Friday, 14 December 2012

"The Painter's Project: Conversation with Pierre Dorion"

Canadian artist Pierre Dorion was born in Ottawa and graduated from the CEGEP du Vieux Montréal in 1978.  He continued to further his education by studying painting and photography and in 1981 received his Bachelors of Arts degree from the Department of Visual Arts from the University of Ottawa, the largest bilingual university in the world.  Before graduating, Pierre had his first show at the university’s Gallery of Visual Arts.  He has been a very busy man since that first show in 1981 and regularly exhibits his works in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

Pierre’s latest show opened at Galerie René Blouin on November 10th and runs until December 22nd.  The paintings are almost abstract in appearance and represent fragments of interiors of art galleries in New York City.  Just one month prior to this on October 4th, his retrospective exhibition including sixty-five major artworks opened at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art.  This solo show encompasses his works from the mid-1990s and includes new paintings created especially for this prestigious museum.  In addition to his tableaux, the show also features Pierre’s four picture disc LP box set entitled “4 Corners”, produced by the Montreal music label Oral Records in 2012. The four colored vinyl discs were created using photographs of an art gallery bathing in the light projected from works by the American minimalist artist Dan Flavin (famous for creating sculptural objects and installations from commercially available fluorescent light fixtures). The sound part is four segments of an interpretation of “Music on a Long Thin Wire”, a piece created in 1977 by Alvin Lucier. The MAC show runs to January 26th, 2012, and will go on the road with its first stop being at the Dalhousie Art Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia from March 15th to May 5th, 2013.

Exhibition View 2012
Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay

Exhibition View 2012
Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay
Exhibition View 2012
Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay
"Vestibule III", (2012), oil on linen, 83.8 cm x 63.5 cm/33 x 25 inches
Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay

MAC Interview with Pierre Dorion (click on Video 1):

Invitation to the musée d'art contemporain exhibition
"Closer", (2002), oil on linen, 122 cm x 183 cm
Photo: John Berens
"Intérieur", (2008), oil on linen, 182.9 cm x 137.2 cm
Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay

VaVa:  Wow, two back to back shows in two months!  The MAC in October and René Blouin in November.  Congratulations to you!  Does it make it all worthwhile now that you’ve achieved museum status with your work?
Pierre: This is every artist’s dream isn’t it, to have a retrospective in a major museum?  Also, that the show is in my hometown makes it even more special.  To have the opportunity to see all these works grouped together and being able to take a moment to look at what I’ve done over the last 18 years is a rare opportunity.
VaVa:  In your interview, you mention the curator of the MAC was inspired by your installation “Chambres Avec Vues” to do this show.  Can you explain a little further?
Pierre: The curator of the exhibition, Mark Lanctôt, was interested in the relationships that my paintings have with the exhibition space, both in terms of subject matter and of installation.  “Chambres avec Vues” served as a strong example of this, where both approaches were acutely explored.  Mark curated the show with this installation as a starting point.  We re-created it in the museum with the construction of the three rooms of the apartment where I had originally installed my paintings in 1999 so that one gets that impression of domestic scale introduced into the museum.  The re-creation, however, is minus windows or views.  Instead there are blank walls where there used to be windows, a reminder that you are in the museum while in an intimate setting.  There is also a short video visit of the original installation at the entrance of the show giving visitors a sense of what that experience actually felt like.
VaVa:  How long did it take you to prepare for the MAC show? 
Pierre:  Mark started working on the selection of works for the exhibition about two years ago.  Once that was done, I started working on the pieces which are in the last room, about one year ago.
Vava:  Were you working on the René Blouin show at the same time? 
Pierre:  Last year, René proposed I do an exhibition that would open at the same time as the MAC show.  At first I was a bit terrified, wondering how would I be able to work on a solo show in René’s new space, in which I had never shown, on top of working on the new pieces for the MAC.  But René was very cool about it, suggesting for example, that we could show a selection of older works which would act as a counterpoint to the museum show, or even to show one very specific tiny painting in the gallery.  In the end, I created fourteen new paintings for that show!  The adrenaline was flowing!!
VaVa: How many paintings did you create for the MAC show and how many are from your 90’s collection?
Pierre: I created 2 polyptychs for the MAC show; one has five panels, the other has seven. Most of the older paintings in the show are borrowed from different collections, but there are a couple of these works that belong to me.

"Gate (The Piers)", (2012), oil on linen, 7 elements of 152.5 cm x 114.5 cm
Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay
Vava: Can you explain the polyptych method and how you’ve developed it for your art?
Pierre: I paint from photographs taken while travelling.  A first step in selecting which images I’m going to work from consists of arranging large groups of photos on one wall of the studio.  I like to play with these images, organizing new sequences from time to time.  Last year I was looking at one sequence thinking it would be interesting to see it on a large scale and transformed into a painting.   I ended up making these two polyptychs which are ideal pieces for a large museum room. They were also made with Mark’s selection and floor planning in mind. In fact, the whole exhibition was conceived as a large installation echoing Mark’s concept of the show.

Vava: I love the segment in your video where you are guiding the museum team through the accrochage!  It’s very rare the public is given a glimpse of this meticulous type of work and it doesn’t look easy.  After seeing this, one can appreciate how critical this work is to a show.
Pierre: It’s a lot of work, but it’s also party time!

Vava: Were you pleased with the opening night?
Pierre: Yes, it was quite the party!  A lot of people from various stages of my life were there and it was great fun!  There was Andy Williams, a great Montreal DJ, spinning tunes, and nice wines. If I had been younger, I probably would have gone out to a club and continue on very late but I had enough by 11:30 after the private reception was over!

VaVa: Let’s go back to when it all started for you.   Who are your agents and how long have you been working with them?
Pierre: I’ve been with Galerie René Blouin in Montreal and with Jack Shainman Gallery in New York since 1986. I’ve also been working with Diaz Contemporary in Toronto since 2010.

Jack Shainman Gallery:
Diaz Contemporary:

VaVa: How has René been instrumental in promoting your career?
Pierre: René and I go back to 1983 when he saw my very first show which was a collaboration with Claude Simard and was set in a rundown Montreal apartment on Clark Street. Do you remember that exhibition? You came to the opening!  

VaVa: I certainly do!  That show had a very underground feel which reflected the art/music scene at that time but was very bright and dark at the same time.
"Peintures/Paintings", (October 15-30, 1983), 3889 Clark Street, Montreal
Photo: Pierre Dorion

Pierre: Claude and I painted together on every surface of the flat, kind of in a graffiti/neo-expressionist style.  Later that week, René and Betty Goodwin came to see the exhibition and as a result he later visited my studio and began to follow my exhibitions.  In 1985, he invited me to participate in “Aurora Borealis”, a large survey of installation art in Canada which he was co-curating with Normand Thériault. This was a big deal for me then as I was the youngest artist among a group of very famous and established Canadian artists.  At that time, René was also thinking of opening a gallery and asked me if I would be interested in working with him.  Of course I said “Yes!” to this wonderful opportunity and we have been working together ever since.  Galerie René Blouin is one of the best and most respected galleries in the country, so yes, he played a very important part in my career. We’re like family!
VaVa: What were you major visual art influences in your early years and which mediums did you begin working with at that time? 

Pierre: I was always fascinated by painting but I don’t consider myself a “born” painter.  My path has been like a slow apprenticeship of painting. Like a moth attracted to the flame, I felt I had to avoid so many traps. I still feel that painting today is not easy but I like the idea of doing something that’s so old fashioned. There are many influences.  Early on, I devoured art history books and I was completely enthralled by what I discovered.  One of the painters that stood out for me was Caspar David Friedrich. In those early years, the work I was doing was analytical, demonstrating ideas about painting and representation.  I was deconstructing painting, trying to see how it worked, painting on paper and using collage.  I was also doing photography, but from a painter’s point of view.  I never wanted to become a full-time photographer but eventually ended up using my photographs as source material for my paintings.
VaVa: Did you incorporate Roman Catholic church icons into your earlier works? I remember a very long  time ago you took a trip to Rome to look at frescoes, amongst other things.

Pierre: The piece I made for the Aurora Borealis installation borrowed a lot of images from religious Catholic books. There was even a “prie-dieu” (prayer bench), which is a kneeling bench designed to be used by a person at prayer and which is fitted with a raised shelf on which the elbows or a book may be rested.  For the installation, I placed an old bible on it.
"Mes confessions", (1985), Installation view
Photo: Louis Lussier

That same year I did a painting from the image of a historical group portrait set in a church with the Virgin Mary in the center, but where I replaced the heads of the figures wth crucifixes.  

"Portrait des échevins de Paris", (1984), enamel and objects on paper, 254 cm x 346.5 cm
Photo: Richard Max-Tremblay
The church was the very first place I saw paintings as a child and this left a strong impression on me. Catholicism has an important presence in the earlier chapters of the history of painting in Quebec, and of Quebec, period.  As I was very much interested by the historical side of painting at the time, it felt like a good vehicle to play with, which I was doing using a lot of irony, as a good postmodernist would do in the 1980’s. Later, I went to Rome in 1991-92 where I stayed for eight months.  By then my interests in painting had shifted as well as my approach to it.  But I did view a lot of art while I was there, visiting three  churches a day for three months !  I was very inspired by what I saw during those visits.  All those bodies in these religious paintings were fascinating to me.  At that time, I was interested in the figure and the pose and how to carry that over into my work.  Looking at these paintings was very instructional in helping me to develop my self-portraits series.

"Pierre Dorion", (1995), Art Gallery of York University, Installation view
Photo: Unknown
VaVa:  Your late 1980s to 1990s works encompass a variety of paintings from wall sized self-portraits and diptych-style sculptural pieces to smaller paintings of objects and places infused by the banal. What influenced you to create such a diverse span of works then?
Pierre: When I was a young artist, things would move very fast. I would explore something, get what I needed, and move on to the next project. I worked on the self-portrait series from 1989 to 1994. In these works, I felt like I had to confine myself to very narrow parameters. The system was in place, with the use of the same figure, the same colors and the same sizes of canvases. It was almost ascetic. I felt I needed to limit myself to this kind of rigor to get to the next level. This happened when I did a small painting from a snapshot I took in Rome. I did that painting as a guilty pleasure, fearing that it was too old-fashioned and romantic. But it was quite fun to do; it felt like all the efforts and research I had put into the self-portraits were giving me rewards. Even now, I still work using snapshots that I take when I travel mostly and that depict objects and places.

"Transept", (1992), oil on canvas and lacquered wood, 236 cm x 338 cm x 99 cm
Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay
Vava: Can you explain where you got your inspiration to create the above “Transept”?  This is an extraordinary piece which to me strangely evokes an image of a twisted confessional box.  Was that the intent?

Pierre: Partially. I wanted to make a sculptural piece that would include paintings like a three dimensional freestanding framing device. I wanted the piece to evocate both minimalist sculpture and religious furniture; to have one foot in the past and the other in the contemporary world.  I also felt there was a kind of austerity shared by both these styles.  It does look like a confessional, but it’s mute as there is no confession happening and the figures are isolated, one being on each side of the piece. It feels like there’s a kind of secret or mystery hidden somewhere in there. 
VaVa: During the early years, you would salvage various types of old used frames to use on your tableaux.  Do you still do this?
Pierre: No, I stopped using that kind of approach quite some time ago. I still have a collection of old frames in the studio which I feel I should dispose of but don’t!  If I were to use framing devices today, they would be more contemporary and less antique.
VaVa: You possess an amazing ability to turn an empty space into your own private Idaho, so to speak.  Is the plan already in your head before you begin to work on a new painting?
Pierre: The work starts when I take a snapshot.  Whatever I photograph, there are already some important decisions being made in the composition of the image, for example the framing or the lightning.  Back in the studio, the translation of the snapshot into painting is where all these elements get adjusted. It’s like creating a condensation of these images borrowed from the world.
VaVa: Your style has become more minimalist in recent years.  When did you begin to use anonymous street images?
Pierre: I’ve been working with these kind of images since 1994, but lately the aspect of these places has changed.  My paintings have become increasingly minimalist and as a result the boundaries between architecture, painting and photography in these works are blurred. You’re not quite sure anymore at what you’re looking at. Is it an “abstract” painting, a kind of geometrical abstraction? Also, the streets that I chose to represent lately are located in Chelsea in New York City, where there is an abundance of art galleries.  All of these anonymous places have some kind of connection to the art world, the art history of now.
VaVa: How many works of art have you created over the span of your career?
Pierre: I’ve been exhibiting since 1983, making an average of a dozen paintings a year, so you do the math!  I’m too spooked by it!
VaVa: What are some of the most prestigious awards you have won throughout your career?

Pierre: Beside several grants from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec and from the Canada Arts Council, I received one award which was the Louis-Comtois prize, a prize given to a mid-career artist that is awarded from the the city of Montréal and l’AGAC (l’association des galeries d’art contemporain), in 1997

VaVa: We both share a common passion for music of all genres, the more obscure the better and we both have quite the eclectic collections of vinyl.  Do you listen to music while working and are you still collecting vinyl?

Pierre: Music is part of my life, my work and the ritual of my studio routine.  I start the morning off listening to classical music CDs and later on put the I-Pod on shuffle.  I like the surprises it offers.  I still like to play vinyl downstairs in my living area and enjoy that sound quality but have stopped collecting. I might still buy a vinyl album from time to time, though.

VaVa: Do you take time off to vacation and if so, what have been your favorite places to visit?

Pierre: In the last decade or so, I’ve been going back to the same places.  New York City is a regular destination where I enjoy visiting art galleries three or four times a year.  Italy comes in second.  I like to take a summer vacation there every two years or so and also enjoy taking in the Venice Biennale. Another regular spot is Rome.

VaVa: While holidaying, are you on the look-out for new images and influences or do you tune out and just relax?

Pierre: While I’m on vacation, I do relax and always bring my camera but those photos are mostly unrelated to my paintings.  For work-related images, I must say that New York City is where I’ve been taking the majority of my pictures in the last few years.
VaVa: What are you working on for 2013?

Pierre: My last deadline for this year is in the spring.  I’m currently working on a painting for a group show on contemporary Canadian painting for the Galerie de l’UQAM.  Other than that I have no shows planned, so I can take some time off experimenting in the studio.   But you never know!  There’s always a surprise around the corner and another deadline may pop up sooner or later!  That’s one of the exciting aspects of this job.  There’s a lot of uncertainty but also a lot of wonderful surprises.  You never know what’s going to happen next!
"Tie", (2007), oil on linen, 60 inches x 40 inches
Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay

All photos, links and MAC interview reproduced herein with the kind permission of Pierre Dorion, Galérie René Blouin, Jack Shainman, Diaz Contemporary and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.