Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Arnaud Maggs

It sometimes seems - to me at least - that talented Canadian artists often seem to be hidden under a bushel. But maybe it's because I've only been following the art scene here for 20 years...

It can all be very strangely regional and fragmented. Toronto artists might have no idea what is going on in Montreal. And heaven forbid you live out West. Vancouver artists often seem to have more in common with and communication with artists in Seattle or San Francisco than the rest of Canada, and an artist in Montreal can be lauded in Paris and Berlin and barely heard of in the rest of the country.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I ran into one of those late night art documentaries on one of the numerous education channels (TVO if you want to know - which actually carries some good art docs) about a fabulous photographer and artist Arnaud Maggs.

(Of course, maybe I just don't pay enough attention, he did win the 2006 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts... and yet our city library system, which actually has an excellent art collection, many inherited from the city Art Gallery, has none of his several books)

I only caught the programme about a third of the way in, and I think I must have seen a bit of his work at one time in a magazine somewhere, but I was hooked.

First off Maggs came across as articulate and deeply involved with his work. Full of excitement about it and about continuing to explore things. He also came across as rather delightful and somewhat mischievous. I was equally interested to note that he didn't decide to "become an artist" - a full-time one anyway - until he was 47 and he's in his early 80's now.

The film gave something of an overview of his work while following him around his workshop/studio, at exhibitions and wandering around Paris flea markets - where he seems to get much of his inspiration.

He seems to have started off doing series of grid portraits - almost Becherlike in their quality and typology - of course made at the same time that the Bechers were just beginning to show their work as well in N. America and at Documenta. In fact it's not entirely coincidence that one of his more well known pieces Joseph Beuys: 100 Profile Views, was made in Düsseldorf - Becher ground zero:

"Perhaps in its obsessiveness, Maggs's work has some of the serial qualities of the work done by the Bechers, but theirs is a project which cannot escape its subject. Being mainly industrial, the Bechers's buildings are intimately connected with the specific cultural evidence of economic structure. The subject/object dilemma of photography is unabashedly acknowledged in Maggs's work with the presence of some thing as ostensibly subjective as a face."

One essay describes him as a photo-anthropologist, which seems to fit pretty well: "Arnaud Maggs has been referred to as a kind of photo-anthropologist, using his camera to capture and re-present the past’s forgotten ephemera".

After that he moved on to different things, though usually still loosely tied to types or collections of things. Paris "Hotel" signs - all vertical and thin. And black bordered death notice envelopes - yep - sounds odd - and collected from those flea markets, but quite mesmerising. As were his photographs (and other artifacts) of small colourful tags that came from 19th century child labour in French textile mills, listing piece work completed and the children's names and ages.
And although the documentary was made three or four years ago, Maggs seemed vibrant and full of energy and ready to keep heading off in new directions with new ideas - quite inspiring in fact.

1 comment:

Davin Risk said...

It's true that Arnaud Maggs doesn't get the attention he deserves. I wonder if it's because his work is mixed media and cross genre in many ways? Maggs has alternately been: designer, fashion photographer, 'life drawer', fine art photographer, collector and curator. I think he is difficult for people to place.

Thanks for bringing his work back up for me. I saw the documentary you mention a couple of years ago and I'd like to catch it again.