Friday, August 06, 2004

Michel Hellman gets interviewed


Michel Hellman is one of two Visual Art Critics for Le Devoir. Most newspapers don't even have one on staff - I think this reflects very favorably on Le Devoir, unfortunately they don't subscribe to the idea that articles about Visual Art should be available to everybody, so being able to read everything that M. Hellman writes for them while on line is sketchy at best.

I first met him when he walked into the gallery to introduce himself, I had just written a response to his review of the Dominique Blain exhibit at the Musee d'Art Contemporain, I gave him a copy and we were off to the races. Last week I asked him if I could interview him for the blog, and he graciously said "yes."

Chris: How did you end up being the art critic for Le Devoir?

Michel: Luck, persistence, Bernard Lamarche was looking for someone to replace him while he was curating his show in Quebec City. He was interviewing my brother, who is musician, and they ended up talking about that and my brother mentioned that I was doing a masters in art history in Canadian art and that I knew about the Montreal art scene so Bernard asked me to send in my CV and some sample articles which I did. I ended up calling them to see if they had read my articles and finally they decided to take me on a trial basis and hired me for 6 months.

Chris: How long was the try out period?

Michel: It was one article; they accepted it and I took the position full time for 6 months.

Chris: Do you know if there were other people involved in the process?

Michel: I didn't ask, but I think there were, yeah cause it took a long time between when I heard about the opening and actually getting a response.

Chris: From what you expected to now, how do you see it?

Michel: it's a lot harder than I thought it would be.

Chris: How so?

Michel: Well you know it is one thing to look at shows while being interested in art and just going browsing through the galleries and another thing actually having to find enough material to write a coherent article in a certain amount of words.

Chris: What sort of material do you find difficult to get?

Michel: Just knowing what the artist is trying to say, while at the same time trying to make it interesting for whoever is reading the paper.

Chris: Do you have this specific idea in your mind of a generic Le Devoir reader?

Michel: At first they told me I should try to be a little more specialized. Because I thought writing in Le Devoir was going to reach people who were somewhat interested in art in a general way, and an article doesn't have that much time to really go into details. So I tried to write things like "what's interesting to see on the weekend," and my editors said that I should be more critical. Because the readers of Le Devoir are people who really have a passion for Art and they go to see exhibitions as well as reading someone really dissecting the show. So I now try to do both. I think that it's better to see an exhibition than to just write about it. To answer a question that you didn't ask, I was initially disappointed because I thought that there was a lot of bullshit in the art world and felt sometimes that I was having to write an article just to fill space. And I really hated just filling space. It wasn't terrible but it just wasn't that interesting.

Chris: How much of the stuff you write is what you want to write about versus what you are directed towards writing?

Michel: I have a lot of freedom at Le Devoir, which is good. Most of the time I choose what I want to write about. Where it gets difficult is on the weeks when there is just nothing that inspiring to write about. Some writers really like engaging themselves in young emerging artists and the "art scene", I like doing research and writing about things that are more organized… that's why I like writing about the museum exhibitions.

Chris: Do you ever bank shows and say this is an exhibition that I will save for the week that there is nothing happening or is it always one is written then on to the next one?

Michel: No. But, that's the way it should be.

Chris: What is it then specifically with a generic exhibition that would make it easier for you to review, assuming the quality of the art is up to par?

Michel: A theme. I told you I like figurative art. I like cartoon art. But, if there was some kind of theme behind it then it would give me a way to approach it, an easier way. Because if I was write a review about this exhibit that you have up here I would write about the artist, biographical things, but there's only so much that you can write about when the artist doesn't have a history. Three pages is pretty long for an article. If it were a show with a theme about people using cartoons, or something like that, then it would be a lot easier to write an article about it.

Chris: Okay, then working on that line, what are the things that would make it almost impossible for you to write a review? Assuming the art is good.

Michel: Abstract art, it could be good art, an artist can be completely sincere about doing it, but if they are just putting abstract paintings that aren't really related in some way in a gallery, then what do you write about? Oh this is nice, but why? And it's all very subjective.

Chris: I find that interesting, given that most of the big names in Quebecois art are abstract painters.

Michel: Yeah but they all go in a historical framework. Now everything's so fragmented.

Chris: I'm not certain I agree. To me, it is the difference between having a historical perspective, and not having that perspective. Back in the 70's, back in the 60's, back in the 50's I have a sense that it was just as fragmented and as diverse as it is now. It's just that whatever sort of rises to the top through history, whatever survives...

Michel: But the artists then were making a statement in the 70's by doing abstraction. Now it's more of a question of why are they doing abstract art? Is it because that is the easiest way for the artist to express themselves? If so, that's not really much of a statement. Take the last abstract show we saw together, at UQAM; by putting 3 abstract artists together, it became interesting because of the dialogue between things, if it had been just one artist, that would have been really hard to write about unless it had been Francoise Sullivan, because she is such a major influence and has such a tremendous history.

Chris: To me, art exhibitions are taking what you can get out of them. It's the job of the gallery or the curator, to say to the reviewer "okay, you want a thematically unified set of work?" Give me 5 minutes and I can link these paintings here in a very linear fashion.

Michel: Yeah but it has to be coherent. I've read a lot of artist's statements...

Chris: But it's not the artist statement that is linking the paintings in an exhibition. It's me as a curator coming in and imposing some coherence, or unity. The thing with the show at UQAM - you're saying that you saw a dialogue between different works. I'm seeing the same thing as an imposed debate that Louise Dery scripted. She said "this is what I want the paintings to say." You're seeing a dialogue and I'm seeing a script.

Michel: But that's the thing that is supposed to be criticized, how is she putting these works in a dialogue and do I agree with that or not, and I didn't totally agree with her. How she put them together, but I thought that it was pretty interesting the artists that she put together. I'm not talking about what I like, I'm talking about what's... Art Mur, for example, they show young artists with more established artists; they group them as a themed show. Many artists often disagree with how they organize them, but it's very interesting.

Chris: But what about Eaux vives? They set it up like it was a theme show, and I'm certain that there is stuff in there that works within that context. But with a theme you end up saying "no, this one has sand so it shouldn't be in the exhibit." But the curator can come back and say "yeah, sand is on the beach, the beach has an ocean, therefore you get the water and then you get..." I find that very interesting that with Visual Art is assumed that there needs to be some person filtering beforehand.

Michel: Well that's your view. In your gallery, you leave a lot more freedom for the artist, which is good. It makes it an interesting gallery to visit, but I think that it's one of the reasons why you don't get reviews, not because people think its bad art, but because it's not really organized in a way to make the art approachable for reviewers.

Chris: Well, there definitely is no filter. You're coming in, my basic take is that I want the art here to be as immediate as a hit song on the radio.

Michel: Well your position is important, because you're giving a loud voice to these artists who would otherwise have to go through a very annoying call for submissions from all of these other galleries which often makes it impossible for them to get their art seen. Here they have as much space to express themselves, as they should. Getting back to Le Devoir, because it is a newspaper I know a lot of people are going to read what I write. It's not like writing for Parachute or something. Take the Roberto Dutesco article I wrote, I'm like, fine it's not Durer, but I can see why it's interesting, it's on McGill College, people are going to see it, that deserves to be written about, too.

Chris: You're doing your masters, what you're doing your thesis on?

Michel: Identity and politics in 1970's Quebec art, in the setting.

Chris: How much is done, how much longer do you thing it's going to take?

Michel: Another semester. An interesting thesis was written by Louise Vigneault on identity and politics in Quebec art in the 60's, 50's. She was writing about Le refus global, I'm just going to go over that and talk about what was happening in the 70's with conceptual art, video art, feminism, stuff like that, fragmentation.

Chris: How did you end up choosing that?

Michel: Oh it's related to how I feel about Quebec society. I'm Quebecois, but my father is American and my mother is from France and I feel totally Quebecois yet I don't have roots as a Pur Laine so there this question of identity ...and also I like doing art myself, a lot of my art is based on the question of landscape and identity.

Chris: And you chose the 70's because...

Michel: Everything culturally was moving, there were new technologies. Canada as a whole was developing a sense of self-affirmation, not just in Quebec. The Quebec separatist movement was growing, but in Canada a lot of the artists were also being very nationalistic in their works, fighting against the American influence... so on both sides there is a subject... nowadays people don't really talk about it. Artists today... and people today, art is still important but the political side isn't that obvious anymore.

Chris: But if you think in terms of the non-institutionalized art. Go to cafes and bars and you'll still see political art that is nationalistic and overtly so. The public tone of nationalism has changed greatly over the past 15 - 20 years and it makes sense that the institutions would follow the public perception of nationalism.

Michel: It's also the question of whether a nation should have a specific art or does that concept come from places like the Canada Council? The Conseil des Arts et Lettres du Québec? What they were subsidizing in the 70's, what they were trying to get as an image, and what the artists themselves wanted to say and where the people like me actually fit in.

Chris: In my mind it's both the Conseil des Arts et Lettres du Québec and the Canada Council. They have a good idea, but I don't think that they don't have enough of a vision right now, to do significant stuff and also, given how long they have been in existence, my asking them to have a vision might be completely and utterly out of line.

Michel: Well they did a lot of good stuff.

Chris: Yes I agree with you, but it is still a situation where they are funding specific projects as opposed to having a longer-term vision. Sort of like when viewing things as an adolescent you are focusing on the here and now, and when you're older you can take a step back and say how is this going to affect me in the future? It's the same thing with Canada Council and Conseil des Arts et Lettres du Québec, they think let's fund artists, instead of having a specific idea of how to put Canadian art, Quebec art or - with the city - Montreal art on the map. To me that would be a much better thing to do now, the artists they fund are somewhat established now, and to take it to the next step would be extremely helpful.

Michel: Do you disagree with the subsidization of something like ATSA show on here on Blvd. St Laurent?

Chris: Yes, because of the way that they subsidized ATSA, and what the result was.

Michel: It's not bad but... I think Roadsworth is better.

Chris: In theory I like the idea, knowing what ATSA did with "Murs du feu" and then seeing how FRAG ended up, basically a bunch of posters, it misses something. There are certain posters that are better; the one on Pine Ave. where they have three pictures that were taken in the same exact place 50 years apart.

Michel: They should have done just that. That would have been interesting.

Chris: But you have to consider the historical aspect, If the pictures don't exist, how are you going to do that?

Michel: But there was that big show about Blvd. Saint Laurent at Pointe-a-Calliere.

Chris: FRAG is designed for tourists and if ATSA were to come up with pamphlets for walking tours, you could look at the posters and because they are in front of businesses, the tourists would then go into the businesses, they then buy something there, everybody goes home happy.

Michel: It's easy to criticize everything too, these are people who are doing something for the city.

Chris: Moving on. Since you've been an art critic, what's the best show you've seen?

Michel: That's a hard question, I really liked the one that was on at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery this past spring. It was an exhibition on Jack Beder, I had never heard about him before. Montreal in the 30's and that was really interesting cause it was historical and it made me discover something. I guess I like historical stuff. With regards to newer art… let me think it over.

Chris: What was the best show you haven't reviewed?

Michel: The best show that I didn't review, was in 2002 at UQAM, daprèsledépeupleur/afterthelostones. Artists responding to Samuel Beckett. Guy Pellerin, Jana Sterbak, Smith/Stewart and David Tomas. They responded in different ways, it was very elegant and all the works were very interesting. I was talking to Bernard Lamarche about it and he remembered it as well, so yeah, I'm addicted to themes. It was an interesting theme, which was smart at the same time. I don't like themes that are too simplistic, like sculptures by women, it could be interesting historically but more likely, you just go see the show and nothing comes out of it. daprèsledépeupleur/afterthelostones made you think a little bit and read a little bit, it was very well done. I like the UQAM gallery, they often have good stuff. I think the big disappointment is all the shows I saw at the Musee d'Art Contemporain since I've been a critic. I think that they have all been pretty bad. Even their permanent collection, they were showing their collection of Montreal artists and the Musee des Beaux Arts, has a lot better collection and most of the shows I've seen at the Musee des Beaux Arts were very good, I think Stephan Aquin does a really good job as curator of contemporary art. Have you seen their permanent exhibit? The new collection of contemporary art they have? It's a really good collection of stuff. The worst show, by far was XXXXX XXXXXXX.

Chris: Since you brought it up, what makes it the worst show that you've seen?

Michel: I thought that it was so simplistic, I was still trying to find my style, and I was still a little shy. But I should have realized that the position that I have is to really, without being mean, because aesthetically they were very appealing pieces which probably makes a difference too. I thought it was really bad art, terrible art, too simplistic. I thought the pieces were good design, a designer knows how to make things appealing for the eye, but this was just simplistic and pretentious.

Chris: How would you assign blame? Would you say that the museum screwed up by choosing to do that show? That the curators screwed up by choosing the wrong pieces? That XXXXX XXXXXXX screwed up by for being too design oriented?

Michel: I don't think that XXXXX XXXXXXX has a place in a museum, wherever else they can find it is fine, I mean the public liked it, maybe their place is there. I just think that the Musee d'Art Contemporain should have some sort of standard that they should respect; they should pay more attention to what is being done elsewhere in the contemporary art world and kind of follow that. But don't write this in your blog, I don't want anyone to... There is no need for anybody to get hurt.

Chris: I'll edit it and then I'll email you before it gets posted. It is a sort of thing, that from my perspective, - ignoring that it is a specific exhibit done by individuals - and trying to analyze why was it so bad? What can be done better the next time? Is it the curator? The museum? If I were to answer, I would say that it is the museum's lack of vision.

Michel: I think that it is subjective, the question is very subjective so there's no real answer to that, I didn't like the art that was shown, personally.

Chris: You're subjective, I'm not asking you for objectivity.

Michel: I don't think that in my job that I should be as subjective as a film critic though.

Chris: How can you be objective?

Michel: You put it in a perspective of how it can be interesting to other people, and make it interesting to someone who doesn't have the time to get there.

Chris: Yeah but there are going to be some people who like Celine Dion, and they probably like Les Bougons, at which point you're going to be writing about stuff that is so completely not related to any of them that to try and dumb it down is just not going to work. To try and raise their appreciation up is not likely to work either, it's like the blog, I write for myself and just say "okay this is it, if you like what I write then great, if you don't, no one is holding a gun to your head to read it."

Michel: Yeah that's true.

Chris: I'm not going to write for Joe Public cause I recognize that Joe Public doesn't give a shit about that.

Michel: I don't want to have the pretension, because I'm an art critic, of deciding what is good and what is bad.

Chris: I think by the very nature of the job title, it is imposed upon you, which is why I would love to see more slams in the paper. It is the sort of thing where you can't say anything bad. I have to read between the lines. Who isn't getting reviewed? And then assume that that exhibit isn't any good. But then I take a step back and realize that there is way too much art being exhibited here in Montréal to review. I'd love to see significant exhibitions being called bad, when they are. Anybody who truly believes in their art could use it as an opportunity to sit down and discuss with the writer what sucks and why? Then either the writer understands the reason for creating the art. Or conversely if the artist was sincerely open to criticism the artist could say "Yes, those are valid points that I hadn't thought about previously." But back to business. Logistically, how do you set up your work week?

Michel: I usually go and see the shows Friday and Saturday. Decide what I'm going to write about and start my writing. Do my research, which takes about a day, and then I write for about a day or two.

Chris: So you send it off the following Tuesday, Wednesday?

Michel: Exactly and then I go through the mail and start the whole thing over again.

Chris: Are there any questions you want me to ask?

Michel: No but I was thinking about the best show, the one at UQAM, that was an interesting show. But the best show? What surprises me is everything coming out of Rene Blouin, it's not too original, but he is the most professional gallery owner in town and he has a really good eye. I've rarely been disappointed from what I've seen at his place. And also the Joyce Yahouda Gallery, she really shows artists in an interesting way. Those two galleries are the best.

Chris: I like Articule and Circa, as far as the artist run centers, they are the two that I think stand out the most, unfortunately I don't get out to Clark that often enough.

Michel: Dazibao and the other galleries at 4001 Berri do interesting shows, Point and Shoot was disappointing, but the idea behind it is very good.

Chris: What are your goals for the future?

Michel: I want to try to do art myself. That's one of the goals I don't want to be a full time art critic, well maybe, we'll see what happens, but I like keeping it part time and keeping my options open.

Chris: So you prefer to be an artist as opposed to…

Michel: Artist, Art illustrator, I like working with my hands, not just writing about other people.

Chris: I think that we can wrap this up, thank you very much for your time, it was both enlightening and enjoyable.

Michel: You're welcome.

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