An Interview with Jeff Wall on Patrick Faigenbaum
Since 2008, artist Jeff Wall has been co-curating exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery involving a seemingly disparate group of artists whose oeuvre includes installation, painting, photography and sculpture. His current project, Patrick Faigenbaum, opens this week and unites approximately 75 photographs by the Parisian artist for his first exhibition in Vancouver that span more than 3 decades. Patrick gained international recognition in the 1980s for his haunting and powerfully descriptive black and white portraits of Italian aristocratic families; he has since moved onto documentary projects, capturing scenes of everyday life, as well as vivid still lifes consistently producing work firmly rooted in the pictorial. Curious about the exhibitions Jeff has been involved in at the Vancouver Art Gallery, as well as his interest in Patrick’s work, we asked him a few questions and he very kindly obliged:
Here and Elsewhere: You’ve been involved in curating in a number of exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery including a solo show of LA-based photographer Anthony Hernandez as well as an exhibition of the large-scale paintings of Kerry James Marshall that draw upon contemporary and historical African-American experiences, prior to curating this exhibition of photographs by Patrick Faigenbaum. You also wrote an essay in relation to the presentation of the works of German artist Kai Althoff who is noted for his surreal paintings and installations. Is there anything that unites these artists’ practices or is there a common reason you thought it was important to share their work with a Vancouver-based audience?
Jeff Wall: At the Vancouver Art Gallery I am presenting the work of artists who make images in a more or less conventional way – painting, photography and so on – they aren’t doing moving images or any kind of ‘live’ art involving motion. Essentially the depictive arts as they’ve been known for centuries. Not young artists, but ones who have been around for a while and who have some substantial body of work by now. And of course artists who haven’t been seen here before. Patrick’s show is the fourth in this series, which started with Kai Althoff, and this summer we’ll present sculpture by the German artist Martin Honert. I think there are now two basic kinds of contemporary art – the newer forms based on the idea of the readymade – and the older ones like painting and sculpture. You could also think of these newer forms as ‘post-conceptual’ whereas the depictive arts don’t depend on conceptual art. I don’t think there’s a conflict between the two kinds of art but there is a distinction to be made there. So it seemed to me that people in Vancouver ought to be able to see depictive art done by very distinguished artists from different places, all of whom are akin in their devotion to the image, or the picture, or the sculpture. Artists we may have heard about but haven’t actually had a chance to see. There is no substitute for seeing the work itself. Part of what we are trying to achieve is to create circumstances where the audience here can satisfy its desire for images, and through that develop a taste for depiction and develop its own taste in terms of encountering, appreciating, and judging works of serious quality.
HE: The distinction you draw between depictive art and newer forms of post-conceptual practices is an interesting one. Patrick’s practice seems to fall firmly into the first category. Is it significant that he studied painting and relinquished it for photography – do you think his early interest in painting is evident in his photography?
JW: A lot of people now doing photography once tried other things. Whatever happened when they were doing that must leave its traces somewhere in what they’re doing now in photography. But how to point to it? Because photography and painting and drawing are all image-making arts, they have kinships at almost every point imaginable, so energies, ideas, attitudes, preferences, skills, etc. can move across the borders between them easily.
HE: Where and when did you first encounter Patrick’s work? What interested you about it?
JW: I can’t remember exactly. I think I’d seen some of it here and there, but Jean-François Chevrier, who’s a mutual friend, encouraged me to look more carefully at Patrick’s pictures maybe around 1995. I think I met Patrick for the first time when I was in Paris in 2001 for an exhibition we were both in, Des Territoires. Jean-François organized it at the École des Beaux-Arts, where both he and Patrick teach. I liked then what I like now – the composition, the making of the picture – I admire that about Patrick’s work.
HE: Patrick has described himself as “essentially a portraitist” and he is probably best known for his images of people. In your catalogue essay, you also described him as being of the “reportage tradition”. Can you talk a bit about those two descriptions and how they manifest and collide in his images?
JW: Portraiture isn’t really reportage since it always involves some level of performance on the part of the subject and evocation and structuring of that performance by the photographer. Patrick’s early portraits of the Italian aristocratic families are very rigorous constructions. So there’s a shift in his work sometime in the 90s when he moves away from being able to control and direct anything and takes his chances out in the streets of Prague, Bremen, and Barcelona. From that point on he starts to emphasize the way individuals are woven into the world. That tends to be what all reportage does, to different degrees. So there’s an impulse away from portraiture, strictly speaking, but he never abandons it, and you will see a number of portraits in the exhibition, from different periods right up to the most recent years.
HE: Patrick is also noted for striving to construct a “historically telling image” – can you tell us what this means in relation to his practice? Does this description tie into his later work in the reportage tradition?
JW: I think Jean-François used the term in one of his essays on Patrick. He’s written a few, mostly as accompanying texts for Patrick’s books, and for catalogues. It means that – somehow – the picture discloses something about its subject that could conceivably provide information that could, if it were interpreted rightly, become a part of a historical discourse about that subject. That’s pretty conditional! And that’s because pictures are so restricted in their ability to convey information. Accurate depiction itself is a kind of information – like, a very sharp photograph of a room of some kind can tell you what was in that room at the moment the picture was made. So, if you can identify the room in some way –whose it is, where it is, when the picture was made – you could at least claim that you know what was in that room at that moment. A good example would be a police photo of a crime scene. But that photo has to have a lot of outside verification to provide even that basic amount of information as valid information. We have to know for sure it was made by a member of the police under known conditions, and so on, and if we can’t verify that, the information becomes suspect. If the picture is made outside strictly controlled conditions, any claims it makes to provide information can be tested only through a process of interpretation. But we believe that there will be a substantial process of interpretation applied to works of art and we believe that that process will bring out something that can be accepted as ‘telling’ about the times the picture shows us.
HE: There will be around 75 of Patrick’s photographs in this presentation at the Vancouver Art Gallery, dating from the 1970s to present. Which bodies of his work will be on view? And did you go about the selection process trying to draw out particular themes or aspects of his practice for the viewer?
JW: We’ve thought of all of these exhibitions as some sort of introduction to the work of the artists, since none of them has shown in Vancouver previously. We want to give an accurate sense of the identity of the artist, and the person, and a sense of what he’s done over the course of his career so far. The shows can’t really be proper surveys, they can only give a sense of the overall directions and nature of the work, but that sense can be quite strong and, we hope, interesting and convincing. So, for example, Kai Althoff showed a selection of his paintings from the 1990s to recently, along with completely new sculptures, and no earlier sculpture. Anthony Hernandez showed only work from the 1960s to 80s, and not his recent work. Kerry James Marshall’s show surveyed his larger-scale painting from the 90s until recent years, but didn’t touch on other things he does. With Patrick, we have a somewhat more balanced selection of work, touching on all the major bodies of work he’s done since about 1978, so his show is almost a survey, but a limited one. We selected pictures that we thought were exemplary within each group, ones which gave a good sense of the overall project without being able to present the whole thing.
HE: Vancouver is a city renowned for its photographic practices. Do you feel there’s a significance in showing Patricks work in this context? Is his work in dialogue with local practices?
JW: Vancouver does have quite a few people doing photography seriously and so we could say it must have a pretty developed level of awareness of photography as art. But it’s still limited in what is actually seen here, not so much what is known here. A lot of people know about photography and know quite a bit about the work of different artists, but to a great extent they haven’t seen the work of the people they know about, or they haven’t seen much of it, because that work doesn’t get exhibited here regularly. I could easily name 20 significant photographers who’ve never had an exhibition in Vancouver, and 50 painters. So the dialogue people have with much of the work they know is bounded by the fact that the work itself is unseen, not experienced directly. More and more artists travel a lot now, especially the younger ones, and so they do see more than those who don’t get to travel. But the artists who travel see what they see, individually, and so there’s no single moment in which a number of active artists would be seeing the same body of work here in the city. These exhibitions are entirely aimed at creating those occasions. And out of the occasion of a common experience I think you get a dialogue that’s different from one where different travellers compare notes about the different things they’ve seen elsewhere.
HE: Thanks very much, Jeff, for sharing those thoughts on your curatorial projects at the Vancouver Art Gallery, as well as insights into Patrick work. We’re looking forward to seeing the show!
Full Disclosure: the contributors to Here and Elsewhere are employed by the Vancouver Art Gallery