Serge Gainsbourg’s empathy

Do popular songs aim low? According to the French wikipedia, Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ was a hit in 1959. It is a poem about a ‘ticket puncher’ in Mairie des Lilas (a railway station in Paris) who talks very quickly about punching holes in tickets all day and about someone making a final hole for him, where he won’t have to listen to talk about holes any more.

Serge Gainsbourg photographed by Claude Truong Ngoc, 1981.
Serge Gainsbourg photographed by Claude Truong Ngoc, 1981.

(The original music video—with English subtitles—is also on YouTube, but the audio track is not clear.) “The main road,” which the persona of the poem says he hopes to leave, is actually, in the French lyric, “la grand’route” or ‘the great highway’—surely a reference to the road we all take to the grave.

The song is a poetic and political act of empathy, and of a kind that has become rare in the sanitised marketplace of popular songs. And it is the poetry that saves it from being only political ideology and lifts it into the realm of art.

Gainsbourg died in 1991, having established himself as one of the world’s most influential popular composers and performers.

Michelle Ramin | in real life

Michelle Ramin, 'Mona Lisa IRL' [Oil on Canvas, 26" x 38", 2016]

Michelle Ramin won the San Francisco Bay Guardian 2014 Goldie Award for Excellence in Visual Art. She has exhibited her paintings in San Francisco, New York, Portland, Nashville, New Orleans, and in the UK. She was born in North Central Pennsylvania and currently lives and works in San Francisco. Ramin studied at Penn State University and received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her work has appeared in New American Paintings, SF Chronicle, SF Weekly, Beautiful Decay, 580 Split, and is included in the Jimenez-Colon permanent collection in Puerto Rico. A solo exhibition of Ramin’s work opened at the Duplex Gallery in Oregon on 2 June 2016.


Williams: I was in the Louvre probably decades before you, and before the space in which the ‘Mona Lisa’ is hung was renovated. Nothing important about the experience appears to have changed. There were no ‘smartphones’ then, but there were lots of cameras. A large group of people, which seemed to be moving as a pack from room to room, ignored every other picture in the Denon wing. Your painting, ‘Mona Lisa IRL’, does a number of interesting things with this scene, which must now be familiar to most tourists who visit Paris. To my mind, the most important thing you do is confidently announce that paintings are as good or better than photographs at contemplating our now surreal relationship with images and art. The virtual ‘Mona Lisa’, one we might see on the Louvre website, is somehow more real than the ‘Mona Lisa’ in real life.

Michelle Ramin
Michelle Ramin

Ramin: Yeah, I think that’s interesting—the idea of the ‘Virtual Mona Lisa’ vs. Mona Lisa ‘IRL’. She’s more famous as a replicated digital or printed image than as an actual painting. When I got into the room, I kinda stopped caring about the painting itself. In that moment, I was able to check it off my tourist list of things to see. I didn’t get very close and could honestly barely make out that it was the ‘Mona Lisa’, except for the huge crowd around her. It mattered to me more to be experiencing the way in which people experience her rather than getting close to the actual painting and observing the brush strokes, colors used, composition, size, etc. I studied all of that in school but all that knowledge didn’t mean a thing when I got into that room. It was then that I realised I wanted my next body of work to be about crowds of people observing famous pieces of art. It’s interesting to me that some people find the need to check certain famous pieces off of a list—as in the Louvre brochure—while others spend minutes or sometimes hours studying the same piece. It’s like this at concerts, too, and other cultural institutions and happenings. Something about hype and fame—the bragging rights involved—that really draws people, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Then again, who am I to judge how people should and should not experience something?

Williams: Digital photography has become the standard method of certifying experience in a way that seems more reliable and objective than memory… until the drive fails or your cloud is hacked. Your paintings of subjects inside the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay are also about the spectacle of art and the hype surrounding it. To experience this as a tourist or art lover is one thing, but artists experience the spectacle and hype of the art world in a different way, as I suspect you are finding now you have several exhibitions of your own coming up.

Ramin: Hype is a very real and intimidating phenomenon, especially now with the advent of social media. As young as I am (thirty-four), I still remember the days without computers, cell phones, internet, etc. Word of mouth and the printed word were the only way to get information out there. Now, there are so many ways—so many websites, blogs, apps, etc.—I can’t keep up, nor do I want to. The popular way to virtually socialise changes constantly. A week out from the opening of my solo exhibition ‘Jet Lag’, at Duplex Gallery in Portland, Oregon, and I find myself full of anxiety over whether or not I sent press releases to the right people. Who are the ‘right’ people? Even a few years ago, it was so much clearer. All I’ve been seeing this week is an ocean of faceless art blogs and Instagram accounts. I find myself feeling very much like I did in the congested museums of Paris—alone in a crowded room, and very overwhelmed. This is all part of the process, of course. The art making is the easy part for an artist. It’s everything else that is so difficult.

Williams: The recent gallery paintings are unusual in your body of work because they have not edited out the architecture and environment of the subjects. In much of your other work, for example ‘Ben and Travis Find a Tube’ [Watercolor on Paper, 22″ x 30″, 2015], the setting is missing and only the subject and action is left. Something that may have started out being a photograph or a memory, or both, ends up being a pictorial distillation. Can you tell me something about your editorial process, about how you decide what gets left in and what gets cut out, about how you decide what your real subject matter is?

Ramin: I’ve always been a very focused person. I have a tendency to focus so much on one thing that I miss all the details surrounding the thing. Most of my work over the past five years has been intentionally editing out the background or surroundings of the figures—mostly because I, myself, only really cared about the subjects and their actions. The rest seemed superfluous. I wanted the viewers to see what I was seeing, which was the interaction and relationships between the figures, and nothing else. My newest body of work is about something a little different—still about people, their interactions with each other, but also their interaction with the unique space that constitutes a museum. There’s so much weight to a museum—historically, of course, but also architecturally. It’s contextually important for me to include this unique environment in the paintings. I didn’t want to introduce backgrounds again until I knew for sure it provided something important and relevant to the works’ content.

Williams: Some of your other projects, from 2011 and 2012—the installations ‘Mask Booth’ and ‘Try it on’—appear to invite or challenge people to try on something that in Australia we call a ‘balaclava’. It makes everyone look like a criminal, or like they’re on a polar expedition. What is this about?

Ramin: When I was in graduate school, I took up the mask, or balaclava, as a multi-layered, politically-charged symbol representing various identities. I used this metaphor as a way to discuss hidden identities, subcontexts, in each of our personalities. By putting on the mask, one takes on a new and very different identity. The body of work relating to masks centered around private vs. public personas and the existence of this doubling in everyone. This theme can be extended to include social media personas and public branding as well. At the time, 2011–2012, the Occupy Movement in the Bay Area was ramping up, the punk band Pussy Riot was very active politically and the film ‘Spring Breakers’ had come out. When I began the mask series, these cultural icons weren’t present, but by the time I was in the midst of the series they were. A form of the collective unconscious, I suppose. It seemed like the balaclava was on everyone’s minds, so it felt like a very relevant representation of that moment, especially following the 2008 recession and being an election year here in the U.S.

Williams: Yes, and by the time this zeitgeist filters through to your watercolor and pencil drawings, something else has happened. The hidden, masked self is perfectly domesticated and comfortable on the sofa. ‘Three aliases’ [Colored Pencil on Paper, 22 x 30 inches, 2011] is both funny and disturbing.

Artists have to be concerned about what other people think. At one end of the spectrum it’s ‘Will they like my work?’, and at the other it’s ‘Will they understand what it means?’ Are you a worrier? Are you on the side of authenticity or on the side of sincerity?

Ramin: I am absolutely a worrier! —In all aspects of my life. At this point in my career I care very much about what people think and how the work will be received. I want it to be accessible to everyone but I also want it to function on a higher level, where artists, critics, historians, etc., can gather more information from the work. I don’t want to choose sides. I want it all, really. Doesn’t everyone?

Williams: Maybe. The path we take to get to where we are seems less important at the start than when you get to near the end. That’s the difference between being thirty-four and fifty-eight.

We’ve touched on how technology now mediates how we experience art. This means that art is made by people who have seen more art than ever before. What have you been looking at recently? What have you discovered?

Ramin: The last art I went to see was at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and California College of the Arts (CCA) MFA thesis exhibitions. They are the annual displays of graduate students’ work. I love checking out the work of emerging artists coming out of graduate art programs. A lot of the work is missing steps but some is extraordinary. There’s such a refreshing feeling to young (in career, not necessarily age) artists’ work: the best of the showings can be invigorating and inspiring, like Laura Rokas and Robin Crofut-Brittingham. The worst is still really intriguing because it’s candid in its failure: no censorship, just letting it all hang out. I appreciate that on a lot of levels. That’s what graduate school is for… Experimentation and failure: something that should be encouraged more in post-graduate work and, honestly, in our daily lives.

Related links on other sites

Conversations

  • Victoria Contreras Flores | correspondence - Victoria Contreras Flores received her degree and PhD from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. She was born and lives in Valencia, Spain, and is the creator of ARTNATOMY, and a great variety of other artistic projects.
  • Santiago Cañón Valencia | interview - Santiago Cañón Valencia is a cellist. An emerging solo artist of great technical brilliance, he was born in Bogotá, Colombia, completed his bachelor degree with James Tennant at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and advanced studies with Andrés Díaz at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Winner of many awards, he has performed with orchestras in Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, and Hungary.
  • David Hensel | interview - “I cheered on reading Brian Sewell’s scathing article about the Summer Exhibition, because I read it returning from going to the preview, where I’d hoped to find my own sculpture. Instead what I found was the empty base, without the sculpture. We know the art market prefers obscure art as somehow more advanced, and anything …
  • Victoria Contreras Flores | Art~natomist - Artnatomia is a tremendously clever use of Flash and a great educational tool. It is the inspirational work of art teacher and artist, Victoria Contreras Flores, who, with a contrary view of the demands of the art market, has decided to concentrate on using new tools and media to express herself and teach her students. Her …

Victoria Contreras Flores | correspondence

Victoria Contreras Flores received her degree and PhD from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. She was born and lives in Valencia, Spain, and is the creator of ARTNATOMY, and a great variety of other artistic projects.


Williams: Victoria, it has been about ten years since ARTNATOMY. It is a beautiful and practical tool for students, artists and illustrators. Has it been doing well, and getting the attention it deserves?

Contreras Flores: Yes, ARTNATOMY will celebrate its ten-year anniversary in September [2016]. I’m preparing a celebration! My little virtual pedagogical toy fulfilled and exceeded all my expectations: it is still selling an offline version, although it remains free online for students. It has also led to derivative commissioned works, interesting collaborations and international contacts and friends. It has exceeded the user target I predicted and the application is avowed useful not only by artists but by psychologists, neurologists, plastic surgeons, coaches—even criminologists. It has received international awards, been featured in magazines and cited in books and academic papers. I could not be more satisfied. For it to be a more popular site and tool I would have to overcome my laziness for business and social media marketing. But I have other interests, too.

A screenshot of ARTNATOMY by Victoria Contreras Flores.
A screenshot of ARTNATOMY by Victoria Contreras Flores.

Williams: You refer often in your correspondence, sometimes by way of apology, to what you call your ‘dilettante-ism’. To be an amateur is not such a bad thing. But you have made it your style to be a professional non-specialist, a dabbler who is also a discoverer of new things. I can see an advantage in this, if a way must be found to pay the bills. It also means, does it not, that some of the brief artistic commitments do not work out the way you planned?

Contreras Flores: Let’s see… First, I distrust works that ‘need explanations’. I produce objects, works, music that do not belong to the realm of language. They can simply thrill you or not, make you feel, identify with them, or not. When a work comes to us, we do not mind the author. I am much worse than my best works and I should not matter.

Victoria Contreras Flores
Victoria Contreras Flores

I understand, since I am also a spectator, other people have an interest in the person behind the art. When I have to introduce myself, to define myself, to be honest, I can only do it from the dilettante-ism which is neither more nor less than the result of my curious nature and my heterogeneous interests. I tend to emphasise—not in a cynical way—I work hard and humbly in learning everything I try. I’m a professional player. I accept me as ‘numerous’ and enjoy it. In this way, I think people understand why my production is so diverse.

This makes me an outsider within the art market. It is a sign of the times because ‘experts’ frown on unskilled labor, but I am sure that culture is the antithesis of specialisation. In any case, in me, this is not a theoretical starting point, not an a priori, but the result that I work by passion and curiosity: there is never much planned and the result always surprises me, and in a positive way.

None of my inventions, it is true, manage alone to pay the bills.  I have to accept commissioned work such as programming, or teaching. There are other costs, too: being free of children, luxury and property. I prefer to live this way to dedicate my life and efforts to make a business from my creations. I do not serve as a businessman. I did not choose that profession. I could, perhaps, get better economic results devoting all my efforts to a single thing … but only by being as bored and as sad as if I were working in a bank or living in a jail forged with my own hands.

Williams: … “Mientras voy, y vengo, por el camino me entretengo” [“I go, and come back, by the way I enjoy”] is the phrase you have mentioned. It seems like a good philosophy, and one way to prepare for any surprise from the Nietzschean demon.

Your interest in putting new technology to work in artistic projects appears to have led to the creation of some beautiful necklaces. They are made with 3D-printing, I think. The project combines the decorative, the literary, and a little eroticism.

Contreras Flores: They were created playing, by mixing things I love: reading, calligraphy, typography, arabesque, and ajouré. I suppose I am not immune to the fact that my birthland mixes seven centuries of Muslim heritage with Spanish baroque. I design working on paper, getting a single, quick piece that must be legible. After that, I order the laser-cut from a supplier, and finally I hand-mount it. This is one of those inventions for those I would love to find a producer. I am interested in the field of jewellery because it mixes again l’objet d’art and applied art and allows sculpture in small sizes, experimenting very freely with materials and shapes.

I hope I will not be lost in translation but I am flattered to be related to ‘the smiling and playful’ Nietzsche. He aims and encourages us to be free from time-calculation—the furthest thing from a megalomaniac—facing our ephemeral insignificance should help us to live more freely, more calmly, and to enjoy more. In this way, too, I am just an ‘amateur’ who will die learning. So, I am glad if you find some eroticism—another of the simple good things of life—in my necklaces, which I could not prescind from formal exuberance to transmit their passionate messages.

The phrase ‘I go, and come back, by the way I enjoy’ has a good dose of black humor, by reducing life—‘el camino’—to a short, and not very serious, trip. This idea is also in the Spanish reflexive verb ‘entretenerse’, which is more like ‘to amuse oneself’.

Nietzsche is a key philosopher for me. It is interesting you mention him though we have never spoken about him before. People sometimes refer to Nietzsche as a severe, permanently angry, megalomaniac. Very different from the Nietzsche I know. I am flattered if you associate, at some point, some of my statements with the Nietzsche of ‘gaia scienza’: ‘superman’ is an ideal of courage to face life, which is facing death;  active thinking, not-condescending. A ‘logos’ strengthened in the consciousness of its insignificance, should manifest itself in a rigorous ethical demand, auto-immune to self-deception and, paradoxically, liberate us from false responsibilities and illegitimate ambitions. This makes life light, encouraging us to live in a more lucid, more laughing, and more vital way…

I will say that the human is my only theme and my inexhaustible source. The senses are instruments of knowledge for me (in Spanish, ‘sentido’, can mean ‘sense’, ‘felt’ or ‘meaning’ ) and I’m glad if you perceive any kind of sensuality in my work.

Williams: Yes, there is something about the choice of quotations, and the writers, that invites that interpretation. There is also the simple fact that in order to read the text of the necklaces it is necessary to gaze at the bare neck of the wearer. Imagining this moment invites erotic interpretation.

When you wrote to me of ‘the brief trip by which we amuse ourselves,’ I was reading The Gay Science. The allegory of the demon is a striking idea. I wonder why it is not taught in schools. (It may be because it is a dangerous idea; and perhaps because we now have a complicated relationship with the character that Nietzsche has become in our imaginations.) I am thinking of ‘eternal recurrence’, now, not in terms of its meaning to our isolated selves but as either rebuke or praise of the way we treat other people. Am I prepared for the violence, judgments, and wrongs committed against others to be endured, by them, over and over again?

In Australia it seems a majority of the voting population supports harsh measures—I would say inhumane measures—to prevent asylum-seekers reaching our shores.

Contreras Flores: Valencia is a wide-open mediterranean sea town, but there are no boats of people arriving on the beach. The refugee situation remains ‘someone else’s problem’, in Valencia as for most of Europe. I could not be more ashamed by our politicians—applying inhuman laws on our behalf, fomenting fear and nationalist discourses that only conceal ignorance and fear of ‘the other’ and the unknown. As a political subject—as we all are—I try to ‘Think globally, act locally’, I am involved in civil associations, and personally try to fight with my humble weapons, which are just pencils and thinking. It is always insufficient.

Williams: What are you working on now, Victoria?

Contreras Flores: I have been focused on music, learning amazing software that allows me to record and produce my own music with an acceptable quality. In the realm of soundtracks and music for shorts films I collaborate in projects by talented people and continue to mix all the disciplines I am interested in—films, literature, images, and music.

Contreras Flores’s necklaces can be bought directly online from her website, where there is also a short list of retailers, information about her experiments with 3D-printers, and other design objects for sale.

Santiago Cañón Valencia | interview

Santiago Cañón Valencia is a cellist, and an emerging solo artist of great technical brilliance. He was born in May 1995 in Bogotá, Colombia, completed his bachelor degree with James Tennant at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and advanced studies with Andrés Díaz at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Winner of many awards, he has performed with orchestras in Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, and Hungary, and given more than a hundred concerts with pianist Katherine Austin. Cañón Valencia’s first album, ‘Solo’ [iTunes link ⤴︎], recorded works by Gaspar Cassadó, Alberto Ginastera, György Ligeti, and Zoltán Kodály on the Atoll label.

Santiago Cañón Valencia
Santiago Cañón Valencia

Cañón Valencia has two new compact disc recordings published by Atoll: one a selection of twentieth century Russian sonatas (Shostakovich, Schnittke and Prokofiev); and the other of short and virtuoso pieces for cello and piano.

He was a finalist in the 2017 Queen Elisabeth Cello Competition. There are excellent videos of the performances in this competition.

Williams: The special nature of education for elite musicians is mano a mano, so to speak. Who are your musical antecedents, and what have they given to you?

Santiago Cañón Valencia
Santiago Cañón Valencia

Cañón Valencia: I come from a family of musicians, my father is a clarinet player who works at the Bogotá Philharmonic, my sister is a violinist, and my mother used to play the cello. She was in fact my very first cello teacher and the one that got me to play the cello. Because of my family’s background, my life has always been surrounded by art. I believe being an artist in any discipline was always meant to be, though, I am sure that if I wanted to do something non-art related my family would have been just as supportive and encouraging as they have been with what I am doing now. From all of this I have learned to love, value and admire not only music but art in general and I am proud of being an artist.

Williams: Anyone who watches and listens to your performances closely will have noticed your father’s immense pride when you perform with the Bogotá Philharmonic. It’s clear he gets a buzz from it.

Cañón Valencia: Yeah, I am happy I make him and the rest of my family proud.

About my teachers… I’ve only had three throughout these almost sixteen years of playing the cello and I believe each one of them has had a huge impact and influence on the way I approach the cello and how I play it, of course.

My first teacher was Henryk Zarzycki, I studied with him for about eight years and he is like a musical grandfather to me. He was the one that basically formed me musically and technically as I started studying with him since the age of four and a half. Not only was he an amazing teacher but he also encouraged my other interests, aside from music, like painting. His teaching was truly inspiring, he always had a way of coming up with different stories for every piece I was working on. Apart from being entertaining, it really opened my mind to think of music as just another way of communication, much like a book you read or a person you listen to speak or sing.

Santiago Cañón Valencia's first album, Solo, published by Atoll.

My second teacher was James Tennant, with whom I studied for five years. This was an amazing time, not only because that is when I was introduced to the beautiful country of New Zealand, but because in those five years James developed my musical and expressive side so much. Those five years were spent mostly focused on really delving inside every piece of music I played. It did not matter whether it was a big work like a sonata, or a short concert piece, the point of it was to really give meaning to every note in every work I played and to think beyond just playing everything nicely without mistakes.

My third teacher was Andrés Díaz with whom I worked for two years. The time I got to spend with him was very interesting as he provided me with an inside look of what it was like to live the life of a touring soloist. This for me is very valuable as he not only focused on cello playing but he also focused on teaching me how to be smart in the professional music world.

I have nothing but admiration and respect for these three amazing musicians.

Williams: Musicians of your age and younger are the first ‘generation’ to learn about music, performance and technique with the additional aid of both audio recordings and YouTube. Do you think it has it made a difference?

Cañón Valencia: I think YouTube has had the biggest impact on music students as it gives all of us the opportunity to have all the great performers in front of us and watch them play whenever we want. However, for me, YouTube is also a great platform to promote myself as a musician because it gives me the opportunity to share all my performances with the world. Many people do this because it is a great way to gain a worldwide audience.

Williams: You answered a ‘dinner party’ question recently with a list of ideal guests that included Casals, Chuck Close and Arvo Pärt—but left out Rostropovich! This is your chance to explain yourself, and maybe to tell us about the kind of art and artists you like …

Casa Batllo (Barcelona, Spain). Architect: Antoni Gaudí.
Casa Batllo (Barcelona, Spain). Architect: Antoni Gaudí.

Cañón Valencia: In that answer I thought that for me, it would have been a more interesting dinner party if it wasn’t just centered in music. I chose a variety of artists that I really admire. For example, I always think of Dalí and Gaudí together because Gaudí’s constructions look like something that could have easily come out of a Dalí painting, or, a Dalí painting looks like something inspired by a Gaudí construction. For me, those two are some of the most interesting and innovative artists and their works just have a way of getting inside my mind without ever leaving. Another one is Arvo Pärt, who’s music I have always loved and he is one of the very few minimalist composers who always keeps me listening carefully with never-ending interest. I chose Casals as the only cellist simply because he is like the father of all modern cellists and definitely one that I admire the most, not only because of his artistic qualities but also because of his human qualities. I could have chosen so many cellists but I admire so many that if i was to list them all, there would be too many. Of course I admire Rostropovich and if he wanted to join the party I wouldn’t dare say no.

Williams:  Rostropovich would have brought the vodka; I’m not sure about Casals. I agree wholeheartedly about Casals, though.

I mention Rostropovich because he used his status and relationships with composers to create new music; and I wanted to ask you: Where do you think new music (for the cello) is going to come from now? We are living in a difficult period for composers, aren’t we? —More difficult for composers than performers?

Cañón Valencia: I think that as long as there are great musicians, there will always be a big open door for great new music to come. I also think that the popularity that the cello has gained over the years is constantly inspiring more and more young composers to explore the instrument and its vast tonal range. Like you say, Rostropovich, more than any other cellist, brought so much great music to the cello repertoire from great composers like Britten, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Ginastera, Dutilleux (just to name a few). I think that in the present there many great cellists still promoting new music and I hope I can also become a part of that.

‘Nightwind’ (for two cellos, composed 2011) is from the album Toru (ACD143, Atoll), a collection of chamber works by Martin Lodge. In this recording Santiago Cañón Valencia and Edward King are the cellists. The producer was Wayne Laird.

Williams: It is a fairly common view among musicologists—and competition judges—that “recording has directed performance style into a search for greater precision and perfection, with a consequent loss of spontaneity and warmth”. Trying to negotiate an audience’s desire for both perfection and spontaneity becomes a high-wire act for solo performers. Lucas Debargue’s performances in Moscow show how interesting—and divisive—this act can be.

What is your opinion about this, and do you have a strategy for coping with it yourself as you prepare for performances or recordings?

Cañón Valencia: This is an interesting question. I’ve always been in a search for balance between both, musical spontaneity and technical precision. I believe that both are important when presenting yourself to an audience in any concert hall.

CD recordings for me should be the same, they need to have the excitement and spontaneity that comes with the adrenaline of performing live. I think listening to mere technical perfection would eventually get a little boring.

When it comes to competitions it is really difficult to know what the judges want exactly. I say this because I’ve had personal experiences in international competitions where personal expression and spontaneity is actually looked down upon. Some judges are very literal with the score and a ‘perfect’ performance for them might just mean playing exactly what’s written. Whereas some others encourage individuality and may think that there is more to the music than what is printed on the page.

In my personal opinion, I like to take both points of view into account and address pieces with my own individual approach but still find a way to keep true to the work. I believe in being true to the style of every piece too. If it’s a work by Bach I would not play it like I would play Dvořák, and I would not play Dvořák the way I would play Shostakovich. Apart from the individual musical language from every composer, I think it is also important to take into account the musical style of the period in which they lived in.

Williams: If you were a writer I would ask you what you were reading. But you’re a musician, so you should tell me what you are listening to …

Cañón Valencia: I’m listening to quite a lot now. For study: Il Progetto Vivaldi: Sol Gabetta and Sonatori de la Gioiosa MarcaSix Suites for Violoncello Solo: Pieter Wispelwey (this recording is his 1998 version of the suites, I believe). Truls Mørk’s recording of the sonata for solo cello by George Crumb. And the Ginastera Cello Concertos: Mark Kosower, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and Lothar Zagrosek.

As far as music that I listen to in my free time, there are too many albums to list but mainly I like to listen to post rock, ambient, shoegaze, noise rock and a bit of prog metal.

This interview, conducted in writing between 3 October and 21 October 2015, is copyright © Santiago Cañón Valencia and Stephen J. Williams and may not be reproduced without permission of the authors.

Related links on other sites

Music and videos related to this interview

Ginastera: Cello Concerto # 2, Op 50, Santiago Cañón Valencia

Lucas Debargue performs Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Six Pieces, Op. 51 No. 6 in F Minor, ‘Valse Sentimentale’.

Cañón Valencia performs Niccolò Paganini caprice number 24

Cañón Valencia at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition


Conversations

  • Michelle Ramin | in real life - Michelle Ramin won the San Francisco Bay Guardian 2014 Goldie Award for Excellence in Visual Art. She has exhibited her paintings in San Francisco, New York, Portland, Nashville, New Orleans, and in the UK. She was born in North Central Pennsylvania and currently lives and works in San Francisco. Ramin studied at Penn State University …
  • Victoria Contreras Flores | correspondence - Victoria Contreras Flores received her degree and PhD from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. She was born and lives in Valencia, Spain, and is the creator of ARTNATOMY, and a great variety of other artistic projects.
  • Santiago Cañón Valencia | interview - Santiago Cañón Valencia is a cellist. An emerging solo artist of great technical brilliance, he was born in Bogotá, Colombia, completed his bachelor degree with James Tennant at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and advanced studies with Andrés Díaz at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Winner of many awards, he has performed with orchestras in Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, and Hungary.
  • David Hensel | interview - “I cheered on reading Brian Sewell’s scathing article about the Summer Exhibition, because I read it returning from going to the preview, where I’d hoped to find my own sculpture. Instead what I found was the empty base, without the sculpture. We know the art market prefers obscure art as somehow more advanced, and anything …
  • Victoria Contreras Flores | Art~natomist - Artnatomia is a tremendously clever use of Flash and a great educational tool. It is the inspirational work of art teacher and artist, Victoria Contreras Flores, who, with a contrary view of the demands of the art market, has decided to concentrate on using new tools and media to express herself and teach her students. Her …

What are galleries for? Artists as indentured servants

Seems like a simple question, doesn’t it. A gallery is for showing pictures, of course. Let’s be liberal, and say it is a place for displaying works of art, or where people go to view works of art.

I’m not referring to museums of art, or state galleries. The question is really about commercial galleries. The visual artists I know appear to be, now, in a situation something like the position poets were in twenty-five years ago (not much has changed, everything has changed) when there were, in Australia, literally no major commercial publishers of poetry and a few writers I knew got together and formed a small, private press to publish each other. Over the course of the following fifteen years this small unincorporated association published twenty books and had some success. By the end of it, though, it was still publishing slim volumes—we believed in quality—to deafening silence from reviewers. One of its last books was an anthology of more than a dozen writers that did not get a single review. When we asked the editor of a nationally distributed review magazine why no article was arranged, we were told the anthology was “obviously good”. Well, thank you, we said, and the conversation ended there.

Perhaps we failed to be interesting or controversial enough. Self-reliance is not newsworthy.

Visual artists could hardly claim to be in same situation. There are galleries galore. The public listings are full of openings to attend. Opportunities are everywhere. Or, are they?

It’s not as though writers or poets can claim there is no publishing going on. What we can claim, I think, is that publishers are interested only, exclusively, in their bottom lines, in seeing their accounts written in black ink. You can’t blame them. There is no profit in poetry. And there is no profit in some difficult visual artist whose work cannot quickly establish a market value that buyers are willing to match with dollars. It does not matter if he or she is a genius. Genius doesn’t pay the bills.

The principal difference between writers and visual artists from a commodity point of view is that writers create a product that is the art world’s version of fast moving consumer goods. Buyers literally take literature off the shelves, in shops that resemble supermarkets. Decisions are made pronto! A book is a standard gift option. Visual artists don’t normally make products of this kind. Purchases are considered. The visual arts are not bought to be consumed, and set aside, in the same way books are bought and shelved. This demeans the relationship readers have with literature, but there is a kernel of truth in it.

Commercial galleries plot a course between what one must suppose is a genuine interest in art and the mundane worries of their pockets. Welcome to the world as we know it.

There is nowhere for visual artists to go that is not smell of commercial relationships. Writers, by contrast, are the piece-workers of the art world, huddled in their garrets, earning a pittance for every thousand words: the smell of money rarely reaches their rooms.

Above all else, it’s disatisfaction that they share; and isolation from the very people who want to make contact with them.

Commercial galleries, if the system that the galleries describe were to work as perfectly as everyone hopes, offer more than representation. There is supposed to be much else that comes with the relationship: the problem is, really, whether or not this “much else” actually materialises.

Commercial galleries are supposed to:

1] Represent artists—that is, speak for them, and about them; negotiate for them; promote them.

2] Provide exhibitions or shows at least every two years.

3] Maintain up to date records of works held on consignment and try to sell these works.

4] Help to build an artist’s reputation by promoting scholarly and other writing about their art.

5] Generally, manage the relationship between the artist and the market to maximise the artist’s opportunities to profit from his or her work.

If galleries actually achieved this for more than a handful of the most prominent visual artists, artists would think, no doubt, that the galleries were doing a good job.

But they are not doing it.

A mid-range artist in Australia, for example, exhibiting 30 works at a significant commercial gallery once every two years, and selling perhaps 20 of these (a successful show!) for an average price of AU$4,000, brings $80,000 to the cash register. Forty per cent of this goes to the gallery: $32,000. This leaves $48,000 for the artist. A pittance for two year’s work. It’s no wonder they have to have second jobs! (Let’s not even mention the tax situation.)

No-one attacks the galleries. Why would anyone want to? Even if there were any public discussion of commercial galleries, surely artists would not have anything bad to say about the galleries that are, of course, the very arteries through which the life-blood af art courses…

Absence of discussion and debate does not mean absence of comment. It is well-known, of course, who the bad apples are. (Who knows, we might even get around to naming them here in future episodes: stay tuned…)

It’s the relationship between artists and galleries I’m interested in. Now, do you notice anything odd about the following statements quoted, verbatim, from the ACGA website:

Vision:
The Australian Commercial Galleries Association seeks to contribute to the visual arts in a way that enhances understanding of and support for the primary market while cultivating sound entrepreneurial ethics and an ever-strengthening national and international market for Australian art.

Mission:
The Australian Commercial Galleries Association exists to represent, promote and further the interests of Australian commercial galleries whose core business is the ethical representation of living Australian artists. A dual aspect of the Association’s mission is to develop Australian artists’ livelihood and reputation while contributing to an enhanced public understanding of contemporary Australian art in the primary market.

I think there are several strange things going on in these quotes, not least of which is that the vision statement does not envision anything (unless it is that the national and international market for Australian art is “ever-strengthening”). I wonder, for example, why this organisation is so obsessed with ethics and ethical bahaviour. Has someone accused it or its members of something terrible, or do their consciences need to be salved?

I mention this obsession with ethics in the vision and mission statements of the ACGA because the point at which the code discusses a gallery’s right to receive a commission on all sales of an artist’s work strikes me as being distinctly unethical.

The partnership between the gallery and the artist establishes commission as payment by the artist for the gallery’s intensive ongoing work and representation in the development of the artist’s career, reputation and livelihood. As such it should be recognised as an agent’s fee, earned by the gallery in return for the type of ongoing services listed under item 4.

Item 4 in the code of practice lists a whole heap of things that galleries barely do at all for most artists, and do very badly most of the time. (Read the whole sad catalogue at the ACGA website.) The code is, in fact, a strained attempt to justify a claim that artists, particularly struggling, unknown artists, but also middle-rung artists, have little or no power to deny to galleries.

Artists, in fact, have to put up and shut up in the face of galleries who do nothing for them between annual or bi-annual shows but still want 40 per cent of sales they haven’t been involved in.

Wouldn’t it be fairer, more ethical, as a starting point in negotiations between artists and galleries, to say that galleries were entitled to up to 40 per cent commission on any artworks they choose to show, or choose to hold on to between shows?

You can hear the director-fussbudgets of galleries around Australia huffing, puffing and moaning already, can’t you? Oh, dear, how will they ever earn a living if they only get commission on the works they really want to sell?

The services these fussbudgets (don’t go off to the dictionary: it means one who is overly particular about unimportant things) offer to artists are described in terms that make their gallery businesses sound like retirement homes for librarians. They promise to be monitoring, archiving, maintaining and pursuing. And when they’re not doing that, they’re cultivating, collaborating and recording. All very important stuff, I don’t doubt. Meanwhile, it is the artist who is doing the real work.

The list of services that galleries perform to earn their commission is a furphy, a wild rumour, a tall story, and everyone knows it. Artists make their reputations by sticking at their work. It is a hard slog that, even for artists of acknowledged brilliance, goes on for years. To pretend this isn’t the case, and instead put about that the development of an artist’s reputation and career is something that is strategised by whispers and nods between gallery directors and clients with too much money in their pockets, is simply to lie. And there’s nothing ethical about that.

What is going to change, though? How can the system be changed? Important questions, to be answered in a later post.

Multiple monotypes: Riccardo Angelo [exhibition September 2005]

Modern art, art critics, and bad artists, are obsessed with the ‘new’. What else is there? Well, there’s the history of techniques, for a start …


Exhibition catalogue (→ PDF opens in new tab)

Riccardo Angelo‘s art seems very accessible when he paints identifiable figures and poses, but inaccessible when his private thoughts and knack for surrealism take over the imagery. The theory, popular amongst critics of literature, that ‘the author is dead’ means that we do not have access to the intentions of artists. It is an idea that attempts to dislodge artists from the centre of their own work. It may be an effect of that dislodgement that art dealers—auction houses and galleries—encourage us to think of artists as in or out of fashion and, themselves, engaged in a struggle to stand for a while at the head of an advance guard. It is to everyone’s advantage that some artists appear to be at the cutting edge of taste, where investments will show a good return, and it is also completely irrelevant to the artwork.

Art criticism has a long list of well-worn words that are useful support critical claims to seriousness, and often before such claims to seriousness are warranted. Artists learn at art school and sometimes remain in the habit of obscuring what they know with what they learned.

It is a curious thing that the art world, the public language of visual artists, is saturated with artistic “intentions”. “What I mean by this is…” “In this picture I was trying to achieve…” “This is a painting about…” “So-and-so is trying to…” We lap up the intentions of painters in a way that we would find intolerable with, say, novelists.

However, I can not reconcile this effect with the knowledge that no artist I know talks to me about their art that way. (This, I have to admit, may simply show how I made the world I live in!) The more closely I get to know an artist, the less the conversation is about the apparent content and motive of the work than about the struggle to make it—about techniques, methods, materials, errors, frustrations and experiments.

This all amounts to saying that the artist’s history of art is very different to the art critic’s history of art. This is a fact worth noting. To an artist, the history of art is principally the history of the mastery of techniques and the struggle with materials: what is passed on, what is forgotten, what remembered, what can be seen or inferred from the surface of a painting and what must be imagined, what is discovered and what has to be re-invented, what he can do and what he cannot do. No-one who has spent any time with artists, listened to their conversations, and shared their practical daily concerns about their work, could deny that this is a basic truth about being an artist.

In this context, I think that Riccardo Angelo’s Nineteen monotypes exhibition was a litmus test of how to look at art, since its subject was not only the familiar figures that filled up the white space of the paper the monotypes are printed on, but also the technique itself. The nineteen monotypes were made specifically to draw attention to how they were made, and to the fact that the process of making them involved various, sometimes unexpected, stages of work.

The monotypes

Monotypes, as the name implies, should be one of a kind. Ink is applied to a plate that can be made of metal or glass, and may be flexible or rigid. The ink may be drawn on the plate; or painted on; or painted on, then rubbed and scratched off to make negative details. Plate and paper come together, sometimes, though not necessarily, in a press (a burnishing tool will suffice for some variations of the technique). The paper is peeled off the plate to reveal the image. The plate is wiped clean and the process starts again. Degas was a master maker of monotypes and he invented several distinctive variations of the technique, including making further images off the already used plate and hand-coloring the fainter second impressions. The beautifully luminous dancers’ tutus in Degas’ monotypes were made by first rubbing solid black ink on the plate and then rubbing away the ink with brushes and cloths to leave a blank area in the form of a white dress.

Riccardo Angelo’s nineteen monotypes were exhibited at a small, fine art gallery in Melbourne in September 2005. Angelo has made hundreds of these monotypes, usually in groups of about six to twenty. They are all organised by date. They do not have titles. The titles of the nineteen monotypes, taken randomly from superficially appropriate passages of the book of Genesis, were added to the monotypes at the request of the gallery director. The dates tell the viewer that some of the nineteen monotypes were made months before many of the others. Most, according to the dates, were made on a few days around the middle of December 2004.

First impressions: the meaning of ‘monotypes’

A monotype is one of a kind. However, the technique of making them encourages an artist to experiment with how the ink is applied and removed, repeating patterns, shapes and content in evolving sequences. Almost all monotypes are an instance of an evolving process and, of course, sometimes, failed prints are thrown away.

Many of the pictorial elements of the whole exhibition are in these first monotypes, made in August 2004. Birds. Wings. A squatting child. A snake. Two figures kissing. A figure kneeling, legs forming the shape of an inverted ‘V’.

In exhibition, the prints are not presented in any particular order. The first impression is confusing. Few viewers appear to spend more than seconds in front of each of the prints. You may look at the details of any print and become lost it its suggestiveness—the ‘drawing’ that forms the basis of the prints is apparently wild, undisciplined, free. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how it would be possible to control the materials to produce a fine effect: the viscous ink, brushes and glass are not ideal instruments with which to draw. Angelo is an excellent draftsman, but his abilities don’t appear, at first viewing, to be on show here.

It is only when viewing the prints from a distance and as a group that revealing patterns begin to appear.

Techniques and variations

Why do many of the monotypes present us with a figure that has fallen to its knees to form an inverted ‘V’ shape with its legs? Man, woman, dog, and creature—they are all the same—all reduced to the same pitiful position. The supplicant, bowed shapes of all living creatures in this world, Angelo seems to be saying, should tell us about something they all share. It is hard to pin down what he might be referring to. Most of the monotypes have some explicitly sexual content, but they are definitely not erotic. It is not even, really, a human theme. In the world of these drawings, man and dog suffer in the same way, men and women are equally exposed, and all nature becomes part of the muddled, expressive, psychological moment of the work and of the exhibition.

Then there are the groups of two or three monotypes that belie the individuality of the print process. It is clear from these prints that Angelo does not always clean the glass plate he uses before beginning work on the next impression. He reworks an image he has already made by making new layers of ink stick to the half-dried layers underneath, and he adds new details.

The monotype process produces unique prints, but Angelo has rediscovered something that Degas knew: the plate, whether flexible metal or inflexible glass (other materials can be used), becomes an anchor that keeps the work on theme. The plate remembers the structure and some of the details of the drawing, and always provides a useful departure point for the next drawing, if one is needed. The process itself is also telling us that the work is not random; not as random as we first thought.

These three prints demonstrate something different. Between one print and another the details may change dramatically, but the underlying structure of the picture can remain the same. On the right hand side of the three prints there is a group of trees, or a tree. On the left hand side: a much larger tree, a female figure (perhaps like a sphinx), and a child’s face with its mouth open, crying. Of course, there are birds, beaks, animals and snakes everywhere, making it difficult to see these figures. Look at the prints for a while and you begin to realise that deep patterns have repeated themselves.

The next two prints reveal another variation in the technique.

The second print is a reverse print of the first. This means that the second print must somehow have been printed from the first print, or the image reversed on the plate and re-printed.

What does it all mean?

One of the reasons I wanted to write about this exhibition, and why I wanted to publish a permanent record in print of these nineteen monotypes, is that it allows me to discuss an unresolved question about the relationship between artists and their critics. I include in ‘artists’ all kinds of artists, though I realise that, increasingly, it is used to refer only to visual artists.

So much of what one reads about art is shallow, ideological or self-serving. Is there an appropriate way to write about art at all? I’m not really sure. I would align myself with Susan Sontag, if anyone. I am not interested in producing another interpretation, but in what I see and in transmitting some of that excitement about what is visible.

This is, itself, a philosophical manoeuvre, of course. An ‘interpretation’ cannot avoid being, at some level, an attempt to master and comprehensively remake the art it is talking about. Interpretations come to stand for the works of art themselves. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about that. In fact, in life as in art, an interpreter is exactly what we need sometimes.

However, it is undeniable, I think, that certain critical ‘positions’ or theories seek to remove artists from a privileged relationship to their own work. The effect is strange. The public discussion of art is carried on as though art itself were an ‘effect’ or by-product of the history of ideas. Artists are made to line up while an -ism is pinned to their lapels. At some point the unreality of it may strike you as itself meaningful.

Riccardo Angelo’s Nineteen monotypes exhibition invited us to view ourselves in the act of looking, and to notice how many of the artist’s intentions and meanings could be traced from one moment to the next.

Doubtful knowledge: recent paintings by Shane Jones, 1999–2001

Drawing falls and folds of cloth has been a standard exercise for student artists in their teachers’ studios. Along with perspective, chiaroscuro, flesh, and hundreds more particular painterly ‘rules’, mastering this painting exercise is a foundation of depicting human reality. Without it, it would be impossible to present any image of a man or woman in his or her social reality. It is not only the depiction of our clothing that the painter has to master—the space in which it appears, the volume it contains, the sources of light playing on its infinitely varied surfaces. There are also beds, furniture, curtains, and all the rest.

Shane Jones was apprenticed to the depiction of reality in paintings for twenty years before his own peculiar ‘take’ on realism began to emerge in his work. Virtually all the early paintings—still lives, street scenes, rooms and objects—have been destroyed. It is strange, now, that everything he has learned about painting is pressed to the task of depicting a reality that none of us has ever seen: a realism that looks like pure psychology.

A man dressed in a gray suit and a woman in a long, deep red dress stand with their backs to us. Behind them is a white curtain which reaches from somewhere out of the top of the painting to the surface the figures are standing on. There are actually two curtains: one for each of the figures. We can see, in the middle of the painting, that the two falls of curtain meet and overlap—except at the very bottom, where a small, triangular, black space, tells us that there is nothing or something on the other side of the space in which the figures stand. If you knew the artist, you would immediately recognize the male figure as the artist himself. However, for the purpose of the picture, it is just a man. There is nothing very special about him at all. We cannot see his face. We do not know whether he is anxious or calm, handsome or ugly. His companion, the woman in the red dress, may not be his companion at all: the two figures have adopted the same pose before us, turned away from our gaze, but they are not standing together. Well, they are not necessarily standing together. She has no feet. The dress is just long enough—just the right length—for the feet to be hidden. She seems to hover on the stage. Is it a stage? If it is a stage, are we also part of the performance that is about to begin, or that has just ended? Should we feel relieved and happy that the drama is over, or apprehensive because it just about to begin? The curtain may not be the curtain of a stage at all—perhaps it is only a curtain, a white sheet hanging in a gallery, much like the room in which the picture itself is hanging.

For the past four years Shane Jones has been methodically emptying his paintings of unnecessary clutter. In 1996 he won the Norma Bull Prize for a self-portrait. He emptied the room in which he painted himself by lowering the point from which the viewer seems to look on him: only the ceiling and an empty wall are visible in the background.

In 1997 Shane Jones saw the paintings of Avigdor Arikha (1929-), in particular ‘Slippers and Undershirt’ [1979]. The discarded clothing in these paintings, arranged like abstractions, seem heavily laden with their absent human bodies and activities. Shane Jones began to paint articles of clothing and falls of cloth. But these paintings are not copies of the effects Arikha achieved, any more than Arikha’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Raincoat, Peering’ (1988) is a copy of Joshua Reynolds‘ ‘Self-Portrait’ (c. 1748-9). Jones emptied his paintings of any discernable background and, as well, of perspective: handkerchiefs and cloths were unfolded and flattened to reveal their commonplace designs. These objects, sometimes painted at ten or twenty times their natural size, sometimes at ‘actual size’, were presented as though emptied of their function. No longer useful or used objects, they became simply something to look at: reality magnified. Articles of clothing, male and female, were presented to us neatly, often actually on their hangers, but floating in black space. Dresses, shirts and jumpers are the ghosts of their owners.

Deborah Klein and Shane Jones.
Deborah Klein and Shane Jones.

An untitled painting of 1998 went so far as to show only what appeared to be a white sheet suspended in black space, the upper left-hand corner hinting at something that could not be seen—a hook or nail holding everything up. We are forced to acknowledge our first ideas are often wrong when we notice the white sheet is, in fact, full of color—pinks, mauves and greens.

Underneath the thin veils that now hide his subjects’ faces, Jones has painted a real portrait of himself, a model or a mannequin. There is a Japanese flavor in the spatial arrangements and blank interiors that owe much to James McNeill Whistler.

Asked about the meaning of his paintings, Jones sometimes quotes Benjamin Disraeli: “To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.” Or, at other times, he will say: “When I was twenty I thought I knew everything; at forty I thought I didn’t know anything at all…” This is really Jones’s subject: the feeling that we do not know very much about other people or about ourselves: uncertainty and ignorance painted with pared-down, formalised and quasi-realistic effect: the suspicion that commonplace certainties might some day turn out to be doubtful knowledge.