Looking at painter and illustrator Maïté Grandjouan’s work, it is often hard to discern the ideas at play. A monkey in a box, a girl lying on what appears to be floating chunks of rock, the lines of a basketball court blowing away in the wind; there is no obvious link, and yet there is a shared feeling of surreality that pervades each piece. “I am pulled by two big forces when I start a painting: its disturbing side and its melancholic side,” says Maïté. “My favourite paintings are often the ones that fit into both categories. A tension emerges and we are torn between fear and a softer, warmer feeling – I am searching for this internal movement.”
Observing the faces of her characters, which are by turns anxious, scared and downcast, this tension is palpable. Some appear calm, though always absent, as if their focus is elsewhere. Maïté says this is driven by a single commonality between her subjects: loneliness. “My characters are loners trying to open up a dialogue with others, successfully or unsuccessfully,” she explains. “It is often about communication with dead people or just people who have left.” These narratives, however, are buried under other happenings within the frame, as well as references to cinema that Maïté works into the composition.
Speaking on one of her favourite images, titled Dramaqueen, she says “I love fade-out effects and superimposition [in films]. Here I created one using a screenshot taken from the film Days of Heaven and another from the TV show Lost. I put them together and painted the result to create a fake memory of a fictional movie.” Elsewhere, in the painting simply titled Farm, Maïté beautifully captures a typical horror movie atmosphere, with eerie plays of light and a discreetly positioned figure in the darkness, creating a sense of foreboding. This is juxtaposed with a warm, orange sunset in the background that leaves us torn between a feeling of serenity and a niggling apprehension. The aforementioned tension between fear and pensiveness becomes clear.
Even in paintings where there are no figures present, the image is imbued with a certain darkness that is hard to put a finger on. The landscapes are moody, there are often gloomy skies and heavy shadows, and the point of view feels detached. The protagonist – if there is one – whose perspective we see from seems lonely. This, Maïté explains, is in keeping with her own personal relationship with the wilderness, which she occasionally retreats to in times of sadness and distress. “I sometimes go for walks when I am upset, and this tension can be seen superimposed onto the surroundings [in the work]. I hate the cliche of showing nature only as a peaceful place – my landscapes are often full of anger and bitterness.”
With such masterful control over atmosphere and mood, evoking strong feelings in subtle and, at times, inexplicable ways, we are left wanting fully-fleshed narratives and developed storylines that we can follow to conclusions and closure. Thankfully, Maïté’s second comic book, which took her five years to write, is due for release this year. Reflecting on this long journey she says “I experienced a lot of suffering and some deep joys in the making of it. It is about a girl spending a few days fixing things at her recently deceased mother’s house, where she starts receiving strange phone calls… I am looking forward to showing it and can’t really plan anything until then.”
Maïté Grandjouan: Red Horse (Copyright © Maïté Grandjouan, 2020)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.