering projects that he’d left unfinished and even resuming work on them. He was invited by Donatien Grau, advisor for contemporary programmes at the Musée du Louvre, to produce a chalcography, or engraving, that was unveiled at the Centre Denon on 19 October. Perhaps with this new project and working on two upcoming solo shows, one at the Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Vienna and the other at Massimo de Carlo in Hong Kong, some of the artist’s past work will finally be displayed, and viewers can witness the ever-evolving work of the artist. 

Written by Karla Méndez