Q&A with Laura Demers about her work in her current exhibition, Unknown Destinations S66: How do we experience the landscape,...
Q&A with Laura Demers about her work in her current exhibition, Unknown Destinations
S66: How do we experience the landscape, in the immediate, fleeting moment?
LD:Unknown Destinations, the title of this exhibit, refers to travelling, to the way we interfere with nature, the way we situate ourselves in relationship to the land, figuratively and literally.
In certain paintings, for example “Where is North from Here”, I am interested in mapping the surface of the earth. It almost seems like the made-up landscape is floating, sitting atop a pedestal, or supported by some sort of structure.
In other works, I want my viewers to look at the land as they would through a window. The scene is blurred, or there is something obstructing the view, some sort of filter.
In some pieces, there is a certain sense of movement, or at least a sense of time, whether it is stopped or accelerated.
What I am interested in, is that even though we often think of landscape and land as a very fixed, permanent, stable thing, it is actually quite fluid and unstable. In fact, in many of my works, the scenes are deconstructed, the horizon line is broken up or non-existent. Sometimes, the absence of solid ground (“Untitled III”, for example) further creates a sense of vertigo or instability.
S66: Tell us about your interest in collage and photography. How does it influence and/or inspire your work?
LD:With this series, I refer to imaginary places we construct in our minds, from memories of places we’ve visited, places we’ve dreamed of, places we’ve captured in photographs, places we think we know.
The author Maarten Jacobs wrote this paper titled “The Production of Mindscapes, a Comprehensive Theory of Landscape Experience” that inspired me to explore the theme of the mindscape and explained it in a way that resonated with me. I liked the idea that social science theories and methods can be used to study humans’ relationships with landscape, nature, and wildlife. Jacobs wrote:
“One can divide reality into three different modes: physical reality, social reality and inner reality. In each of these different modes, landscape appears as a different phenomenon. I will call these three landscape phenomena matter-scape, power-scape and mindscape, respectively.”
“Mindscape is the landscape in inner reality. Inner reality is constituted by consciousness or states of mind; for example, the experience or imagination of a tree and the associations it involves. Inner reality is subjective; it exists in the minds of subjects only. The number of inner realities is exactly the same as the number of conscious subjects in the world, since inner reality is the product of consciousness. Mindscape is the landscape as people experience it and can be very personal in meaning. Mindscape is a system of essentially individual values, judgements, feelings and meanings that are related to the landscape.”
So, to answer the question, I feel that collage and photography is an appropriate way of working with this idea of the fragmented, subjective memory, of a personal experience of landscape.
From a technical point of view, the images I collect come from various sources; they have varied esthetics.. Because of that, the landscapes I create don’t represent a sense of one single place; there is no specific geographical identifier, but are rather an amalgamation of different indefinite locations.
Collage also allows me to manipulate the composition of a painting easily; I use it as a tool, as one would use the preparatory sketch. Sometimes (often) the painting refuses to cooperate… That’s when I turn to collage. Out of magazine cut-outs, photographs, pieces of painted paper, I try and solve the composition, find new colours and motifs to work with.
S66:Your paintings play with abstraction and the intangible in their “representation” of the land. Looking at other emerging artists’ work with abstracting landscapes, we can see: Gabriela Avila-Yiptong, Chelsea Jodoin. Elsewhere, we can see Stanzie Tooth (Hand to Ground, Karsh Masson). This seems to reflect, of course, on the strong history of Canadian landscape painting, but is exciting for the transformation with more gestural, conceptual practice. What is the significance of the “abstracted landscape” in your work?
LD:Yes, when we think of Canadian painting, our mind quickly goes to the Group of Seven and their representation of the uninhabited Canadian land (or at least, what they perceived as uninhabited land). It is true that my paintings are also void of human presence, they are in a sense, empty. But the difference is that I’m not trying to render a particular, real, tangible, undiscovered place, but rather, the way we relate to the land (in our recollections, in photographs, and in the way we experience it and speak about it). I wasn’t interested in painting figures for this particular series, but am looking into ways of incorporating them in my work.
When it comes to the question of stylistic influence, it is kind of undeniable that the University of Ottawa BFA has had a strong influence on the way I paint and what I am interested in, but the same goes for most universities or artistic institutions. Artists, while thriving to create something original, are quick to pick up tricks, tropes, palettes, and visual cues from what surrounds them. In the studios at the University of Ottawa, my colleagues and I often had this conversation. It is completely normal to be influenced by other peoples’ work (especially when you admire their work), it’s a matter of being cautious and conscientious when ‘borrowing’ from other artists. I haven’t yet decided when and where I want to do my MFA, because I feel that I need to take some time to work and paint more by myself, find my personal interests in painting, and do some more experimentation before I’m ready to start another degree.
S66: How do you approach landscapes as an idea/subject when you begin a painting? How does “place become sensation” in your work?
LD:I paint with oil paints almost exclusively. The first step when I start a painting is to mark the canvas. For me, having an idea and putting it directly on the canvas, is almost impossible. So I make it a more instinctual, spontaneous process. I start by simply marking the canvas with colour and gesture. It is quite like the “Blank Page Syndrome” for writers, or “Writers’ Block”; the more you look at the white page before you, the more you resist doing anything to it, for fear of doing something mediocre. So I paint without even thinking or judging. Then I take a step back and often, something emerges: a horizon line, a landscape, some kind of scene that I can start to make appear. And then it’s a matter of adding and removing, or marking and erasing, of abstracting and rendering, etc.
S66: You are also currently being exhibited in Toronto, in “Near, Far & Somewhere In-between” (October 17 - November 22, 2015), curated by Stanzie Tooth. The show looks at “relationships to the land”. What does this mean to you, and how do you explore this broader relationship between a person and the land throughout your work?
LD:The exhibition in Toronto touches on similar subjects as this one:
For one, thinking of the land as a habitat, and the irony in the fact that we continue to destroy it.
Secondly, showing the land under different states (romanticized, destroyed and in turmoil, abstracted, etc.), through different mediums.
Thirdly, interpreting the topic through different lenses. Correct me if I’m wrong, but to me Annie Taylor’s photographic work is a scientific interpretation of nature, through which she analyzes, researches, and deconstructs its elements, from the microscopic to the telescopic. Julia Martin’s photographs are more like diary entries about her surroundings, to which she attaches emotional value. She documents and narrates her immediate environment, and therefore appropriates it. In my case, l am exploring the idea that landscape can be a metaphor for thought, memories, and feelings.
S66: Some have described your style of painting as an “obliterating gestural abstraction.” How do you think this plays out in your work? What do you think may/may not be obliterated? And to what end?
LD: I think that this phrase describes well my process, the way I start a painting, rather than a stylistic choice. I start with marks and colour, which I wipe away and cover up and erase again, until something emerges from the surface of the canvas. Afterwards, it is a matter of obliterating/building, emphasizing certain details/cancelling out others, following the source image/denying it. I tend to gravitate towards abstraction (for now at least), because reproducing an image directly is not that interesting to me (perhaps I haven’t been very successful at it thus far). It is also exciting to let paint be paint. In this series, the abstracted quality of the paintings give them a surreal feel; it serves as a hint that these lands are fictional, fabricated. In many works, some parts of the gestural “underpaintings” were left intact, offering the viewer some insight as to how these paintings came to be.
S66: Now that you have also graduated from the BFA program at the University of Ottawa, what is next for you? What kind of projects do you hope to undertake?
LD: I was quite lucky (and thankful) to be able to participate in exhibitions immediately after graduating from my BFA. Over the course of the summer, I participated in the Fresh Paint/New Construction 2015 exhibition at Art Mur in Montreal, which, like the title suggests, is an exhibition of new works in painting and sculpture. I am also showing some works in Toronto at Lonsdale Gallery.
My short terms goals for the future: keep painting in my studio in Little Italy (Platform Gallery and Studios), perhaps show some work there, while submitting proposals for other artistic projects . I would also love to do an artist residency in the upcoming year. I feel the need for more experimentation and new influences in my practice. I am looking into set design. I have discovered that working with friends and fellow artists towards a production, an experience, is extremely rewarding and thrilling. After putting together a massive exhibition like XXV (the BFA Gradshow at the University of Ottawa) last spring, I feel that working on an artistic project that is not only mine can only push me, reinvigorate my practice, and open new possibilities.
Long terms goals: complete an MFA and specialize in painting.
S66: Finally, do you have any mentors and/or artists you look to for inspiration who have guided your ideas and practice?
LD:Yes. The BFA program at the University of Ottawa brings in great new artists/professors for studio courses every year. I’ve had the chance to work with Jennifer Lefort, Matthew Carver, Martin Golland, Carol Wainio, Dil Hildebrand, and many others. These artists have had an impact on my work and my approach to painting and contemporary art in general, even if our practices or “styles” are different. I’ve also had the chance to have Jessica Bell and Stanzie Tooth as mentors during my undergrad.
With regards to artists I look to for inspiration, there are way too many to list, and I find new artists to admire every day. But for the past year or two, I can say I’ve been in love with Kristine Moran’s narrative abstractions, Dil Hildebrand’s staged scenes, Ryan Sluggett’s collage techniques, and recently, Rosalind Breen’s exploration of materiality in painting.
Thank you, Laura!
Unknown Destinations will be on view at Studio Sixty Six until October 24th.
(Questions prepared by Lital Khaikin and Danuta Sierhuis)