EXCERPT FROM A GENEVA DIARY (E) / Alex Bacon - 2015
Text published in FloppyPoppyWidy Matters, éd. Clinamen, 2015
I often tell people that I identify primarily as a scholar, even though at the moment my most visible work is in curating and critical writing. This is because my approach to all my projects is one of a cycle of research, presentation, reception, and reflection. When one deals with younger artists, especially today amidst the dearth of critical writing not to mention the confusing and complex vicissitudes of a fickle and fluctuating market which often proposes the only discourse, one often has to seek out the artist him or herself to learn more about the context and stakes of his or her work.
I enjoy the active, on the ground intellectual production that arises when one speaks about these issues with artists. This is not to fetishize the role of the artist as author, or given them precedence or authority over the meaning of the work, but rather to position them, a la Walter Benjamin, as its producer, which is to say, as a very particular, and important to the point of being essential, lens on the work. Besides, I often find, quite delightfully, that the work that is the end result of one person’s labor, intellectual and physical alike, is as open-ended and mysterious to its maker as it is to me.
Earlier this year, when I was traveling in Europe—through Switzerland and Germany—I had the idea to translate some of this experience by keeping a diary of sorts of my encounters with art and artists. Below I am including an excerpt of one of these, an especially fully developed example. This exercise was an attempt to not simply record my ideas and reactions and interpretations, but also to incorporate the context of the conversations I have, both pointedly and in an offhand way, during, before, and after a studio visit, which I think adds another dimension of understanding of the way in which reactions to an artwork are fashioned discursively, and are both subjectively motivated, as well as sometimes arbitrary or contingent, as well as self-consciously analytically driven.
In each case I wrote any notes and thoughts after the studio or exhibition visit. Sometimes directly after, in other cases as much as a week later. In all cases I returned and added and edited my thoughts, and now several months have passed since I first wrote, preferring some kind of synthesis to bring the final piece somewhere between that status of quickly jotted down notes and a fully formed academic essay. Is this middle I’ve maybe landed in journalism ? I’ve never been able to consciously write that way, so I’m not sure.
Yoan Mudry, 02.18.15. 11AM
Geneva is a beautiful, old city, and one with a very interesting recent past as a radical, leftwing hub in the 1980s into the 1990s. It’s hard to see today, however, as it has been relatively cleaned up for years now, such that Europeans I spoke to unanimously described it as “boring.” Even the Genevois apparently go to Lausanne on weekends.
However, several of these same people noted that one of the rare holdovers from this leftist heyday is the Usine building, which was a series of squats in that leftist heyday of the ’80s and ’90s, and over time artists came to occupy the building, making it a model of collective living, turning it into not only studios, but also an exhibition space, and even a cinema. Because of the importance of this artistic community, even while it cleared up many other aspects of the anarchist Geneva, the city bought the building and keeps it as a space for artist studios, awarding them as part of a fellowship package.
Yoan Mudry is one of these artists, currently in the third year of a three year fellowship. He has a small corner of a single large room that he shares with three other artists, who are apparently rarely there. It is a fitting location for his studio since, as he tells me over a coffee with a view from the studio onto the Rhône as it flows into Lake Geneva, until recently he was deliberately homeless. Moving from squat to squat. Gesturing at his dreadlocks and ragged black clothing, a skateboard in a nearby corner, Yoan insists on his punk origins. For him these extend beyond taste in music and clothes, to a general anarchist politics and a productively conflicted approach to artistic production.
The night prior, at the dinner following the painter Stephen Felton’s opening at MAMCO, a gallerist who had just visited Yoan’s studio told me that he didn’t like to be called a painter. More accurately Yoan is anxious to not be perceived as only a painter, a range of mediums being central to his practice. Accordingly, Yoan structured the visit by taking me through his portfolio in a careful, guided manner, making sure I understood the larger context of each piece, both personally and conceptually.
Another thing Yoan insists on is his age. Born in 1990, he is currently 24. There is a lot of discussion of “young” artists these days, and about the art world’s fetishizing of them. No doubt this is true, and yet it seems quite natural to me that an artist only in their twenties might begin to arrive at making really serious work. Frank Stella showed his infamous black paintings at MoMA when he was 23. Egon Schiele had an entire career before he died prematurely at 27. Speaking of artists, many of whom are in their late twenties and early thirties, as if they were not yet mature seems misplaced to me. Much more interesting than this, in the context of discussing the approach to imagery used by 27-year-old Jamian Juliano-Villani, Yoan insists that even the few years that separate them are highly meaningful. For him, at the moment those years are the difference between truly knowing nothing other than a networked, digital existence, and having a vague, childhood glimmer of an analogue time that preceded it. Much has been made of the post-internet moment we supposedly currently live in. And it is true that most of us, in the middle class industrialized West at least, don’t ever really disconnect. However, it is this context and background that is highly meaningful for Yoan. He claims to lack it entirely. The networked condition is all he’s ever known.
I think this is one key to why (among other thing) he paints, which we would think would be the least likely form of expression for someone with his radical, punk background. Yoan mentions, half-jokingly, a comment made by one of his teachers, that his work looks better online than in person. Meaning in terms of our expectations of technical skill, I suppose. But I happen to like the way that the felt pieces Yoan unwraps somehow breakdown into a curious collage from the seamless image they form in reproduction.
That Yoan is aware of this is made especially clear later, when we talk about the group show he is curating for his gallery in Basel, Nicolas Krupp. He describes one of the artists included as a “bad painter,” and, when he shows me images online, I see what he means. The marks and images are deliberately naïve and overwrought. Work that deliberately takes on what, in another time we might describe as folk, self-aught, or outsider art. But which today is firmly established in the range of aesthetic possibilities open to artists working in the artistic mainstream.
Towards the end, Yoan shows me his latest works, two paintings which incorporate strident political statements, layered over the kinds of palimpsests of various juxtaposed imagery. He is unsure if they are successful, given the politics they wear on their sleeve. Something he has deliberately avoided in the past, despite his personal positions. But I find them curious, the way that they are both forcefully assertive, but without seeming to lay ownership to the words. They place them in question, not so as to undermine them, but so as to make us question where they are coming from, and to what ends they might be utilized. In tension as they are with commercial and other found imagery. They question the usefulness of political statements, I imagine, so as to make us think seriously about where political efficacy might lie.
After saying goodbye, I exit the graffitied walls of the Usine and step into the streets of Geneva, quickly finding the tenor of architecture shift, quietly but sharply, to clean stone walls bearing the brass plaques of this or that investment firm or private bank. It seems a highly fitting environment for Yoan to have made such work in; the line between politics, aesthetics and their cooption and neutralization razor thin and blurred to the point where the distinction is almost irrelevant. As I wandered back to my hotel through the winding streets I wondered whether these are now truly opposed parts of the urban environment, or merely sometimes uncomfortable, but inevitable bedfellows in today’s globalized city, linked together through a logic of both capital and culture’s holdouts within it, never truly outside but nonetheless struggling and resistant to the numbing logics of this fate.
Alex Bacon, 2015