Faces and Figures Revisited: Contemporary Works on Paper from the 1960's to Today
Faces and Figures Revisited: Contemporary Works on Paper from the 1960's to Today
Faces and Figures Revisited
JUSTIN LIEBERMAN (JL): Let’s just get right into it, shall we? What draws you to a particular artwork?
MARC JANCOU (MJ): My sensibility is based on the effect that an artwork produces in me. I am subject to an irrational "love at first sight" effect, to a certain feeling that the right artwork can produce in me. I look for magic in an artwork.
JL: I know what you are talking about and yet I don't find it irrational at all. I think we recognise something of ourselves in artworks very quickly on a subconscious level, well before we can begin to be critical. What was the first work that gave you this feeling?
MJ: I would say that the first real emotion was for the illustrations of Antoine de St Exupery for his wonderful story The Little Prince. Those drawings captured my imagination and touched me. One in particular is the drawing of the boa constrictor eating the elephant; its shape changes and all of a sudden we are looking at a hat! Or when the little prince asks the aviator to draw a sheep for him and instead he receives the drawing of a suitcase with the idea of the sheep inside ... Pure conceptual art! I have tried to maintain an innocent eye, so that every time I look at a new work, it can be like this first experience.
JL: Those drawings are fantastic. Just like Magritte!! The relationship to language, the pun, the simplicity. I happen to know that you directed a play of this story in your school days. And it's interesting given the strong illustrational bent of many of the artists included here. And yet the term “illustration" still provokes a strong negative reaction among art audiences. They see it as too literal and specific.
MJ: In considering what is "beautiful," I think that illustration can be judged by the same criteria as any other art form ... Its impact is the same on me, I make no distinctions. What surrounds the work is unimportant, the work is the work. So I am not all that interested in the debate over high and low. The drawings of Shaw, Crumb or Pettibon all convey a message in a sequential way. They often depict a moment in time, as well as drawing from a socioeconomic, sexual, and cultural context explicit to their time. Take for example the My Mirage series by Shaw. It follows the life of Shaw's alter-ego "Billy,"a white middle-class teenager growing up in the 1960s. Originally conceived as a book, the series follows Billy from his idealistic youth to his days as a drug-addicted cult member, and ultimately to his final resurrection as a born-again Christian. They are documents of certain periods in recent western history. I am convinced that these artists will not be overlooked in time.
JL: All of those artists began their careers as illustrators of a sort. It's strange that some people do continue to make the distinction given the duration of time since those boundaries have been collapsed. The wider culture of magazines certainly seems to have accepted this "leveling." But a lot of people I talk to still regard most illustration as an authorless kitsch product of mass cultural production. Excluding certain forms of abstraction, I think that one could argue that the majority of what is referred to as drawing could be seen as a kind of illustration.
MJ: With the notion of "illustration art" as a label one can belittle the genre altogether. It's a very short- sighted view. The most authentic messages come from individual people's reclamation of the mass produced, inexpensive formats and platforms, such as zines, underground comics, youtube, etc. Essentially anywhere that the means of production and distribution is put back into the hands of individuals. I am a firm believer in these formats as highly effective means of communication and as platforms of expression.
JL: Tell me about the original Faces and Figures exhibition.
MJ: Faces and Figures was a show in 1989 in Zurich at Thomas Ammann. I come from Zurich so his shows were formative to my perception. This one in particular was a survey of portraiture and figure painting (broadly defined, of course) from Courbet to Warhol. Certain works in the show left an everlasting impression on me, like Seated Figure from 1939 by De Kooning. The memory of this show helped form my aesthetics and taste, so the point of departure is a personal one. We can take a fresh look at the human faces and figures and pick up where Ammann's show left off, looking at art from the 1960s to today. I have been looking at Pettibon for more than fifteen years, and I first did a show of his work in Zurich in 1993. Then came shows with Valiance, Kilimnik, Kippenberger, Dunham, and many more.
JL: I think it is important that curatorial practice comes from personal taste. With most group shows today you see a sampling of trendy young artists loosely strung together, hanging on a flimsy pseudo-intellectual construct. That is not the case here. Rather it seems to contain shades of Goethe's Elective Affinities, where attraction is an almost unfathomable chemical reaction.
MJ : I wanted to organize a show that would trace my interest in works on paper from the past 20 years. The catalogue is further evidence of this as it documents the history of my various galleries, beginning in Zurich in 1993 with exhibitions by Karen Kilimnik and Raymond Pettibon. I inevitably take an emotional approach when it comes to my choices. Much has been said on the interaction of art and social themes, recently art and money. I see a corruption in general of the context for art. Too much information is not good at this stage. I have a space, I mount exhibitions for my pleasure and hopefully the pleasure of others. I am not afraid of the subjectivity and diversity of my choices. I think that they are lively and personal. I am constantly on the lookout for signs and symbols made by artists and I am really into their stories and their individual mythologies.
JL: It is a relief to see a group exhibition that is not dictated by market forces or a perceived notion of the public good. A gallery should be just this. A place for the expression of personal taste. Like the 16th century curiosity cabinets. It seems as though at the moment, contexts for art have been forced to choose between one of two identities: fashionable boutique or therapeutic institution. What exactly do you mean by "too much information?"
MJ: By too much information I mean that there is a limit to what each and every one can absorb on the net, the Saatchi website is a good example—it is a jungle of signs. Too much, overload! How much can people actually absorb between the net, the art fairs, and the magazines? It is important to be well informed. It corresponds to a new kind of "professional collecting," especially if you live in suburbia or a small town and have limited access to museums and galleries. But please send people back into art galleries for first hand experiences and emotions. We talk more about art than we live it! We are stifled by the amount of information we get and are afraid of subjective feelings and thoughts.
JL: I have a funny story that relates to this. When I was in school I completely avoided art galleries and museums. I found the atmosphere stifling in comparison to the independent spaces, bookstores, and record shops where I absorbed the majority of the culture that helped me to form my sense of aesthetics. I looked at an enormous amount of art, but only in reproductions in books and magazines. And so I came to this bizarre conclusion that the quality of artworks could be correctly judged based solely on a photograph and a caption. Not by default, but deliberately! Obviously this is not true, but perhaps my early aversion to traditional exhibition spaces had something to do with an intuitive sense of the elitism and controlling attitudes that are the inevitable result of the loss of subjective experience.
MJ: A gallery or museum space should be a place where new relationships with art are cultivated, and where what is created by an individual (and therefore fragile in essence) can be presented and preserved over time. The exhibition space offers specific possibilities as a space exclusively designated to the presentation of objects and ideas, where an individual's aspirations can be presented to the public. I believe in an individual and singular "mental space" for an art gallery with a specific "climate." Intimacy is very important. The format of presentation can be altered for every show, every time. I enjoy being part of the installation process, and finding the right balance between my own intuition and that of the artist. And I believe in a "community" of ideas.
JL: And I can speak from experience when I say that it is a delicate balance indeed. I think we have covered a lot of ground here: taste, subjectivity, the canon, curatorial practice, I feel like we could just keep going, but the printer waits for no man.
Soft cover (Illustration Martin Kippenberger, Untitled (Protect Me From What I Want), 1991
300 x 240 mm
Text: Marc Jancou & Justin Lieberman
Editor: Kelley Woods and Marc Jancou
Design: Gavillet & Rust / no-do
Publication: Marc Jancou Contemporary, New York, USA
Distribution: Marc Jancou Contemporary