A conversation between Cynthia Girard and Oliver Koerner von Gustorf
(published in Be Magazine, #16, Berlin, 2010, p.18-23)
How would you describe the way you paint?
I’m trying to connect two elements that seem to contradict each other: abstraction and narration. Sometimes I feel that I do abstract painting with “object-images” because I’m seeking to create an impossible space. This space is made up of things that are for reasons of authority or hierarchy not allowed to coexist or cohabit. I would say that my work belongs in a materialist tradition where you don’t try to transcend. I stick to the actual body of the painting; I stick to the material as a matter of fact. For me, painting is more like a carnival: for a certain period of time common hierarchies cease to rule. The subject wants to transgress and dress up and play different roles.
How do you start a painting?
I always start the same way. First I paint a monochrome background and then I paint a wooden structure that is like a piece of furniture, but not really furniture. I use this construction to build up the painting, to set a mark and create the illusion of perspective. I want there to be many spaces within the one space; push and pull is an action that is very dear to me. I want the painting to be flat and have depth at the same time, like a collage of different perceptions of space. Because I start with the flat surface, it feels like I build the space in front of the canvas as an addition. I also use a lot of animals, as actors. I like them to come and visit the painting somehow. They take a position within the painted space and make it more dynamic—like a stage.
What I find interesting is that on one hand you have a sophisticated painterly attitude and on the other there is this touch of outsider- and self-taught art. I really like the way you combine these two elements. I also see references to ’80s painting and the work of Philip Guston. Can you tell me a bit more about that? Did you study painting at a university? And did you find that helpful?
Not so much. I think I had to “de-learn,” I had to erase. At university I was taught in a very formalist way. On the other hand, I went to libraries all the time. It’s great because you can browse wherever you want in a library. You can read a book about conceptual art and at the same time look at a Beatrix Potter children’s book.
What do you mean with “de-learn”?
It’s funny. I feel a bit like a weirdo. I love painting and I don’t want to choose between different traditions; I would like to refer to all kinds of painterly traditions. I like the Lascaux cave paintings and Malevich and Guston and Picabia and Rubens and Velasquez and folk and naive and Op Art and hard edge and so on. I want them all. I want to interact with all of them. I appropriate Op Art, but I do it in a very crooked way. I appropriate hard edge, but I do it as though I were baking muffins, and I really like that. I feel a lot of freedom in doing that. It’s not about being professional and having all this knowledge. It’s more about bringing back painterly traditions in an everyday and even banal way. I don’t like professional painters. To me, they are like surgeons operating on a dead body. It is important for my position as a painter to state that I paint like a housewife who bakes all kinds of delicious muffins: the Op Art muffin, the hard edge muffin, and so on. As though I were down in the province of Quebec in a small village, just baking muffins.
You don’t believe in haute cuisine?
I feel viewers act like zombies when they develop too much respect and admiration for technical skill and perfection, when they think virtuous technique is the highest a painter can ever achieve. I want to bring back the hand. The hand that is slippery. I don’t want to have super control. I want things to slip away. I want things to be crooked and even wrong. I never want to do the same thing twice. If I do it too many times I get bored of it. It’s very important for me that I don’t have a solution for a painting when I start. I am a bum walking in the forest; I don’t own the forest. Some painters define a territory and stick to it; I am a wanderer.
You don’t have any heroes that you stick to?
I get very passionate about artists and then I think of them all the time, and after two or three months I am done. Right now, for instance, I really like Méliès, the French filmmaker. He used to be a magician, and then he discovered film and so he started to make films with magic. I love his painted backdrops and the costumes—I am crazy about them.
There are always certain symbols reappearing in your work, like the ladder, the door, the closet, the house.
I like to see that even in a painting there is an exit, like a tomb or a hole or a door or a ladder so you can go in, but also escape. I am getting more and more into that idea—that the characters can approach my paintings, like this ant for instance. It can crawl down the hole and use the ladder and go somewhere else. I try to create a whole world that would be somehow self-sufficient and this brings me to the books and writers I love like for instance Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau who I both portrayed recently. I like the way both of them have been reclusive, either by choice or not. I think it was precisely this reclusive view of the world that allowed them to create a different vision.