A work by Leonard Combier is like a riddle that can never quite be solved. Something always slips your notice or escapes your eye, resisting your attempt to unravel every clue. Indeed, the young French artist’s imagination runs so wild that each of his works is a world unto itself.

Ever since he could hold a pencil, Combier, a self-taught artist, has been driven by a frenzy of artistic creation. His drawings gradually developed and grew in complexity, finally persuading him to leave his prestigious business school behind and devote himself entirely to his art. The rigour and rationality of his studies nevertheless shine through his paintings as each sets its own paradigm of societies, rules, landscapes and inventions. In truth, Combier’s talents as an artist rival his skill as a storyteller, their convergence giving rise to a magical universe. A magical universe, reminiscent of the one Lewis Caroll created for Alice as she chose between multiple worlds of changing sizes; or the one Mary Poppins discovered when jumping through a painting; or even the one in Inception, where different levels of consciousness come into play. Combier’s work therefore demands focused attention and receptivity. 

The beauty of the work first catches the viewer’s eye. Joie de vivre emanates from the wide range of bright, acidic colours carefully chosen by the artist from his vast and varied collection of felt-tip pens. The work’s extraordinary detail then draws the viewer in: the multiplicity of the shapes in the background, the texts transcribed in their entirety, the interlocking mechanisms, like a complex pinball machine, and the variable geometric features displayed in the faces of the characters.

Robert Combas comes to mind as an inspirational forerunner of Léonard Combier; both artists depict a myriad of real or imaginary figures against highly elaborate backgrounds. However, the titles of Combas’ works lend substance to the stories they tell, whereas those told by Combier, contained entirely within the frames of his paintings, are given greater scope through the multiple twists and turns developed by their omniscient narrator. Indeed, Combier’s work is comparable to a giant chemical laboratory. Each component is linked to the next, forming a chain reaction where everything interrelates until the work finally emerges as a whole. There is no room for error, no matter how slight, given the impact it would have on the entire system in the painting, thus causing irremediable repercussions on the work as a whole, and its meaning. 

This is particularly exemplified in a composition of 2016 with its fifteen interchangeable panels, a work which took more time to draw than any other according to the artist. Conceiving such a work is equivalent to solving a complex mathematical equation since whatever its configuration, each detail of its multiple components must interlock with the next. Moreover, each combination changes the narrative, revealing the extent of the artist’s rich imagination whose every twist and turn work like the mechanisms of Russian dolls. 

Léonard Combier’s work deals with causality and liberty. In a world where everything interrelates and can only be understood as a vast chain reaction, how is freedom conceivable? This applies as much to the artist who is caught in a system of his own creation, as to the viewer whose gaze finds no exit. The answer, I believe, lies in the Combier’s sense of humour. Humour provides the only solution, a multi-directional vector leading to different levels of interpretation, the choice of which is left up to the viewer. It pervades Combier’s entire work, from the bizarre figures to the comical texts, as the artist’s mischievous playfulness sets the scenes of his different worlds like those in a vaudeville play – save the final twist in the plot, which is never revealed. Yet there is always the mystery contact, whose phone number is etched into each work. Could this anonymous individual hold the ultimate key? To be continued…