Yechel Gagnon - Documents

Geneviève Chevalier


"In this I was like Elstir, who, unable to leave his studio on certain spring days when the knowledge that the woods were full of violets made him desperate to see some, would send his portress to buy a bunch of them; then, his heart melting, almost hallucinating, he would see not the table on which he had placed the small botanical specimens, but all the carpet of the undergrowth where formerly, in their thousands, he had seen the twisting stems bending under their blue, beak-like blossoms; his eyes created an imaginary zone, marked off in his studio by the pure scent of the evocative flower."
Marcel Proust


Yechel Gagnon’s sculptural works have an amazing evocative power. This is perhaps because they do not focus on singular association, but leave the door open to an entire series of associations which ripen in the mind of the beholder. The medium of plywood is central to the artist’s practice. For Gagnon, layers of plywood are an invitation to discovery, which she does with the aid of an arsenal of specialized tools. The process begins as she immerses herself in the contemplation of these large wooden panels, their surface textures and natural colours, until an image takes shape before her eyes. After which, she gets down to work with her gouging tools, first skimming the surface and then penetrating the wood. Gagnon’s world is fertile ground for a number of shapes that evoke both topographic maps and Chinese landscapes. In this universe, we are referring to invented spaces and fictitious places, born of an encounter in the studio between the artist and her medium. Plywood as medium, which Gagnon first discovered in 1996 while a student at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, holds infinite possibilities. An exhibition presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario during the time of the artist’s academic studies — a retrospective on Canadian artist Paterson Ewen — acted as a catalyst. Ewen is undeniably among Gagnon’s influences, if only for his use of plywood and his interest in landscape and natural phenomena. It is interesting to note that, despite a very different approach, there are similarities between works such as Satan’s Pit, created by Ewen in 1991, and Gagnon’s 2007 work Vortex. Both serve as passages of sorts, drawing the viewer into their centre and toward another reality.

It is not surprising that, in recent years, Gagnon’s work has become more and more anchored with site-specific contexts. There has been a shift in her practice, from work that is formed from a self-contained world, to work which not only encompasses a given place but pushes its own spatial limits, thus expanding the scope of the dialogue towards its architectural surroundings. According to Gagnon’s artist statements, she finds an endless source of inspiration in architecture and that which is associated with the discipline (experimentation with material by architects such as Herzog & de Meuron, for instance). The use of plywood is intrinsically related to her fascination with architecture, since the material evokes a built structure and is a fundamental component of our architectural landscapes. The architect and theoretician Gottfried Semper, who strongly influenced Herzog & de Meuron, established a connection between works of art and architecture in antiquity. For Semper, “The frame also marks the point where art and architecture first intersected, namely, in the fastening of textiles to a post.”(2) One could postulate that the plywood element in Gagnon’s work serves both as frame and cladding, a bridge between architecture and art.

Hoarding, 2006

The installation Hoarding is a key work in the development of Yechel Gagnon’s practice. A few years ago, the artist had a studio in the working-class Montreal neighbourhood of Saint-Henri. On the daily commute between her studio and her home in Vieux-Longueil, Gagnon documented various construction sites that she saw along the way, thereby creating a bank of images. She then had the idea of including one of these sites in with her work: the panels of Hoarding, in a sense, play the role of a construction fence. What is particularly interesting in this gesture is her desire to integrate her art into “real” time and space where it was able to evolve. The panels are accompanied by a sign inviting passers-bys to make changes to the work. Gagnon spent four months documenting the daily evolution to the building site and to the hoarding itself. The passage of time and the effects of the elements left their mark, as did the construction workers who removed some of the panels that were in the way of the progress of their own work. Transformed by workers and the people of the neighborhood, Hoarding is characterized by an inherent evolution. It was part of the worksite, part of the building under construction and became a sort of architectural element itself. Today, we can see the chain of events in the creation of the work in photographs taken by the artist. Some of these images are presented as part of the exhibition Documents and accompany the plywood panels. Some of the panels are installed in the Foreman Art Gallery, while others are displayed outside the lobby of the Centennial Theatre, adjacent to the gallery. Visitors can, therefore, see the panels through the windows of the lobby, in amongst fifty-foot tall pines. Here again, Hoarding merges with architecture.

Maison de thé, 2007

Exhibition Documents, 2007

This idea of a structure whose existence is tied to that of a building is reminiscent of the work of the artist and architecture theoretician Melvin Charney, who lives and works in Montreal. In his Streetwork, created in 1978, Charney succeeded in bringing a building to life: with a schematic construction in plywood which was built within the exhibition space of the Art Gallery of Ontario and continued out into the street and thus drew upon the interior and exterior architecture of the museum. Visitors could view the work both from inside and outside the AGO. Charney used the words construction hoarding to describe the section of the work inside the gallery; in reference to the outside, he spoke of a future extension of the building itself. Streetwork opened up the building’s envelope: “The inserted wall is more fragile than the existing wall and may or may not be seen to be part of the real building. The wood construction of the inserted wall relativizes the materiality of the existing building. Outside, it may be the temporary concrete formwork of a possible extension to the permanent, cast concrete of the existing building. Inside, there is the suggestion of a temporary hoarding and further construction.”(3) Hoarding acts in the same way, in addition to referring to an event that took place in Vieux-Longueuil and attesting to it. The simultaneous construction of the work and the building redefines our experience of the space in the Foreman Art Gallery. We see not only the work’s intrinsic qualities but also its dynamic relationship with architectural construction. The building’s structure is revealed: it is a series of spaces through which visitors move, and the plywood panels become interconnected with these spaces.

This notion of adding elements to an existing architectural structure is recurrent in Gagnon’s recent practice. Hoarding is one example of this, as is St-Henri, a work that is, so far, a project on paper. From her studio window in Saint-Henri, Gagnon could see the pillars of the Ville-Marie expressway and the graffiti covering them. Built during a huge effort to modernize the city of Montreal in the early 1970s, the elevated expressway had a major impact on nearby neighbourhoods and their residents. When it was built, people had to be moved, residential buildings were demolished and the urban fabric unravelled. The emergence of highways created residual zones that were a sort of no man’s land. The space under the highway ramps soon became the realm of graffitists and also at times other artists such as the Montreal collective SYN that launched a project entitled Hypothèse d’amarrage in 2001, setting up picnic tables in various locations in the city like parking lots, along highways, in vacant lots, and so on. This questioning of the way we use street furniture and environments is of prime concern to some city-dwelling artists. Gagnon’s plywood column tackles this same question and takes it a little further. The material from which it is made distinguishes it from the concrete structure of the expressway, while mimicking its shape. This unique character transforms the reading of an urban landscape that is familiar to us: at once, we understand that this wooden structure is not real, and we imagine an expressway precariously held up by wooden structures. And perhaps our mind makes the leap to the “natural,” with visions of vast green forests. In short, a gap opens up, revealing the city’s architectural language, which is suddenly transformed into a kind of theatre set.

St. Henri, 2004

Coinciding with the exhibition Documents is the unveiling of Vortex, Yechel Gagnon’s work now permanently displayed on the portal of the Centennial Theatre’s lobby. It was created with support from the Program of Integration of Arts within Architecture(4). This time the artist was inspired primarily by the beautifully treed campus of Bishop’s University and by what goes on inside the Centennial Theatre, on the stage surrounded by a semi-circle of seats. The theatre is a place for discovery, a venue for dance performances, concerts and plays. Gagnon chose the word Vortex as both the title and theme of the work, since it is synonymous with spiralling movement that becomes progressively smaller and vanishes into its centre. As mentioned above, the work serves as a passage of sorts; it echoes the circular shape of the theatre and draws sustenance from what goes on inside the auditorium.

Vortex, 2007

Movement is at the core of art because, by definition, it has the power to kindle emotion in viewers, transforming their vision of the world and casting doubt on what they hold to be true. For one of the first times in Gagnon’s practice, the shapes of the three sculptures that comprise Vortex were inspired not only by the material but also by the gestures of drawing. Using charcoal sketches, the artist documented the formal research she did when designing Vortex. It is not longer only a question of reading the material but also, and above all, creating something on its surface that echoes the nature of the place, thereby offering viewers a window on what awaits them once they pass through the portal.

Vortex sketch, 2007


(1)  Proust, Marcel,( Carol Clark, translator) The Prisoner. Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 2002, p. 124.

(2) Kurt W. Forster, "Pieces for Four and More Hands" in Philippe Ursprung, editor, Herzog & de Meuron: Natural History. Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture and Lars Muller Publishers, 2002, p. 52.

(3) Parables and Other Allegories: the Work of Melvin Charney, 1975-1990. Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1991, p. 81.

(4) The a Quebec-based Program of Integration of Arts within Architecture , better known under the name « 1% »,   ensures the creation of public artworks for each public building that costs at least $150 000 and for which a government subsidy is allocated.

photo : Y.Gagnon, Richard-Max Tremblay and François Lafrance.

Translation: Katrin Sermat
©2007 "Documents" Geneviève Chevalier




©2001 Yechel Gagnon