The French born Brooklyn based artist Julien Gardair makes carpets, paper cutouts, paintings, sculptures, video or everything in between. This proclivity for smooth sail between forms in context of specific sites globally paired with his insatiable explorations, make his body of work versatile, whimsical and layered. Julien Gardair shares with Art Spiel his ideas, experiences, and what is behind some of his many projects.
AS: You were born and grew up in France. Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to NYC and to art?
Julien Gardair: I understood art would be my life after reading the writings of Marcel Duchamp at age fifteen. I bounded to the thinking process of La Boite Verte and the poetic playfulness of Rrose Selavy. The artist biographies he wrote in the Societe Anonyme are the starting point to an ongoing curiosity resulting in collecting books and magazines and seeing as many shows and museums collections I could.
I began traveling while in art school. First, London, where I fell in tears in front of Piero della Francesca, then Egypt, where I assisted the artists of the French Pavilion of the Alexandria Biennial. Collaborating with Egyptian craftsmen taught me how things were made. I witnessed that invention can come from manipulation. Slowly, I started trusting my hands. Through experimentation, I found ease in failing and not knowing.
I kept traveling around the Middle East and Europe to discover the wonders of archeology, architecture and art. After the passing of my first art dealer, Jean Fournier, I needed a change from Paris where I was based since art school. I applied to many calls, and got accepted to only two, in New York. What I knew from its art scene came mostly from my Artforum subscription in which I often found comfort.
When people complained about the diversity of my practices I would console myself with the works of Kara Walker or Matthew Ritchie. Stuck in the middle of endless debates between abstraction and figuration, I would remember a discussion between Chris Ofili and Brice Marden in which they were sharing their mutual respect and how they influenced one another. Chance, multiplicity and tolerance brought me to New York City in the fall of 2007.
AS: In one of your interviews from 2015 (Egophobia) you are described as a “globetrotter who does not waste time in one place.” Was that an accurate description at the time and what is your take on it now?
Julien Gardair: Travelling from one project to another, can feel like being “on tour”. Each time, during a few weeks, I immerse myself in the culture, its context and history. I meander, see as many things I can while interacting with locals. Every encounter can become a part of the final realization. But even on a busy year, I spend most of my time at the studio where daily, through cutouts, drawings and paintings I practice awareness and develop the confidence required to improvise the installations on site.
AS: Let’s start with your carpets. One of your carpets is literally under President Macron’s feet at the Elysee Palace – what draws you to carpets and what is the story behind this specific project?
Julien Gardair: When in 2005, the artist Pierre Buraglio invited me to propose a design for a carpet or tapestry for the Mobilier National, I was dreaming of flying carpets. The Mobilier National is in charge of the state furniture collection, result of ongoing artist commissions that started in the seventeenth century. Willing to activate the floor as in an installation, I chose a carpet. I researched rug history and deducted a set of decorative conventions to play with. I designed the carpet at scale, on the floor, by arranging cut papers on a dark fabric. To save a composition, I sprayed bleach, fading the unprotected parts of the fabric. It took four years for a passionate team of three weavers of the Savonnerie manufacture to weave the carpet by hand. The factory was institutionalized under Louis XIV with the mission of ornamenting the entire Grande Galerie of the Louvre (then residency of the king) with ninety three carpets designed by Charles Lebrun.
The carpet was released in 2012 and shown on multiple occasions such as in the Grand Palais in Paris. In November 2017, I discovered in Time magazine that it found its place at the Salon Doré of the Elysée Palace, the French Oval office. As I learned from the research of Wolf Burchard, it was the first time since the end of World War II, that a carpet other than one from the Louvre Grande Galerie lays in this room.
AS: I recently saw your installation work made of carpet at Bric. What can you share about the process of that project from beginning to installation?
Julien Gardair: Whole together, All apart, is part of a series of cutout installations started in 2004. They result into playful immersive installations. Using a scalpel, a soft material is extended and hanged throughout an architecture, in a continuous shape from which nothing is removed. Improvising in space, up and down the scaffolding, with no possibility of correction, requires a specific state of mind. Until now, I always used the material as it comes. Interested in articulating a multiplicity of practices and languages, I looked into printing it this time. But why would I leave it to a machine and the economy of labor when I could make it as a primal experience of my body with the scale?
With the 12×28 ft roll of carpet laid down the floor of the gallery, I started mixing pigments, water and acrylic binder to the color and consistency I previously experimented in the studio. I rolled the colors into a different gradient on each side. After noticing my footprints on the surrounding protective plastic, I instinctively decided they could become the pattern I was looking for. What would these marks, reminding the floor, and evoking cave and Kazuo Shiraga paintings will feel like once suspended in the air? I placed paint footbaths around the carpet, and started jumping and dancing from one end to the other in an hour long private performance. In front of the piece,
Robert Kushner shared with me the story of Kyoto’s bloody temples: In the sixteenth century surrendering soldiers opened their bellies onto the floor of Fushimi castle. Later, the blood-soaked floorboards were incorporated into the ceilings of temples, where head, hands and footprints can still be seen.
AS: It seems that collage is important in your work. This is particularly evident in your painting-cutout series. You include detailed instructions and even a moral: “The production of these objects creates no waste and requires enacting a sort of memory game to recall what it is hidden in between and underneath.” Can you elaborate on that?
Julien Gardair: Even if some of my works look like collages, they usually follow different methods such as in the series of inlay papers presented at BRIC. There, two heterogeneous papers, for example, a photograph and a drawing, are stacked and a shape is cut through the pile. The resulting pieces are swapped and held together on one side with black tape. As the operation is repeated, elements migrate from one sheet to another, building a stream of composite images on one side and their graphic structural counterparts on the other side.
The painting cutouts series extends the system elaborated in the magazine and books cutouts series. Double sided paintings on paper are folded and bind into a booklet. The first page is cut through a continuous line going from the side to the centerfold. While flipping the page, one part stays in place and the other reveals its back and part of the next one. This operation is repeated until the last page. Results a complex symmetrical composition made of fragments of every page of the book. As nothing is removed, one can still retrieve the original content.
The moral and political aspects of these cutouts, reside first and foremost in their frameworks. They show us ways to find freedom and creativity in a delimited pre existing world. By creating without producing any waste, we can find solutions to progress while facing our ecological issues. By keeping every part and show how interdependent they are we also address this very moment and elaborate together a more complex history in which we all have a voice.
AS: Tell me about your video installation in the archaeological museum Henri Prades at Lattara from 2014. That looks like a dream project. You have quite an extensive description of your method in your web, but can you tell me more about your thought process – how the environment of artifacts from the Neolithic period to the Middle Ages informed your thinking?
Julien Gardair: The Camera Locus series, started in 2010, creates immersive experiences that disappear just like dreams when one walks in front of their unique light source. At Lattara, I recorded video clips from the museum collections spanning thousands of years, the surrounding archaeological site, the architecture and history of the building and the surrounding city. I looked for what at present, felt like a reminiscence or a continuation of this rich past. Being by myself for consecutive weeks in these collections allowed a very physical experience and response.
Camera Locus acts as an optic device, a sort of reverse Camera Obscura. I draw on the computer shapes that I project and adjust, until they match each detail of the architecture. Step by step a representation of the room appears on my screen which serves as a playground on which I can play with multiple sequences. Each plan follows its own timeline, so the piece keeps evolving. Interacting with light on real artifacts was an amazing experience that I wish to continue in the future.
AS: And in another intriguing site specific work, Futur Anterieur at La Chapelle Jeanne d’Arc art Center in Thouars, France – you spent there 3 weeks. What can you share about your installation there?
Julien Gardair: La Chapelle Jeanne d’Arc, a former church converted into an art center in the eighties. Upon entering the space, one is welcomed by a forest of 12 figurative standing columns. Around them, lay between the floor and the wall, pieces resembling hide rugs. Behind, the apse ground is filled with sarcophagi. This ensemble is freehand cut out of plywood using a jigsaw. Every part of the divided boards is used and one can find the two sides of each cut dispatched around the space. The standing sculptures serve as lecterns displaying book cutouts made of photographs I shot all around the city.
From the ceiling down to the balcony and all the way to the floor, hangs a yellow felt cutout. The entrance is ornamented with an intricate moucharabieh, made of a continuous freehand line cut into the wall, inviting the activities of the city into the space. In the back of the edifice, is displayed a video altar presenting the only elements I brought with me: sequences of the Spanish Harlem Three Kings parade and parishioners marked on the forehead for Ash Wednesday.
The crypt is transformed into an immersive video installation relating what I have witnessed during my stay. The entrance is ornamented with an intricate moucharabieh, made of a continuous freehand line cut into the wall, inviting the activities of the city into the space. In the back of the edifice, is displayed a video altar presenting the only elements I brought with me: sequences of the Spanish Harlem Three Kings parade and parishioners marked on the forehead for Ash Wednesday. The crypt is transformed into an immersive video installation relating what I have witnessed during my stay.
AS: What can you tell me about your MTA commission?
Julien Gardair: The MTA commission pushes the constraint system and applies it to functional pieces. The project, titled We are each others takes place on two subway stations on the F line and resides in an ensemble of sculptural benches. Each unique piece is inspired by historical and contemporary figures who participated in the creation of the neighborhoods the subway line serves. Linking one bench to another stands a series of whimsical ornamental windscreens. Each bench is made of a single sheet of stainless steel, cut along a single continuous line and folded in order to create two standing figurative sculptures, a bench for two persons and a sitting platform.
AS: You are painting too. Tell me about the genesis behind What’s Cooking in Bushwick?
Julien Gardair: The title is sort of a joke relating to a larger studio space in Bushwick where I have been making big paintings again for about a year. While painting has always been at the core of my practice, the size of my New York studio space has been limiting. Unlike cutouts, all is always possible in painting: anything can be moved, scraped, covered or washed out. It is a unique method to think through the traces left by multiple destructions.
Paintings often start with a simple gesture and no idea in mind, looking for slips and events. I experiment with all kinds of tools, including cutouts in the form of masks and stencils. Step by step, I channel current events through art history, and the formal means of painting. The results are figurative polyphonic solid compositions where every part is equal. They present a kind of heterotopic situation open to multiple interpretations. The aim is to put our mind in motion, inviting us to invent new myths for the future.
AS: You obviously move fluidly between media. How do you see the relationship between all of them in your work and how do you choose it for a project?
Julien Gardair: I look for surprises and ways of thinking I don’t know. To find them, I need to work without expecting any outcome so I can be vigilant to what happens. I find in each technique a different way to learn about the world. Each technical problem leads to a solution that can become an invention. Each material, subject, context or situation brings a set of ideas that leads one’s thoughts. The series are methods I can use to explore a site or a project. As they develop, new ideas emerge that could become the sources of a new series.
AS: I am intrigued by your series Art Stories. You seem to mine there whimsically on art history. How do you see your work in art historical context?
Julien Gardair: I live for art, with art, art makes me discover and travel around the world and through time. I believe all these experiences show through my work. Although I don’t think any preliminary knowledge should be required to experience of work of art. I am sceptical of the authority of art by status. I recognize the richness of the exercised eye but want to make sure to empower every viewer rather than excluding some.
In Art Stories, I use arworks reproductions that I cut in search of unexpected relationships and meanings.
Sometimes I start a drawing or painting from a previous work of art. I believe in cultural evolution but find the idea of progress in art limiting. First, I too often see artworks that contradict it, then it excluded too many artists and practices. I don’t think our mind changed much since the caves. We try to make sense of what we don’t understand, create systems and play against them. Regarding the future and legacy, it is in the hands of the following ones, only them will decide what they relate to, find stimulating or worth conserving depending of how the world will evolve.
AS: You have a wide array of expressions. How do you think your work has evolved so far and where do you see it going from here?
Julien Gardair: The work evolves in different cycles that all exist at the same time. Over time, I discover the consistency and how everything relates. So I prefer to explore any opportunity that comes my way. I hope to continue to discover new materials through collaborations like I did with ceramic, stain glass and metal. I also think the cutout and video installations would be a great asset to opera and dance and hope to collaborate in a closer way than I had the opportunity to so far. I also have a lot of ideas for public art projects that merge with architecture and furniture. I think it is time for these big paintings to see the world. In the studio I built a woodshop in which I started building frames from scratch which brought new ideas. I am also playing with 3D and virtual reality. The possibilities are endless.