Interview with Yechel Gagnon
Stéphane Aquin - Let’s start from the beginning. When did you first start making art?
Yechel Gagnon - I began at a very young age because I had a language problem. I had difficulties expressing myself verbally, so I took refuge in the creative realm, where I felt most comfortable. Even though my parents came from a modest background and didn’t know much about art, they understood this and encouraged me in this direction. They kept on buying me artist’s materials—pencils, brushes, paper—since it was my only means of communication. I eventually overcame the problem, but art remained for me a vital means of communication.
It was therefore quite natural for me later on to pursue an artistic route. I began studying at York University, near Toronto, in the Fine Arts Department. This was a rather theoretical curriculum, with very few studio courses in painting, drawing or sculpture. After two years there, I felt I needed to work in a more hands-on environment, so I registered in the Drawing and Painting program at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. This school was a revelation to me, because all of the teachers were professional artists whose works were shown in galleries and museums. Paul Sloggett had a positive influence on me, as did John Scott, who stressed the importance for every artist to find their own individual approach. I came to realize that I could make art my career. So, in my second year there, I began to exhibit my work in galleries.
S.A. - What sort of work were you doing at that time?
Y.G. - Painting, in the vein of Abstract Expressionism. I was captivated by the materiality of paint and the gestuality it revealed, so the results were both very physical and essentially abstract. I was studying the works of many artists who are often influential to young painters: Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella, Richard Diebenkorn, the great classics of abstract action painting up to Jonathan Lasker. Rothko and Riopelle also made a strong impression on me, and they still do today.
So painting was where I started. I began using plywood in an academic assignment. In one of his classes, Paul Sloggett asked us to paint on a support other than canvas. I had found a piece of plywood and proceeded to create an abstract painting on it. That was in 1996.
S.A. - Coincidentally, that was the very year in which the Art Gallery of Ontario, just down the street, was showing the major Paterson Ewen retrospective. What effect did it have on you?
Y.G. - This was a major revelation, since I had never seen his work before. My teachers had told me to check out this artist who was also working on plywood. I remember the opening—it’s still very vivid in my memory—Paterson Ewen was standing a few feet away from me and I wanted to tell him how fascinated I was by his monumental pieces, and to what extent his art had profoundly moved me. I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t even speak to him, but I went back five or six times to the exhibition.
In the beginning, I was obviously influenced by his work. I started routering the wood, then I would apply some acrylic paint. I did this for some time, until I realized there were so many natural colours in the wood that it was unnecessary to apply paint. I became more interested in working with the plywood’s own language than in superimposing my imagery on it, as Ewen did.
S.A. - While doing this, you were no longer painting, but rather sculpting bas reliefs. Was this some sort of renunciation of painting?
Y.G. - I did not see it so much as a renunciation but rather a transformation. At the time, I still did see this as painting. At the end of my undergraduate studies I won the Painting Medal Award, and this started a sort of controversy among my classmates because I was no longer using actual paint. I can remember answering them, “When does a painting cease to be a painting? It could still be a painting without any paint.” I was working with an image, a composition, with tonal values and gestuality, all of which are pictorial elements. In fact, even though I was no longer using paint, I was still thinking in the terms of a painter.
S.A. - When did you stop thinking in the terms of a painter?
Y.G. - Rather late. In fact, it was not before having completed my master’s degree at Concordia University in Montreal, where I was still registered in the painting curriculum. In 1999 I travelled throughout France and Spain, where I had yet another great revelation! I was discovering everything that I had learned in my art history classes at York, without having been moved by any of it at the time. I had rediscovered the history of art! I was most impressed by the Gothic cathedrals, which had a determining impact on my way of looking at art. From that moment on, architecture became the prevailing paradigm in my practice.
S.A. - In Palimpsest, you are thinking in the terms of an architect, a painter, a sculptor and a printmaker.
Y.G. - It is true. In Palimpsest, I wanted all these disciplines to appear simultaneously, and to sort of cross-fertilize one another. One can find something similar in cathedrals with the interaction of the stained-glass windows, the bas reliefs and the pillars. I had already explored this idea before in Cross-ply, presented at La Centrale. I had built a room in the shape of a house around the gallery’s central column. On the exterior, the plywood was intact, but inside the surfaces were intentionally eroded. I saw this installation as both a metaphor and a nucleus of all architectures, from the building to the city block, to the city itself, and so on. Following this project, I became interested in the work of Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. I was impressed by their very introspective approach, by their exploration of the materials’ properties, the importance they give to models and archives, and particularly by their ongoing dialogue with contemporary art.
I can remember Francis Bacon saying something of this nature, “We must read poetry, we must listen to music, we must look at art, not to have knowledge about things, but to experience them.” For me, the trips I made and the architectural sites I visited allowed me to live through emotions which later served as starting points in conceiving my projects, a sort of meditative process that helped to formulate my own ideas.
S.A. - It is the difference between a work of art that is lived as an experience as opposed to seen as a spectacle.
Y.G. - That is what I was aiming at, in Palimpsest: to create a lieu for a unique experience, for a voyage through space. The pillars, the murals and the perspectives from one piece to the next integrate the whole gallery into the work. I do not wish for the emotions experienced by the viewers to evaporate the moment they leave. I’d rather induce them into a meditative experience, in such a way that they do not see the world in quite the same way afterwards. I believe art has that power to transcend time and change our way of looking at things. I was stimulated in this reflection by the work of Bill Viola, which I saw in a retrospective in New York, an exhibition dealing with the essential themes of life, death and beyond.
S.A. - Are you, like him, drawn to Asian aesthetics?
Y.G. - I have been interested in Chinese painting for many years. It is often a world devoid of colours, in which multiple perspectives coexist: frontal, aerial… What I find particularly moving about these paintings is the silence, the emptiness, the space where the brush has not touched the surface, yet they are rich with information. This is what I seek in my own work; the balance between the void and the sign, the empty space and the human presence, between the natural and the artificial. In this respect, I have always been fascinated by the Chinese Scholar Stones, strange and beautiful objects of which we are not sure whether they were made by craftsmen or are simply the result of natural erosion.
S.A. - What do you find so fascinating about plywood?
Y.G. - It is North America’s quintessential building material. It is also purely functional, a utilitarian product that is always hidden, since it can’t be seen once a building is finished. In a way, I reverse this process; by tearing out some of the layers, I expose the material for what it is and reveal some of its intrinsic organic patterns. On a purely aesthetic level, it is a very rich material, lending itself to an array of artistic possibilities.
S.A. - Are you motivated by ecological considerations?
Y.G. - Yes, in a way that’s what I like about plywood. During my studies at Concordia I became very interested in the arte povera movement. I liked the way its artists used unsophisticated materials, and also the whole nature-culture dialectic that permeates their work. Similarly, plywood is a material that originates from nature; it is basically wood, but it has been transformed by man to serve industrial purposes. It is a metaphor of the complex relationship we have with nature; it is a bridge between creation and destruction, the destruction of the natural environment and the construction of the human habitat.
This link with nature is very important to me, but it does not make it ecological art per se. I am not preaching any message, even though I act in an ecological manner in the studio by collecting the wood debris, sawdust and wood chips that my works leave behind.
S.A. - How do you approach an intact sheet of plywood? Do you already have a composition in mind?
Y.G. - On the contrary. I use an electric router, wood chisels and a sander, but my two principal tools are observing and listening. Before starting to carve, I look and observe the panel until I see some sort of pattern. I don’t impose my own images but let them emerge. The knots, the grain, the manufacturing defects all make up some sort of map, with various routes. It’s up to me to decide which direction to take. It may sound odd, but I really feel some sort of connection with the material. Before I begin routering, I must be attentive.
S.A. - There is a sort of dialogue with the material.
Y.G. - Yes. I listen to what the material is evoking and I answer back with my own language.
S.A. - This is not a dogmatic or authoritarian position like that of the abstract expressionist painters who influenced you in the first place. Is it a feminist position?
Y.G. - No, I don’t think like that. I have no political motive. My position derives from a respect for the material. Harmony should prevail between the material, the tools and the artist. It is not unlike the way native sculptors approach their totem poles. They have an absolute respect for the wood, which is a living element. One has to be receptive, respectful, and open-minded.
This may be particularly relevant nowadays, when we try through our means to change the world but often we remain deaf to what nature tells us.
S.A. - In that regard, the studio is a place where your relationship with the world is ethical as well as aesthetic.
Y.G. - Indeed. The studio is not cut off from the world. Everything else is projected in it. Art and life are intimately linked. What I experience in the studio affects the way I live globally with the outside world.
Translation: Nicolas Masino
Copyright © 2004 Yechel Gagnon & Stéphane Aquin