Lacquer drips from the tree like gum. Most of Martine Rey’s life as a visual artist has been spent working with this natural and precious material, substrate. Her fascination with lacquer began in Japan but she broke with its traditional decorative use on her return to France, and – still in pursuit of beauty – embarked on a personal and moving series of works that have been exquisitely displayed by the Galerie Sinople* in Paris.

Glaze, leave to dry, sand; add another coat, wait, re-sand; coat again; start from the beginning… Repeat the above steps 100 times until the desired aesthetic is achieved. Months of work. Sometimes years. The lacquers are the embodiment of patience. Operating at their own tempo. So that the best is not the enemy of the good. Martine Rey is of this ilk, a firm believer in the long-term process. Learning the basics of an ancestral savoir-faire took her a year and a half. Identifying as an artist, more than 30 years. Her progress over the course of this time has been very gradual. Like a Kaizen practitioner who applies the Japanese method to her artistic domain by making regular and lasting changes, taking all the time in the world to do so. 

Opposite ends of the world

The first step, which took her towards lacquer and Japan, is linked to her family history. “My parents were born on complete opposite ends of the world. My mother was born in Indochina; her father used to captain ships in Halong Bay. And my father came from Egypt, where he lived until he was 20. It was great for us as children to have access – via both of our grandfathers – to two completely different worlds, joined together through the mystery and imagination associated with travelling, with the exoticism of two such distant countries.” In the late 1970s, while selecting her final-year modules as part of her studies at the School of Applied Arts in Paris, Martine Rey opted for the ‘lacquer’ workshop from the ‘surface visual artist’ section, feeling it ignite something inside her. 

Natural material

This choice then catapulted her to Japan for an apprenticeship with a master lacquerer. A shock. A revelation. “What struck me the most was this sense of obvious beauty.” From this moment on, she embraced both the country and the Japanese vegetable lacquer, urushi. “I was completely oblivious to the fact that a natural and under-used material of this kind could even exist, particularly one which offered so many possibilities.” She has been exploring these possibilities ever since her return to France. Vowing to never touch synthetic lacquer again. Gradually feeling freer to experiment with the unadulterated technique. Allowing the notion of the space in-between – so present in her own life – to flow through her work, in the sense of that which connects rather than that which separates.

Sunday roast chicken

It wasn’t long before she turned away from creating jewellery, boxes and decorative panels, moving towards new forms. If vegetable lacquer makes everyday objects precious, what happens if we challenged this assumption? She scoured her childhood souvenirs for something that was precious to her. From her treasure box, she exhumed chicken bones – including the wishbone, the bone of happiness – left over from a long-ago Sunday lunch. She lacquered these bones in order to sanctify them, to make them precious as with talismen, so-called ‘Reliques’, or relics. From this work emerged her games of mikado or divinations, also objects to pet, that she named ‘Stimulaques’. In the same way as small stones that you keep at the bottom of your pocket and touch with your fingers, with the imprints of the spaces between them. 

Too perfect

Fresh impetus. New direction. “This unique technique resulting in almost perfect objects can end up making your blood run cold. There was an overly mechanical aspect to it – I always knew what I was going to finish up with.” This realisation, alongside her strong belief in the incredible powers of this sap, led Martine Rey to tear up the rulebook and use lacquer as a medium, a means of communication. She initially looked to nature as her source of inspiration. More precisely from the various forms of arabesques carved into wood by woodworms, reminiscent of Asian ideograms. This is reflected in her ‘Écritures endormies’, or sleeping scriptures, where lacquer is processed on either wood or paper like a coating material to make it waterproof and imperishable. Mummifying it, in a sense. A tribute to lacquer that she also pays with her floating stones, simulacra obtained through a lacquer coating technique to give the fabric a mineral appearance.

A huge step forward

But other creative paths are already opening up to her. Her 2018 residence at Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto gave her the time and means to carry out a highly ambitious project. Using the Japanese technique of marbled paper (suminagashi), she invented her own unique technique (urushinagashi), which consists of floating the lacquer and placing the paper on the water at just the right moment to obtain fractal patterns by absorption. A huge step forward. A point of arrival? “With urushinagashi, I entered a whole new universe of lacquer. I was no longer concerned about mastering the art of lacquer but, on the contrary, about randomness and letting go. From that point on I was able to dive into all the imaginary landscapes that I’d been yearning to create.” Hence her countless cosmographies, old maps and maps. 

Daring choice

It is these so-called ‘Mondes flottants’, or floating worlds, that the monographic exhibition dedicated to her work at the Galerie Sinople opens with. Under the title ‘Interstices’, or the in-between, the exhibition retraces 40 years of an original creative process. A first for both the artist and Julien Strypsteen and Eric-Sébastien Faure-Lagorce, who are more accustomed to collective presentations. “The reason we took on this challenge is because of Martine Rey’s undeniable intellectual and conceptual approach, structured around lacquer not only as a subject but also as a medium in its own right. This is very far removed from the practice of other lacquerers in France who make carbon copies of Asian art.” The artist is appreciative of and touched by this show of confidence. “It was a bold move to exhibit the work of an experienced artist who uses a challenging medium, so little known about in France. The exhibition begins with a ship’s log. There is a canopic jar at the end of the display. Like a silent tribute to her two grandfathers, connected to her through these objects.

*‘Interstices’ exhibition until 21 May 2022 at Galerie Sinople.
Hôtel de Retz
9 rue Charlot
Paris 3rd arrondissement

>> More information on the exhibition
>> Martine Rey on Instagram
Text : Catherine Rivière
Photos © Sinople et Yvonne Dumas Milne Edwards
Martine Rey © DR