Friday, May 28, 2010

Vision Quest: Interview with Luke Painter and Philippe Blanchard

What happens when art embarks on a technologically aided vision quest to inquire into its roots and future possibilities?  Well, you get Ancestral Vision – an animated, psychedelic exhibition on display here at 47 throughout the month of May.  Artists Luke Painter and Philippe Blanchard have re-mixed old and new media in their refreshing, lighthearted take on memory and perception.

An oversized model of a Victorian house projects an animated fantasy of modern industrial silos through stained glass eyes in Luke Painter’s piece From Victorian to Modernist to What?! (2010).  With the help of his father, Painter has recreated a 1/5th scale replica of a neighborhood house from his childhood.  Too big to be called miniature, but too small to be a real house, I’m reminded of the forced perspective set of Psycho at Universal Studios.  

A stark contrast to the subdued and surreal effect of Painter’s installation is the bombastic LED lightshow of Philippe Blanchard’s Quest for Fire, (2010).  A triptych of screen-printed Simpson-esque characters is animated, not in the traditional projected image sense, but through a trick of the eye (and colour theory).  Simply ingenious!  

Although the two artists’ paths have meandered through similar artistic avenues and investigations, taking them from printmaking to animation to installation, through Montréal and Toronto, and from Concordia to OCAD, their practices do not coincide, but rather complement each other. I sat down with Luke and Philippe to talk about these intersections and divergences in their work.  With so much in common, I was surprised to find out that the two have only known each other for a couple of years.  They may have known of each other before, but a Craig’s List ad for a silk-screen exposure unit brought the two in contact.  The connection was reinforced when Philippe requested Luke as a thesis advisor for his MFA at OCAD.  And the rest is history, or, Ancestral Vision…

LUKE PAINTER:  I got to know Philippe’s work over the last two years being on Philippe’s master’s committee. I received a Canada Council grant to do this project, and I had been offered to this show…. And I thought ‘Oh! Philippe should do this show with me too’.  I knew there would be some connections.  We didn’t know how those connections would work out, but I just thought it would be interesting.

PHILIPPE BLANCHARD:  Yes.  Luke brought this up, and I thought it would be a great opportunity.  Also, I had been researching this idea of expanding animation into installation components.  That’s the kind of work I’m interested in doing in my practice, but it’s also what Luke is doing in his work.  Where animation and sculpture and installation combine to create these hybrid forms.  That’s something that I’ve been interested in over the past few years.

FARAH YUSUF:  Can you talk about your interests in print media and animation and how that manifests in your work?

PB:  Actually all the imagery in my work is screen-printed.

LP: I think print does come into the work.  It comes into Philippe’s work physically, and it’s always present in my work in a lot of ways.  I’m interested in the multiple, and things that are ornamented, things that look like their woodcuts.  A lot of my drawings look like they’re woodcuts or engraving but are actually drawings.  And, so, the house is all about repetition and the multiple which is a broader idea that actually has to do with printmaking.  So, I never really get away from that.

When I started animation, I just arbitrarily picked it because when I was doing my MFA, I was doing paintings and they were successful because they were getting sold.  My teachers thought that I should try something else because I was doing fine with that, so I thought, “I’ll try animation.”

Animation is really interesting because it’s this problem solving that can go any way.  I never storyboard anything.  I just start making it and then see where it travels, unlike drawing, where I usually have a good idea of where it is going.

But Philippe has worked commercially with animation, so maybe there’s a different relationship.

PB:  I guess my path has been really meandering.  I studied film, but I always drew a lot. After that, I got into web design, and that got me into compositing work. After that I got into digital media a lot more.  Digital media allows you to translate work from one form to another, and it’s pretty open in a way.  I moved to Toronto and started working for a company called Headgear Animation, and started to move away from the digital toward stop-motion, prop building, and directing.

The show is part of my Master’s thesis.  I wanted to get back into printmaking. I missed the immediacy of working with materials. It’s really physically demanding.  And, there’s something about the smell of it too and the tactile quality of the material you’re working with.  Also, you end up working on something for a while, building it in your head, and it only actually happens when you pull the ink off the paper.  It’s like a huge build-up for one moment of surprise.

It’s the opposite of what Luke was talking about with his animation process.

FY:  I guess the artistic process is more open to exploration and experimentation more so than the rigidity of commercial work.

LP:  I like to use the word “hunch.”  You get a hunch about something and then you dive off from there.  I think that’s important.  It’s kind of insane to think about that in our culture now, where everything’s planned out – to take a hunch on some little thing and then work on it.  The process that Philippe has is interesting.  I don’t think that anybody has done this particularly.  But that came from a hunch in the first place.  I’ve heard it described as ‘studio based research.’

FY:  Both works mix the digital with the physical in truly unique ways. Was it a natural evolution, an easy connection?  Philippe, in your piece the animated and static components are reversed.  Usually it’s the image that moves and the light is static, but instead the lights are animated and that in turn animates the static imagery, where each part of the cycle are ever-present and encoded in a single image.   I get the feeling that you are both investigating or researching your media in order to come up with new possibilities.  

PB: I’ve never really verbalized it, but yes, that’s an interesting way to approach the show.

LP:  I think it’s about trying to find the appropriate connection sometimes.  I think it’s a really good question too, because in the end were trying to marry those two worlds - not necessarily humanizing the digital. What happens with new media work is that the focus is on the new interactive qualities, and sometimes it’s really cheesy.  But sometimes you really want to go with something that’s more evocative.

We talked about the “re-mix” and how remixing this new media with some old media could be interesting.

PB: It’s funny; I never used to think about new media in relation to my work.  I guess I thought about it more in the last couple of years.  As soon as I started using lights instead of a projector, technically I was in new media territory.

FY: Philippe, how did you make the leap from projector to lights?

PB: I used to use a video projector with a DVD, but the DVD only had red, green and blue looping on it. 

LP:  It was hilarious!

PB:  …a really boring movie.  But I was never happy with it… so I went on a hunch, and I looked into DJ lighting.  The colours were way more saturated, and the light just filled up my studio.  It was a more embodied spatial experience. So I don’t think this piece does that as much as it did in my studio, which is a much smaller space.  There, it feels like a club – with the lights pumping.  It’s really intense.

But, it just felt like a different way of working.  It opened up different possibilities.  That’s the part of the process that’s kind of interesting.  I made the jump to a new direction by changing a tool.  And we’ll see where that goes.

FY:  Programming the lights?

PB:  Yeah, I learned Max MSP to program the lights, but it’s really simple looping.  It was fun to learn and figure out.

LP:  It’s interesting with work like that.  There’s all this knowledge that you have, like animation, or the moving image, or whatever it is, and some of these technical things. And then there are these shallow dives into these areas, just as you need them, like programming, right? These shallow dives become a sort of composite toolkit.  Some tools are better than others.

PB:  And there’s deciding when you can actually take a shallow dive, or when you need help and call in an expert.  Luke, you actually took a deep dive into stained glass.

LP:  Yes.  It’s a hunch thing as well.  I don’t why I took it.  I just wanted to take a class, and then I made these stained glass sunglasses because, well, that’s just ridiculous.  And when I started making them in the class, the lady turned to me and said, “What are you doing? You know that’s not going to work, right?  They won’t be UV protected.”  And I said, “I know”.  

The stained glass just sort of fit with this project.  But I was also interested in stained glass because it’s a material that integrated media artist don’t tend to use.  You know, it’s decorative, but also, it’s been described as illuminated tapestry.  I’m interested in all the metaphorical properties, and anthropomorphic qualities of stained glass - the Rose Window is supposed to be the eye of God; how it can be used as allegory – it’s an illuminated surface and that has a connection to the screen, of course.  Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but I see all these connections with this traditional material. 

FY:  Is that the ‘ancestral’ part of Ancestral Visions, then, this revisiting of traditional materials and older technologies?

LP:  Yeah, there’s that trend of looking back at certain early technologies that Philippe has been really interested in.  There’s that connection with stained glass in my work, that looking back – making things that are newish, but then also harkening back to the medium, or in terms of content.  There’s an aspect in my work that I guess I can overtly describe as ‘fan fiction,’ taking a pop cultural image that people recognize and then turning it into an artwork.  It comes across in Philippe’s work too, with the knock-off Simpson characters.

FY: Luke, in your animation pieces you use recognizable industrial Toronto architecture, and then there’s the house from your childhood…

LP:  Well both pieces of architecture were from my childhood.  One’s projecting the other.  The house is a large projector.

FY:  I get the impression that the house is dreaming the animation of the malting silos.

LP:  Yes, well there’s something anthropomorphic about this house with eyes, right? It’s like personalizing this house.  And where my piece is probably more literal in terms of the ‘vision’ part of the Ancestral Vision title of the show, Philippe’s is more visceral.  It can actually affect you if you’re there for quite a while.

PB: Yeah, I had to turn it off during my thesis defense because it was overly visceral.  I thought that was kind of successful - in a sort of sadistic way.  I just find it funny because it’s too intense for people to watch for any length of time.


Ancestral Visions is up until May 31st.  So come by 47 this week-end to see it before it's too late!


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