Green. Dense. Contrasting shadows. Wind whistling through the leaves. The heaviness of summer. Fire. An acrid odour pervades for kilometres around. The fragile forest, surviving, in spite of all and of everything. Even human foolishness. To pay homage to it, to create familiar landscapes that cannot be seen in reality. The work of the artist. Appropriation of matter. Wood, its resistance, the wisdom one can gain from it.
On the other end of the line, Yechel has just confided that she will exhibit at the McMaster Museum of Art. I hear her joy, I feel a hint of pride, but also the vertigo brought on by such an undertaking.
Yechel and Alexandre came for a visit this evening. The joy that Denis and I share of having them over. At the end of the meal, Yechel asks for a moment to speak about her project. She presents a model of the museum's exhibit rooms, and explains to us what she wishes to realize. First gestures, first ideas, fragile, essential. One senses her nervousness--very certainly a good sign in such circumstances, signalling that something important is about to happen.
Yechel Gagnon does not wish to impose her work on a given space, much less to fill that space to pre-existing criteria. Rather she wishes to bring to life the space into which her work will unfold, to activate the space so her work will resonate long after the discrete objects are removed. She imagines-and asks us to visualize with her-entering the gallery, the first impressions, the probable and improbable reaction of the visitors-their astonishment, their curiosity, their urge to understand.
This is where the first explorations took form, similar to those of the writer scribbling on a scrap of paper, in a notebook, in a calendar, the words to the poem or of the novel that is yet to come. Yechel Gagnon casts, in this way, before us, the indexes and traces from which her work will blossom.
Artists work in successive impressions, never in preconceived ideas. Until the very end their work is always in a state of becoming, like matter itself, organic, alive, because it changes inevitably. Just as thoughts change and crystallize by arduous effort, progressively, inevitably. Destiny evaporates.
It is said that the carpenter becomes the wood that he works. One body. The gesture of the hand, the force necessary to subdue it, to rend the surface. Restraint and attentiveness are also essential, in the face of such fragility.
Yechel Gagnon is an artist of touch, more than-it seems to me-an artist purely of vision, that is to say only given to seeing. I am persuaded that she would say the contrary, and would explain why... Her work has nothing to do with that of Paterson Ewen, for instance, who explored variable geometries, representation of spaces. Or that of René Derouin, whose voluntary approach proceeded from the perspectives of an imaginary cartography. Voyeurism.
When I look at the body of Yechel's work, I perceive precisely the interplay between the verticality of each of the panels, the linear correlations, the surfaces, the effects of the colours, the tonal values creating links between these panels, the continuous rhythm and the ruptures. I see clearly relations of complement, of contrast, of depth. I understand the artist's intention to create effects of transition, sometimes delicate and semi-transparent, sometimes deeply engraved in the grain of the wood. For me, this reading is dependent on the invitation to understand other things in her work, other worlds.
Because the essential resides first, from what I can see, that is to say, not in a graphic representation, but in the process itself which has preceded it, and made it possible. I imagine Yechel caressing softly the grain of the wood, the knots, the scars, and I imagine her following the veins, the hollows and the swells, exploring with her hands, to discover the tiniest secrets of the wood. I envision her fingers sliding, caressing, pausing at certain places, to discover, to encircle anew. Touching to inflame the smallest details. Then to see, but only after...
Looking. Each piece of plywood differs depending on the type of wood (soft or hard) and the application of the glue, and the kind of glue used--forest greys, vegetal greens, earthy browns, amber tones that are nearly black. In some places one can see the seal of the lumber company, symbolizing appropriation of nature by man. I imagine Yechel embracing a tree in her arms. Seizing the world, touching it, closing her eyes at first.
Behind me I close the door to Yechel's studio. Two old women are sitting on the other side of the street. They look at me leaving the building as if I were an unexpected distraction. It is May. Spring is barely here in Montreal's working class district of St. Henri. I walk slowly. My mind is buzzing with ideas, spreading out in a thousand directions. For weeks now, I have watched Yechel working on her latest piece. A privilege. A mystery.
I am not an art historian, nor critic or museum curator. My point of view is different. Oblique, if I dare say so. It is that of an amateur, that is to say, of someone who knows without knowing, who loves and passionately tries to understand using his own references. My interpretation of Yechel's work is based on intuition, cross-references, bringing to bear the other works that I love or which challenge me for various reasons. I do not resist stray pleasures. Why would I?
Yechel is a discreet, subdued woman, inwardly boiling with passion and sensitivity. Fragility. I say this because I know that few people have access to her studio; she protects it like a kind of closed universe, isolated from the rest of the world, from the noisy and too often useless rumblings from the outside. It is not like she is hiding or wishes to withdraw from the world. It is something else, a deep longing, a need to be alone in order to be available to oneself. Strength.
My meetings with Yechel have always been straightforward and unceremonious. What matters is that we understand each other, that we share our impressions and points of view. It doesn't sound like much, yet it may be all that really matters. Perhaps essential. The process of creation is neither linear nor reassuring.
Especially, take time. Find out the best course of action, for there is no second chance, only that of destroying and commencing anew.
Do not impose yourself upon the work or go against what the wooden surface offers to the artist. Rather, play with the tension which exists between that which one wishes to realize-the dream, the utopia, the desire-and that which the limits of the material permit. Plywood is much more fragile than one realizes. It breaks, it bends. One must treat it with care, with respect.
Several strokes of the chisel and the first lines surge, movements more or less precise. Yechel recaptures her original vision, without checking the sketches that she produced at the beginning of her project, working from memory alone. After work, she withdraws from it, to keep a necessary distance.
She works directly on the surface of the wood. No pencil marks, no lines like some painters draw before attacking the canvas.
The work is constructed in stages, one wooden panel after the other, working from right to left. The work done on the first panel guides the artist towards the next, and so on, from the second to the third...
The choice of tools is crucial. Close at hand, on a table, Yechel has arranged knives, chisels, scissors, assorted gouges, rasps, sculpting discs, hammers, etc. They all account for a particular aspect of the work: here some delicate, almost invisible grooves, there some deeper lines. Extensions of the hands.
End of May
Yechel's work on paper is on the wall. Untitled, yet. An immense format, one that the artist has never tackled before.
An expansive landscape. Neither black nor white. I go through long moments of silence. As does Denis, and Alexandre. Everything is so different from the rest... and yet so complementary.
I feel a sense of vertigo, until memories surface. Impressions of previously seen places. Mountains surge, valleys plunge. I think of the mountains and forests of Western Canada, their rivers and lakes, the eternal snows, of blinding white light.
My gaze embraces, circulates, escalates, plunges and remounts. One unearths some paths, engraved with passages, lost one moment, retrieved along the way. Certainly, I think of works by Chinese artists. A line drawn on the surface of a white paper (or a translucent one, as Yechel uses here), a landscape of an invented China.
The difficulty to suggest a scenic vignette, without describing it. There is no possible narrative.
I have a rendez-vous with Yechel at l'Atelier Circulaire.
11 o'clock. De Gaspé street. It is an open area, carefully looked after. People are working in silence, in a contemplative mood. Yechel has reserved a press to produce the next and final stage of her exhibition.
This time the technique is completely different: she does not rub the surface of the paper with charcoal, but embosses it. The plywood serves as a matrix.
The choice of paper is essential. One must know its weight, the resistance of its fibers. Its colour is of utmost importance; under spotlights, truly white paper would blind us and make the work all but impossible to read.
Everything must be meticulously orchestrated: the paper must be carefully soaked in water and aligned on the surface of the carved wood, the press must be operated manually, with a constant force, to assure a uniform impression.
Transferring of the image. Inverted traces. Palimpsests, perpetually reinvented signs, offered by the artist. Mastery and hazards of printmaking.
There is the work that Yechel has created. One work, despite a diversity of supports, of formats, of means and techniques. The cohesion is astonishing.
On the other hand, there is the work that escapes entirely from the one who signs it and this part will only be revealed through the eyes of others. Living through some strange process that is never completed but detached, where creation comes to life.
I salute you Yechel, with all my affection.
Translated by Nicholas Masino & Alexandria Pierce
Copyright © 2004 Bernard Chassé