Interview: François Gagné
Luca Curci talks with François Gagné during VISIONS, third appointment of the ANIMA MUNDI 2022, at Palazzo Bembo.
François Gagné, who labelled himself GAGNE as an artist, was born in Montreal, Canada, and holds degrees in architecture from the University of Montreal and Columbia University in New York City. GAGNE started his professional career as an assistant to Melvin Charney, artist and architect, before working for several years for the City of Montreal, where he constituted and coordinated a small urban design unit (AADU – l’Atelier d’architecture et de design urbain), aiming to implement a creative culture in a normative, bureaucratic environment. In parallel, he pursued a career as an independent thinker and creator and, notably, represented his country at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 1997, amongst the winners of “Reciprocity”, a national competition for the concept of a Canadian Pavilion of Architecture. For the past 10 years, he used his cell phone camera as an “image carrier” and is now dedicating himself full-time to his visual artist career. He just recently decided to show his work to a larger audience and make his production public. “Art is for everyone and should be made by everyone. Cavemen used rocks, chalk, and blood to create an artistic language and communicate their ideas. I use a tool everyone carries in their pocket: my cell phone. There is no need for exclusive, high-end, sophisticated equipment to capture and render life, and no such dogma that every picture should look like a polished image printed on the glossy paper of a design or a fashion magazine. Everyone could look through a cell phone camera to discover the world and make art. But unfortunately, very few of us believe in ourselves and dare to assume our artistic abilities, and sensitivity, and even fewer value art and creation. I’d be glad if my work, as a footnote, acted as a reminder that we can do more than ego portraits. We can do better with what we have in hand”. “My concerns are for the real, concrete, endangered, molested world we live in. The beauty, the richness, the frailness, the multiple layers of meaning, and sometimes the double nature of what surrounds us, are rich enough, deep enough, and strong enough to deserve a more careful observation and a more creative, intriguing, appealing, and rewarding representation”. “I work with photography, but I do not make photographs. I do not aim to reproduce reality in a more realistic way than what people can already see, I make images that show what we do not necessarily see at first glance but is secretly embedded in what is there: imaginary landscapes, dreamlike characters, or simply pure abstraction found in otherwise very much recognizable objects or places. I like to unveil the unseen”.
Luca Curci – What are you currently working on?
François Gagné – This summer was quite busy. Besides the “VISIONS” exhibition, some of my work was selected for three collective shows at the Glasgow Gallery of Photography in Scotland: The Black and White Exhibition, Postcards from Winter, and Seascapes International Exhibition. I am working on a solo exhibition at AccorsiStudio in Venice, which will take place from August 17 to 23, and I also will hold a parallel event in my own studio gallery in L’Islet-sur-Mer in Canada. I called those events “Parallel Worlds”, which is in line with most of the images I produce, in which I try to reveal worlds within worlds. On the other hand, I am working on an exhibition project to be programmed this Fall, reminiscent of my teens’ obsessions: a series of figurative ‘still life’ portraits, optimistic play with colors and artifice as a homage to Andy Warhol’s artistic immortality, juxtaposed to the fatality of life shown in larger, darker close-ups of an actual human face ageing 6 months to 60 years, reintroducing the photo booth series, but from a much more pessimistic and dramatic perspective ”.
LC – What’s your background? What is the experience that has influenced your work the most?
FG – After studying science in college, I got degrees in architecture and urban design from the University of Montreal and Columbia University in New York City. I started my professional career as an assistant to Melvin Charney, an artist and architect, before working for several years for the City of Montreal as an urban designer. This background consolidated my interest in what is already there, and in the consequences of our actions on our environment. To me, the actual, physical world is worth more than its virtual counterpart; people should care more about what surrounds them, and the marks they leave behind, than about the faces they make and post online.
LC – Where do you find your inspiration?
FG – My own experience of life, my immediate surroundings. Artists communicate, they say something, they comment on reality, and they express ideas. In that sense, art is political before dealing with aesthetics. I do not invent much; I observe, I translate, I reveal, I critique, and I propose. I just look and try to depict what’s around. I pay attention to lines, shapes, colours, and textures. Reframing, attenuating or accentuating contrasts and definition, fading or saturating the colours is my way of sharing my perception of things. I work with photography, but I do not make photographs. I find it instructive to blur the notion of scale and amusing to make people dubitative about the actual size of the object or place is shown in the image. I naturally tend to flatten the third dimension and present things as if they were originally drawn on a single plane, already conceived as a tableau, a painting. That’s the way I see the world anyway, being blind in one eye. I am the viewer of a movie, not an actor in it.
LC – Are your artworks focused on a specific theme?
FG – Not really, or rather, everything that already exists: nature, culture, art itself, consumerism, environmental issues, social inequities, lessons to be learned, messages to be captured, life, and death. I practice the art of observation, and of critique. I’d like to provoke a reaction, an emotion, a reflection, and, perhaps, a subsequent action from the viewer. I am also very much aware of the vanity of the action of making art itself, as an object to buy, to possess, a decoration, a distraction, a trophee, a self-rewarding witness to our own spiritual elevation. But in making it, I might naively think or wish that I am proposing something a little different, some sort of a critical point of view on what art has become or should be, in its process as well as in its results. For instance, for the past ten years, I only worked with my cell phone camera and its basic settings, avoiding sophisticated digital programs and applications. Why is that? Out of convenience, of course, but also due to the fact that everyone, at least in our privileged societies, should do the same, and because this situation conveys its load of ethical, political and aesthetical issues. First, art is for everyone and should be made by everyone. Cavemen used rocks, chalk, and blood to create an artistic language and communicate their ideas. Garage and punk bands made noise before music, with basically no training, no skills, and certainly no pricey instruments. I try to work the same way, with minimal tools and low technical contingencies. Second, I value ideas, not perfection, elitism, virtuosity, or some kind of common agreement of what a so-called professional photograph or image should be. The use of a basic tool results in a raw, immediate, production, far from marketing expectations or advertising in a fashion or design magazine. Third, technically, there is no need for exclusive, high-end, sophisticated equipment to capture and render life. Au contraire, their complexity blocks your spontaneity, distracts you from your real goal, the image, and traps you in a never-ending journey of understanding and optimising their full potentialities, thus substituting technology for the real subject of the work. The availability of the lens of my phone frames and makes me see things I’d otherwise not even notice, and the simplicity of its use makes it possible to quickly and easily render and communicate them differently, in a very personal way. This banal, common device made me see the world again. And, finally, everyone uses a camera and could look through it to discover the world and make art, but, unfortunately, only very few of us believe in ourselves and dare to assume our artistic abilities, and sensitivity, and even fewer value art and creation, I’d be glad if my work, as a footnote, acted as a reminder that we can do more than ego-portraits. Everyone can do it, but we can do better with what we have in hand.
LC – How do you choose your subjects? Is it a reasoned or an instinctive process?
FG – I would say, and it is the same thing with my use of a cell phone camera, first and foremost, I choose my subjects out of convenience: the closer, the better. I figure that everything around us has a lesson to tell: an old tire on the side of the road, a metal can, a tree, a bush, mud, snow, the shoulders of an old lady, or an abandoned house. I wouldn’t go for miles to find a “beautiful” image to capture, or an extreme situation to make a sensation. And I would certainly not invent or create some kind of artificial, dramatic, or poetic scene or tableau intended to subsequently be photographed and transferred on a print. That is just not me. My motto is: it’s just there, just open your eyes and find it. If it has to be my big toe, it will be my big toe. If the image says something, perfect; if not, I noticed the little trash bin on the corner of my screen and it is very useful at times. This said, like many of us, I am naturally inclined towards beauty, I praise mystery and ambiguity, and I like instantaneous gratification and pleasure. So most of my recent subjects were found in the farming fields or on the riverbank, steps from my studio in L’Islet-sur-Mer, or wherever I had to go: a hospital, Italy, or flying over the Alps. And when I am really, really out of inspiration, or it is minus 40 degrees and my dogs would not go outside, I’d just fold an aluminium foil or put a banana, two tangerines and an avocado (for the nose) in a plate and make colour portraits of a smiley face, thinking about how genius Andy Warhol was. This is all instinctive, originally driven by the visual interest of the thing, but also related to my obsessions – beauty, environment, art, the human condition, and so on – and subsequently reasoned, organized, selected, reworked, presented and justified with rational arguments.
LC – How do you feel when you see your work completed?
FG – Joyful, but nothing is ever completed in my mind. Every piece is related to one another and the whole constitutes a narrative, a story. Let’s say every image is a word, a series is a sentence, and the sentences together might result in an intelligible – but unfinished – proposal.
LC – What do you think about the concept of this exhibition? How did it inspire you?
FG – I very recently decided to publicize my work and I was very glad that the ITSLIQUID realizations and projects popped up on my social networks. I was already working on a series of images of snow in which I unveil different dreamlike scenes or fairytale characters: a couple, an assembly, ghosts, or fossils. Another viewer certainly could detect something else in them, or even just shapes and colors, but the darker, bolder tone and grain of the images make it hard to perceive a bucolic winter scenery, and a second layer of meaning – or existence, or life – is present in every image. In my mind, this clearly was in line with the “anima mundi” principles – the interrelation of all forms of life – and certainly represent well the “visions” that could come to us – or from us – when we look at things around.
LC – In which way the artwork presented in our exhibition is connected with the exhibition’s theme?
FG – It could not be more connected to the “VISIONS” theme. I don’t know how or why this coincidence happened, but it did. I wouldn’t have shown those images under another umbrella: clearly, each image is a personal representation of what one can see and reveal – a “vision” – from an otherwise quite ordinary and mute field of snow.
LC – What do you think about ITSLIQUID Platform?
FG – Being pessimistic and solitary by nature, I am glad that someone else invented it and is taking care of it (laughs). Truly, I must admit that I admire the amount of positivism, enthusiasm, and energy that is put into it. It certainly creates a web and an opportunity for exchanges between creators in different disciplines from all over the world.
LC – Do you think ITSLIQUID Group can represent an opportunity for artists?
FG – It sure does. Of course, there is an entry fee to enter the shows and get some exposure. But, in my case, not only it gave me the opportunity to present my work in a large show in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Venice, and during its famous Biennale of Arts, but it also made me meet interesting people and fellow artists. Among them, was a young Venetian man, an art lover, reserved and shy, who discreetly came to see the work of his peers. Questioned, he finally admitted to making photographs as a hobby. I looked them up on his phone; they were simply amazing. Maybe his attendance at the exhibition this year and some encouragement will make him admit he is an artist himself, and hopefully, we will be able to see his work in the near future at a forthcoming ITSLIQUID event.