Monday, September 22, 2008

Talk 2.0: Pascal Grandmaison at Jessica Bradley Art & Projects

This weekend, as part of the Canadian Art Gallery Hop, I gave a brief talk at the newly renovated Jessica Bradley Art & Projects on Montreal artist Pascal Grandmaison. Grandmaison, a youngish artist, emerged in the late 90s and early 00s, breaking through to national attention with a show at artist run centre B312 in 203. Since then, he's started to do an increasing number of museum exhibitions, with a show upcoming next week at the Art Gallery of Hamilton and ones recently taken place at the National Gallery of Canada.

I found his work a little difficult to interpret at first, but as I had a chance to talk with Grandmaison and read up on his work, I drew some links together. Here are some related notes from my talk:

What made his work of that late 90s and early 00s so notable was the way he reworked photographic portraiture almost against itself. In one series from 1998, for instance, called Pres des Parcs he had friends model for him in Montreal park spaces. Something about the way they were posed and about their expressions was very fake, and almost kind of reflected that false naturalism that we see in parks themselves – as well as, to a certain extent, in most portraits.

From that point on, Grandmaison continued to rework the portrait theme. Rather than taking photos of people, for instance, he would take photos of their musical instruments, things that the people had used to express themselves passionately but which alone gave little personal insight. Rather than focusing close in on their faces, he might shoot them with a vast amount of white space above and to the sides of them—so that the person was physically dwarfed by the frame of the picture. He might also, as he did most recently in 2004 and 2005, have his sitters hold a piece of glass between themselves and the lens, making apparent the layers of distance between the viewer and the sitter, erasing or deterring any illusions of immediacy or connection.

Now given that this type of portraiture riffage is the work for which Grandmaison is perhaps best known, it’s a bit of a surprise to look around the gallery here today and see zero pictures of people. Instead, we see at first glance some kind of severe and distanced photos of machinery, crumpled paper, and other, at first more indecipherable, subjects.

But there is also similarity to Grandmaison's past work. Basically, each of these newer works broaden Grandmaison’s critical approach to media. Where before he was particularly interested in testing and questioning photographic portraiture by creating photographic portraits, here, in many of these works, he seems to question photography in general by using the tools of photography itself. Or question cinema in gneral by using the tolls of cinema. So it’s like he’s enlarged his working frame from taking and looking at and thinking about photos of people, to taking and looking at photos and films in general.

For instance, in his first work [pictured above] this one that was finished just this week, we see shots of a movie camera at work. The shots are extremely clear, so we can see a lot of the detail in the surface of the camera, we can see numbers etched into the metal and almost feel the texture of the hardened outer shell. In this way, it is very revealing, or feels like it should be. But like many Grandmaison works, it is exquisitely clear in a visual sense but the subject is extremely obscured in a conceptual sense. This is the part of the work that is turning the power of photography against itself. Everything is perfectly shot, but in some ways we can’t see anything.

If you do read the backstory on this, however, and I believe it is in some of the documentation, you find it is a kind of portrait as well…. A portrait of a technology. The camera that is being documented here is a 16mm Éclair NPR fabricated in 1963 in France. Because it was one of the first handheld film cameras with sync sound, it enabled the genre of “cinema verite” to evolve. It symbolized freedom to many filmmakers—suddenly, they could get out of the studio and capture life on the fly “as it really was.” And because so many directors are associated with cinema verite, it is in a way a portrait of them too.

Of course, however, while it may have simulated life better than studio shooting, there was always the camera and the projector between the viewer and the action. By creating a film focusing exclusively on this liberating instrument – this instrument that was almost in many ways meant to dissolve the viewer and the “real life” cinematic action into one – Grandmaison questions whether it was the technology or the spirit of discourse that surrounded it that was truly liberating. Or even whether, one could say, it was liberating at all.

Fun times! Thanks to everyone who came out. As for the rest of the day though I didn't manage to make it to the Plaskett talk, I did enjoy the conversation between Dan Adler and Nestor Kruger at Art Metropole and Sarah Milroy's talk with Reinhard Reitzenstein at Olga Korper Gallery.

Thanks to Julia at Jessica Bradley for the pic of me mid-blab

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