| John K. Grande
VERY VISUAL URBAN STORIES
PAINTED with PAINT on CANVAS
in a CONTEMPORARY FOLKLORIC IDIOM
An Interview - Yvon Gallant & John Grande
Moncton, New Brunswick, July 7th, 2003
[ 2,975 words ]
Born in Moncton, New Brunswick in 1950, Acadian artist Yvon Gallant has been active in his community for most of his life. From 1987 to 1989 Gallant lived in Montreal, later returning home. His art is not the stereotypical Acadian art one is used to, as it does not address political or social issues in a stereotypical way. Instead it draws on the city of Moncton as a source for subject matter.
A book by Terry Graff titled Yvon Gallant: Based on a True Story (Editions Acadie, 1985) and an exhibition at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, comprising some 70 paintings, brought Gallant's work to a broader audience. Yvon Gallant's contribution to Canadian art is precisely his strong narrative sense, one that is very contemporary, yet consistently Acadian. His paintings are like notes of the everyday that stand outside time, very visual and very colourful.
What makes Yvon Gallant a popular artist is that he is not afraid to address a general public. His art does not seek to be intelligent or original, and yet seems all the more original and unique for its lack of pretense. There is humour and irony in Gallant's painted subjects. Whether an old woman picking berries, a bank robbery in Montreal, a snowstorm, or a family funeral, each subject merely adds to Gallant's repertoire of paintings drawn from life. These engaging topics of the everyday are atypical for an artist of our times. Gallant's sense of colour and choice of imagery is unusual. He seems to express a certain sense of security that comes with a strong cultural identity, and one that has experienced its ups and downs.
People have consistently noted the faceless faces in Gallant's paintings, stating they are a comment on Acadian identity, but as this interview with John Grande confirms, Yvon Gallant is anything but stereotypical in his point of view or his vision of Acadian culture. This is Acadia, a folky folk heaven with a crazy post-modern twist, just like the hip hop world we live to rap in. Gallant's childhood and upbringing, Acadian family rituals and humorous anecdotes, events, idiosyncracies of character and the collective Moncton nuance, make these very visual stories a cross-cut hybrid of fun and wisdom, extra-Acadian and intra-Moncton parables. Yvon Gallant once worked for the National Film Board and was Director of Galerie Sans Nom. The winner of the Miller Britain prize in 1992 for excellence in the visual arts, Yvon Gallant is represented by Galerie 78 in Fredericton, New Brunswick and Studio 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
JG: We are in the screened porch of Yvon's house in front of his garden. Yvon, you grew up in Moncton so you are living where you have always lived. And as an Acadian, how can you define your identity in a multi-cultural world that is hybridizing in cultural terms?
YG: Yes, Moncton is a great city. There is a lot going on. We are the ones making it happen. Although we may not be conscious of it at least we try. What is Acadian? How can you define something? People need to label. They need to really put a label on something and say, well, what is it? Is it this, is it that. Is it modern? Is it whatever? And they go and they look and they say it is an Acadian painting.
JG: It creates another hierarchy, doesn't it? Even if you say it's Canadian, or it is Acadian, is it regional, is it national, or is it Group of Seven. Basically whatever hierarchy you set up someone is going to lose and something is not going to be seen because of it.
YG: Probably, yeah. I would like to believe there are certain qualities that identify someone. You can point to it and say that is Acadian. There is pros and cons. There is good and bad.
JG: But there is a strong sense of community that is reflected in your work. The human subject and all that.
YG: That is what is nice about it. By labelling it and pointing it out you are putting it under a microscope and you really see what is going on. That can be good but at the same time it can be pretty bad, because than you easily fall into clichés and stereotypes.
JG: But on the other hand having been in a minority on the east coast and having a certain awareness of various historical events and failures — expulsion and return — does give you a different sense of what identity is, and a better consciousness of about human rights even.
YG: Well probably. If you can sit down and you really think about this. Me I am too busy painting to really care.
JG: That is it. In a way art is a form of liberation that takes people out of these conflicts and gives them an alternative. It is a hell of a lot more interesting. In a way your work reminds me of the French painter Pierre Bonnard because in terms of colours and light what is inside is also outside. The colours and intimacy of the garden series you are working on now, or many of the subjects you have dealt with, the scene of the Acadian woman knitting. In other words you seem to be comfortable with the landscape and environment you are living in.
YG: Yes for sure. You have to, you have no choice. You are thrown into it. So obviously you swim, because if not you will probably sink to the bottom I suppose...
JG: You are either in the boat or you are out...
YG: ...or swimming or awash.
JG: What were the most striking aspects of developing an artistic career in an environment where you are getting conflicting signals about what contemporary art is. You are getting images coming in from major centres about what is in fashion as art. Then you have also to deal with living in a community that could not give a damn about contemporary art but that loves folk art and living forms of art; carving house ornamentation, gardening.
YG: You come to the point, at least I think I am at that point, that you don't give a rusty God damn right. You sit down and feel this is what I am doing, I am painting. Let them all fight about what I am doing. Let them all talk. Who cares what they say, as long as they all talk.
JG: Who are your favourite artists?
YG: There are a few that I really like obviously. having a folk art touch to my work, but I do not like when they categorize or label it. I sort of feel trapped when they say that. I sort of feel like the chicken in the cage, scratching to get out.
JG: I feel a lot of Acadian artists must feel somewhat trapped by this definition of what it is to be Acadian. Lobster traps and all that. In a way those definitions do not befit a living culture.
YG: Definitely not. At one point I believe that people they move along. They do not care what people label things as. You still work. I am still going to work. Now that I know the cage is around me, and I am in that cage. It is not that bad to be labelled. We were taught to rebel and not go with the flow. When we were doing this, we were against the style académique. Then suddenly one day you wake up and say "My God, that is it!"
JG: There was a lot of unemployment at that time and there still is. I do not think it has changed much. When I see some of the paintings you have. When you look at the figures. You have this strong social sense that is instinctive. The faces do not appear, and have no features, details or eyes. In a way you could see the way you depict these human subjects as symbolic of an identity having been erased. The recent works dealing with the demolition of historic buildings right next to where you live, for instance. Then the paintings of the reconstruction with construction workers in yellow hard hats against a blue sky...maybe a cloud. In a way you are dialoguing with your own imagination at times.
YG: For sure. A lot of people have asked me why I don't put faces on these figures. I don`t sit down and try to figure out why I do that. I suppose I need a lot of therapy to really get down to it and figure out exactly what is going on.
JG: And we see hands but not faces in some of your paintings. I think of old church wood carvings from Acadia. You often see the hands and the face. These elements are decontextualized even then in the 18th and 19th century. Don`t you feel a certain frustration that your work is not known to a broader audience than your own community.
YG: Sometimes it bothers me a lot. And then I tell myself that I have been working for 30 years with the idea of not being known. Though that may sound a bit silly, I mean I really would like to be well known, but at the same time you sit down and look at yourself and say "Well have I been working for 30 years because this is what I really want."
Someone gave me an address for a gallery in New York City, and I have had the address for about 3 years now and I can't get myself to write a letter. If I send that letter it means I will have to make that art to please that market.
JG: Instead of being the chef.
YG: So I have taken a step back and I have told myself so far that the mountain has always come to Mohammed. So this is the attitude I have. And some days I will get up and say I better try to find the mountain at least.
JG: Do you feel it is easier for younger Acadian artists than it used to be?
YG: I would like to believe that. I am not afraid of the younger artists that are coming up. Au contraire, they are a breath of fresh air.
JG: It must have been academic when you were starting up. I think people were copying what was going on in Montreal. And the ones in Montreal were copying what was going on in Paris and New York. So I think younger artists must feel more security when they look around and see older artists like you around.
YG: I believe there are a lot of doors that are there. And then you have to get in them. Once they understand, they learn to swim quickly. When I started out there was absolutely zero in galleries besides the campus gallery. Downtown there was absolutely nowhere to show. Now there are 10 galleries to show in.
JG: Do you think it is a lot cliquish still?
YG: Oh yeah. It is very cliquish. There is certainly the campus crowd who seem to have the attitude that they run the show. If they want to run it, let them run it.
JG: Isn't a lot about the insecurity among academics that they copycat what they hear is important elsewhere rather than developing relations in their own community.
YG: Its the cat's meow. If the cat is in the living room why go and look for it.
JG: More recently your garden has been an inspiration.
YG: At first I was concerned with the idea that it had to be well accepted recognizable work but it doesn't bother me that much.
JG: There is a death of oral unrecorded traditions, the living art and community in part, and it could in part be because of the institutionalization of culture via the museum and art gallery conduit. In a way your art bridges the gap between live art, we do not call it folk art, we call it living art coming out of communities and what is considered historic, meaningful art. In a way the Acadian community very much plays with language and inter-cultural forms, even bric-a-brac. That is a great gift to have in this world.
YG: A lot of artists work of different levels. The campus gallery tries to be on a higher level. I have always stayed on the fence because then you can play on both sides - outside and inside. It is the best of both worlds.
JG: Do you feel that people read too much into the meaning of painting rather than looking with their eyes? That it could be a more visceral experience - painting. That visceral could be a key to enter into deeper meanings.
YG: I have always been amazed and still am and I hope I still will be. I do a certain thing and people say. "Well it is this and it is that". I find it is always amazing how many different ways people see a painting. At the bottom line I like to believe that people will identify with something that I identify with.
JG: Emily Carr for example has been accused of appropriating Native motifs and subjects in her paintings, but she was living on the west coast, so why not? Is there any such thing as a pure community. Acadians learnt a lot form travelling to Louisiana, to Montreal, and all cultures learn and exchange.
YG: We don't have a choice we are living here. Especially our parents and our parents parents. There was a lot of intermarriage. I went on a trip to Paris loved it. I painted a girl who sat in front of a flower shop in Paris, in a place we ate there every day. I also painted a tree I saw in Paris - a cherry tree. These paintings were a kind of cultural exchange.
JG: Each generation comes across the same territory but paints it differently. We live in an era of television, video, screen technology. The way we see things is very fast. we have been removed from the immediate physical environment. The way we see art now is different than in the past.
YG: I went with a friend to New York and we made the Metropolitan Museum in about half an hour flat.
JG: Raced through it...
YG:... and at one point we stopped in front of two paintings by Van Gogh. I was mesmerized by them I could see a baby learning to walk. I could really get into van Gogh's mind and see how he thought.
JG: Your art is very much of the moment. In a sense you focus on a moment in time. It becomes almost illusionistic in the sense that the scenes you create come from the real world but create a world that reflects your own way of seeing. This series dealing with demolition and reconstruction on Archibald St. in Moncton juxtaposes strong colours.
YG: I put the paintings like I saw them in my show at the Aberdeen Cultural Centre in Moncton. I did a whole series dealing with my memories of childhood, when I was younger and showed these. One time my aunt called me up and she said I lost my diamond and my ring. Can you come and helped me find it. She lived up the street and we lived down the street. When we got there she was on the sidewalk on all fours looking for the diamond. She never found it. This one here is a childhood memory of the kitchen. There was a hole in the ceiling because we lived in a place always under construction, and we heard a this noise and it was my brother peeing. The pee fell in the soup my mother had made on the stove! The Tidal Bore is a painting about the big wave that comes into Moncton each day. It is one of the two highest tides in the world - India and Moncton. Here is one person running around and picking blueberries.
JG: How do you feel about national public museums and art galleries and their acceptance of Acadian collections? Are they aware of Acadian art?
YG: I think they seem to be aware. I have been dealing with the National Gallery of Canada for the last 7 years. A lady from the National Gallery came and looked at my work, and then about 3 years later her assistant Janice Céline came to look. She saw one and went back to Ottawa. On that Monday the Canada Art Bank came and bought the work. Then on Friday she phoned and said "We want to buy that painting that was on the wall." The Art Bank had just bought it and taken it away.... We have been talking ever since. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery purchased one of my paintings. And the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia purchased 30 years ago. It is so much work to submit works. The whole situation. I went to see a fortune teller and she said "Yvon as long as it is fun, you will be perfect. The minute it turns into work it is not much fun anymore." It is hard to fight, and find the right place between the work part and the fun part... but now and again you find it.
Text: © John K. Grande. All rights reserved.
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