Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail) [ * ]

Melvin Charney

Following an interview conducted by Catherine Millet, editor, ART PRESS, Paris, which appeared in the May 1995 issue, I would enjoy to re-consider briefly some of her questions (italic) and my responses to elucidate my current work.

Besides using a variety of media, Melvin Charney creates construction, in, on, or over existing buildings and sites. Yet far from masking the original space, his additions point up the multiple layers of images underying these places. Is is a kind of excavation at the center of our collective memory, a displacement of strata that holds not a few surprises.

How do your drawings, constructions and texts work together...?

I have always been involved with parallel disciplines - painting, sculpture, architecture. These are to me no more than registers in wich the same concerns may be superimposed on one another. One disciplinary register is registered in relation to another. The juxtaposition tends to displace and shift layers of so-called meaning and visibility...

I find that these parallel disciplines are likely to produce displacements in the Freudian sense of the term, if only because you haunt the area where the (dream) image passes into language.

I share the fear of someone in analysis of not having the right words to express his or her fears. All too often one has to displace the very idea of the visible to situate oneself in the spate of images that is drowning us nowadays. We find ourselves immersed in a bath of images that are at once limpid and meaningful, yet opaque and empty. The images are both there and not there, substantial and insubstantial. These images seem to impinge on our comprehension while canceling each other out: the "self" seems to be suspended in a self-created void....

There is an obvious narrative component in my work. It circles about and attempts to close in on the multiple registers that situate the locus of signification of a given place or object. It has to do with the narration of narration. That is to say, with the externalization of the rhetorical component of any willed gesture in art. The intention here is to affront narration directly by acting it out, by telling all, by representing consciously the representational and illusory co-relatives invoked inevitably at the very sight of an object or cipher or gesture, an invocation affirmed, ironically, by abstraction and minimalism.

The garden and sculpture that I conceived for the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal, 1987-91, are located on an abandoned piece of terrain caught between the entrance and exit ramps of an automobile expressway, and on an escarpment that overlooks a working class neighbourhood dating from the late nineteenth century, a neighbourhood that was razed as a result of sixty's city planning. On this no-man's-land floating above a wasted neighbourohood, I superimposed a series of "portraits" that where drawn from whatever could be seen in an around the site. Since there seemed to be nothing there, I recorded what was absent as much as what was present. A series of type garden formations was inserted into a series of "portraits" of the same site in its rural state. In other words, I built up figures of a reality that could only be validated in the resonance of reality refracted and reflected in the materiality of the garden. The placement of stone walls, for example, corresponds to ancient divisions of land that were marked off by the placement of "Terms," or rather, "Herms." In the garden, the busts of Hermes are made to assume the guise of other "portraits" of, for example, the twin spires of Sulpician churches that can be seen in the distance and in which appear something of the horns of ancient Cretan cults... One of the garden's "Herms", the Tribune, faces a street that leads to the ruins of a fort built in the early seventeenth century behind the old fort. So you can see in the Tribune the pediment of the Seminary; you can also see an echo of a painting by Watteau in which the pediment of the Château of Montmorency is seen to float in a garden one hundred years after it was laid out by Le Nôtre. The green patina of the copper on the pediment of the Tribune relates to the statutes of saints that decorate the parapets of churches throughout Quebec, and to the road signs that hang above the entrance to expressways such as the one next to the garden. The structure of the Tribune, moreover, suggests the structure of a tribune that El Lissitsky has designed for Lenin.... The garden can be read on several levels. The internal logic of this "reading" is sustained so long as "image" and "language" blend with one another...


To the other disciplines I work in that you mentioned I would add photography. Photography has always been an important constituent of my work, be it images I produce or those I appropriate. It lies at the very source of my art and has now become a central preoccupation.

How can anyone today ignore that it is through photography that the twentieth century has validated, if not created, ist image of reality? And if I am to look at the so-called "reality" through the photographic image, do I not have to seek out the image within the image?

You usually make a close study of the places that you photograph. Then with print in hand, you begin to discover things you hadn't seen when you first viewed the site. Isn't your piece Un Dictionnaire meant to enable viewers to follow the same development, albeit more quickly?

Un Dictionnaire draws us to into the totemic space of the most familiar photographic images. Since 1970, I am obsessed with cutting out from newspapers and then classifying wire-service images showing people, buildings and cities, torn from their day-to-day existence by some event and projected onto the front page of newspapers before the whole world's eyes. If the function of a monument is too be seen, then here is a record of places permeated with a certain aura, or at least singled out for attention for a certain lapse of time by the media and by our collective memory.

The cycle of images of the same event and the inevitable repetition of images of natural catastrophes structures their classification. In other words, classification records the "general usage" of the structure of an image and, hence, a dictionary. A dictionary is self referential, words refer to other words. Similarly, the images of Un Dictionnaire are defined with respect to one another: one image pushes at the visibility of another.

The colour wash you apply over your photographs forces viewers to look at them very closely.

Forces them to look at the materiality of a photograph. The ephemerity of media images corresponds to the real use of photograph in the twentieth century - flashes of light that illuminate the visible for an instant and then leave us in even deeper darkness than before. I rephotograph these photographs to lend them a certain visibility, then I rework their surface to reposition the surface of these black-and-white photographs in relation to the shadows out of which they rise - I efface them so that they may be seen.

In the recent Parable series, a second overlay pushes the surface of these images further back. The surfaces are covered with oil-based pastels, I then remove certain parts of the colour layers to expose fragments of the underlying photos. The superposition of these layers also pushes at what one sees in relation to what one could ideally see either on or beneath the surface of the initial photograph. The pastel drawings refer both to the fictions that we have worked around our instincts in regard to the events witnessed in the photographs, and to conventions conditioning our visual field - the tropes of Suprematism, for example. Given that many of these photographs depict violent scenes, the Parables assume an odd appearance of indifferent calm that vanishes as soon as you take a second look.

MELVIN CHARNEY, PARABLE SERIES...Clenched Fists, Grease Palms 1993

Pastel à l'huile et acrylique sur épreuve argentique à la gélatine d'une page
d'un journal montée sur carton, 100% chiffon.
121.8 x 238.4 cm.
Photo : courtoisie de la Galerie Sable-Castelli, Toronto.

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