A mischievous temperament

Laurent Le Deunff’s artworks are of and about the natural world. His oeuvre comprises an eclectic mix of land and sea creatures that includes prehistoric, exotic, and familiar species. When working in three-dimensions, Le Deunff skillfully carves or constructs sculptures from salvaged organic materials such as tree trunks, bone, nutshells, and rocks. Often, he displays small sculptures of animals or plants on clinical-style armatures so that they resemble specimens in a lab or a natural history museum. Alternately, his large-scale sculptures installed in gardens and parks appear right at home in the great outdoors. The artist’s two-dimensional works, meanwhile, include wildlife drawings whose accuracy and intimacy are practically scientific. The fact that he displays some of his sketches of pandas, elephants, garden slugs, and other animals in Moleskin sketchbooks gives further credence to Le Deunff’s naturist pretensions.

But appearances can be deceiving. Throughout Le Deunff’s oeuvre, subjects, styles, and materials that initially seem straightforward turn out to be weirder and wilder than one could imagine. His drawings may recall illustrations by American ornithologist and painter John James Audubon, but Le Deunff’s are subversive rather than scientific. Take, for example, the 2015 pencil-on-paper series “Empreinte,” which depicts various animal tracks. Tacitly implying the neutrality of documentary photography, each realistic black-and-white drawing details a single footprint in cracked mud or dry grass. Seen in its entirety, the series suggests a meticulous paleontological study. The titles of the works, however, reveal the footprints’ sources to be imaginary creatures, ranging from Bigfoot (a simian-like creature from American folklore) to Mokèlé Mbèmbé (a mythological water-beast believed to haunt the Congo River basin.)

In addition to mythology and folklore, Le Deunff’s inspiration is more likely to come from a Google image search or his son’s toy basket than real animals observed in their natural habitats. His attraction to nature is not the flora and fauna itself, but other people’s interpretations of these aspects of the natural world. Thus, Le Deunff makes representations of representations of nature based on sources that range from amateur photographs to Hollywood films and fairytale illustrations to plastic figurines. Like a funhouse mirror, his oeuvre reflects a disquieting alternative universe that is—literally and figuratively speaking—out of this world. Everything is familiar, but subtly (or not so subtly) distorted.

Given Le Deunff’s talent as a draftsman, it is not surprising that he came to art through drawing—a practice he began as a child, years before he went on to study sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux. His skillful and sensitive drawings of animals in all their diverse glory—rich furs, thick hides, shiny scales, fluffy feathers and the muscular, soft, or bony bodies beneath—are hyperrealist, but maintain a childlike sensibility. Though they may be as technically precise as textbook illustrations, Le Deunff’s drawings are peculiar in that they convey emotion and personality. Appearing soulful and, at times, uncannily human-like in their gestures and facial expressions, his animal subjects are unnervingly empathic; at times, even totemic.

A prime example of Le Deunff’s anthropomorphism is found in a 2011 series titled “Rut,” which comprises nine pencil drawings made and displayed in Moleskin sketchbooks—a support, which not only gives the (intentionally false) impression that the artist sketched his subjects from life, but also imbues these works with a sense of volume and objecthood. The subject matter here is wild animals—flamingoes, turtles, elephants, dolphins, penguins, seals, wolves, pandas, and slugs—engaging in sexual intercourse. Le Deunff’s references for these images were mostly photographs found on the internet the kind giddily posted by tourists who encountered the humping animals at a zoo or on a safari. At first glance, the diversity of “styles” of animal sex is distracting and, yes, perhaps, juvenilely giggle-inducing. Upon closer consideration, however, these couples (or foursome, as is in the case in Rut (Elephants)) begin to appear more and more human. This disarming sense of kinship with our own species implores us to them more serious consideration.

In Rut (Elephant seals) a pair of seals lovingly spoon in what seems to be a post- coital embrace. The much larger male cradles the female from behind with his flipper draped casually over her side. Their tails are sweetly entwined. Squinty eyes make the couple appear exhausted and—because it is hard not to project—satisfied. Meanwhile, Rut (Pandas) shows a one bear burrowing its face into his (or her) partner’s crotch while said partner caresses the burrower’s head and smiles. Each of the nine drawings is spread across both pages of a splayed open sketchbook, a stylistic decision intended to link them to racy centerfold photos à la Playboy magazine. By associating animal mating behavior with pornography, Le Deunff comments on our own animal instincts.

Among Le Deunff’s most technically impressive sculptures are numerous small, intricate carvings deftly executed in marble, quartz, sandstone, bone, and even a cow’s tooth (as is the case in a miniature self-portrait made in 2003.) In all cases, Le Deunff lets the intrinsic qualities of a given material dictate his subject matter. Take, for example, Chewing Gum, 2010, a piece of rose quartz that he carefully hewed into the form of a used wad of bubble gum. Logically, the pale pink color of the quartz led Le Deunff to his subject, but the resulting representation is absurd—as the stone’s natural hardness conflicts with everything we know gum to be: soft, sticky, and plastic. Unlike Classical sculptors who endeavored to transcend the rigidity and solidity of marble or bronze in order to suggest supple skin and flowing fabrics, Le Deunff does not attempt to undermine the natural properties of his raw materials. Quite to the contrary, he prefers for his sculptures to be appreciated as much for what they are as for what they represent. A tooth carved from a seashell reads as both as a bloody tooth and a sea creature (Dent, 2010); a nut carved out of chestnut is nutshell as well as a hunk of wood (Noix, 2005); a bear’s profile built out of logs represents a bear, but is also a pile of firewood (Ours, 2006); and so on.

Like many artists of his generation, Le Deunff engages directly with a (once taboo) art historical debate surrounding abstraction and figuration. Clearly for him, the two genres are not mutually exclusive as he uses aspects of both in his work. Case in point: Brachiosaurus II, 2015, an alabaster carving depicting a dinosaur’s relatively small head and elongated neck. From the front, the animal’s eyes, nostrils, and mouth make it easy to identify the artist’s subject. Confronted from behind, however, the sculpture has few figurative details and is more likely to be understood as a purely abstract form. Brachiosaurus II’s long narrow shape, which bulges at the bottom and tapers at the top, brings to mind certain risqué sculptures by Constantin Brancusi and Louise Bourgeois, two artists who notably (and controversially), straddled figuration and abstraction in their sculptures. Riffing on Brancusi’s Princess X, 1916 or Bourgeois’s Filette, 1968—two feminine personages that are overtly phallic—Le Deunff replaces the female subject with an extinct mammal that can likewise be “misread.”

Context is key to appreciating Le Deunff’s work and the aritst takes great care in how his sculptures are installed and displayed. For smaller works he uses pedestals, tables, and stands that evoke particular settings or situations. The aforementioned dinosaur series, for example, is presented on plain metal stands, which make the artworks appear more like real bones or fossils. This intentional confusion between art and science is provocative and was well-achieved in Le Deunff’s 2011 exhibition, “La Grande Évolution,” organized by the Libourne Museum of Fine Arts. Instead of the white-cube setting one might expect for a contemporary artist’s retrospective, the scenography of this exhibition evoked a natural history museum with dim lighting and dark walls. Seen amidst this ambiance, Le Deunff’s dilapidated animal forms conjured up rather creepy curiosity cabinet oddities like taxidermies, bones, and other animal remnants. More recently, an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Center, Pontmain (“Stalactite and Stalagmite,” 2017), featured a lighthearted, but no less pointed, mise- en-scène. Here, Le Deunff presented his 2016-17 “Animaux” sculpture series on real tree-stumps. These natural pedestals provided a poignant contrast to the representations of fantastical hybrid beings like a Cockatoo-Octopus (Cacatoès-Pieuvre, 2016) or a chimpanzee-walrus (Chimpanzée-Morse, 2016.) Quite literally this presentation shows how Le Deunff firmly roots his absurd musings in the real world.