November 21, 2007
ArtSlant writer, Hong-An Truong, had a great conversation with Marc Séguin about his experiences in the art world and his show at envoy gallery, which is on view from November 21, 2007 through January 12, 2008.
Hong-An Truong: Can you tell me a little bit about your background, where you were raised, where you went to school?
Marc Séguin: I went to school at Concordia, in Montreal, undergraduate. I tried a graduate program but I dropped out.
HAT: Really? What was the experience like?
MS: It was another university in Canada that I tried. I just felt that I would learn more by working and trying to exhibit and present my work over here. I found I was getting more feedback from people looking at it rather than professors or teachers.
HAT: Did you invite people to your studio or did you just start having shows?
MS: I started having shows very young so very rapidly I was exposed to official criticism or people reading my work. So that I think helped a lot. I knew right away. What I like about the American system is that once you get on the professional level you’ll know very fast whether you can stay on or not. And that’s not the same in some other countries that are more left wing like Canada or Scandaniavian countries or France or maybe even Germany where there are a lot more government subsidies or grants to make you last much longer than perhaps you’re worth. But this is my choice now to do this. I love looking at art. I think art by itself cannot sustain itself. It needs to be subsidized with artist grants and things like that. I am learning more now than I ever did back then in graduate school.
HAT: How do you feel about the business of art in general, especially because you started to exhibit widely early on?
MS: Well if you’re aware of the rules, then it’s up to you to decide whether you want to play or not. They are the rules. That’s how it works. Let’s call it what it is. It’s networking. That’s what you’ll find [as an artist] for the rest of your life, probably for years, that the people you went to school with are going to be going at the same speed as you are, and so they are your peers, your friends, artists of the same generation, looking the same direction. They are going to be there. So that’s why I think that school is good. That’s where it’s efficient – in building and measuring yourself against other people your own age and your own generation.
HAT: So because grad school becomes a networking tool, do you feel like the learning process is eclipsed?
MS: You know what? I’ll say yes. You’re lucky if in your undergraduate studies you find one or two great teachers. It’s a raffle. It’s a winning lottery. Because being a successful artist doesn’t mean that you’ll be a good teacher and being a good teacher doesn’t mean that you’ll be a successful artist. Good teachers are very rare.
HAT: Did you have some good teachers at Concordia?
MS: I think I did. One or two or three. And some that I forgot. I don’t even remember their names! But some who were mesmerizing in their teaching. They were way ahead of me and understood where I was, and just directed me, very gently or subtly in the right direction. Right now I think it has become much more of a professional way of networking and again it just goes back to, do you know the rules? These are the rules right now. Nobody gets by right now if they don’t go to school, I think. More and more it’s like that.
HAT: It’s interesting though because your work has been very focused from early on. So it does seem like you came out of school with a strong vision for your work.
MS: Yes but I dropped out!
HAT: Yeah! But at the time it was possible to drop out and be a working artist. Do you think that’s possible now?
MS: Do you remember in New York a few years ago when all the big galleries in Chelsea would go for the undergrads? And it was so wrong! Because they all disappeared. They’re not there anymore. Everyone lost. The galleries lost, not just in terms of money. They destroyed careers. Those people could be blooming right now. Making art is a serious thing. If you’re going to be good, it’s not over five years, it’s over thirty or forty years of developing your thoughts and what you have to say.
HAT: What was it like growing up in Montreal?
MS: It was very safe. Very comfortable. Too much. Too comfortable.
HAT: Define safe.
MS: Not putting yourself at risk or on the edge enough. Not security wise or bodily harm, but safe in terms of being an artist and not questioning yourself. You could become comfortable very fast. And eventually become boring.
HAT: So there a lot of boring artists coming out of Montreal now?
MS: I don’t know if I should say this! I think in every closed circuit system, there are lots of boring people because they don’t know what’s happening across borders, they don’t know what’s going on other places. They think that they are geniuses and have something new to say when it’s been done ten years before. Or it’s been said and dealt with years before.
HAT: How did you not become boring?
MS: It’s something that happens without me knowing it. I have a chip somewhere that says, don’t go there, don’t go there. I just listen to it. It’s an instinct. I think I should have been buried years ago! But I’m not because of that chip. I don’t know what it is or what it comes from but it’s there and I acknowledge it, whenever I have an urge to do something or move or go to another country. I think it’s built into some people. You’re an artist. You know that you want to talk to people of your generation about the times that you are living in. You have something to say; you’re open to that. And if you’re lucky and special you have something to say for thirty or thirty-five years. So there’s this need or longing to leave a trace of how life is at that period of time.
HAT: Do you have that impulse then to be inquisitive, to question what everyone else is doing?
MS: Yes. And you know I would like to be proud of that. But I’m not. I would like to say, well yeah I have merit and I deserve it because it’s something that I think of, but I don’t. Do you understand? It’s something built in. It’s like if I make forty paintings and they’ve all sold, I don’t want to do them anymore. There’s something that I’m running away from when it becomes obvious or easy. That’s not something I’m responsible for. It’s in my personality and I can’t take credit for that.
HAT: Something within you constantly challenging yourself?
MS: Yes yes yes. I don’t want to sound cheesy and say, yeah, I want a lot and reach for things and expect a lot. I don’t want to sound that intelligent. Because I’m not. It’s just how I do it. Whenever I’m tired of something I do something else and if it’s even more difficult then I can bring it to another level and talk about something else.
HAT: Do you work from an intuitive place or from a specific communication method or message?
MS: The initial spark is intuitive, instinctive. Something I feel; something that I sense is there. Then the thought process comes out. And so I say, ok, how can I exploit this or be intelligent or make some sense out of this thing that triggers me? That comes after. It has to be intuitive first, in order to trigger that density of thought that comes after. We’re not in the 50’s anymore where you could be romantic and say oh it’s just my expression, and I can just vomit on some canvas and say it’s brilliant. It’s not that anymore. There has to be some thought process. But the initial thing is intuitive. And intuition is a very intelligent instinct.
HAT: Are you drawing from certain experiences growing up?
MS: Yes, growing up. Definitely. It’s me. I think you can feel very rapidly when something is off track. For me when I produce work, if you want to look like someone else I think that then it would be less sincere, and I would feel it in the work. If you are talking about your flaws and desires then it becomes a sincere work of art. Then it becomes interesting, whether it’s your childhood memories or whatever. It is your art, where you’re standing politically, morally, philosophically. All of this is what makes you interesting and personal. And if you’re trying to be intelligent sounding like Dostoyevsky and it’s not you, then people are going to feel it. Of course it has to be you. I think that’s the toughest part of being an artist. It’s finding that inner voice.
HAT: I get a sense of your own place in the work as being in transition, looking back at youth but also being a young person, a young artist – do you feel like you are working from that place?
MS: It comes back to the fact that I wouldn’t be honest if I was talking about someone else or making work about someone else right now, than what I feel and what I experience. When I go to London, if I wear a hoodie, I am a criminal. And this bothers me. There’s something there. I’m not articulate enough to say what it is specifically but I feel discomfort being a target. And it’s a whole generation of people. I have been wearing a hoodie since I was twelve years old. It’s something from the 80’s. It’s what people did then. It was called a kangaroo, it was a normal thing to wear. So that bothers me. So I’m working from an agenda, from a personal agenda.
HAT: I was struck by the allusions to Romantic portraiture and painting in your work. I was thinking of the Birth of Venus [1863, Alexander Cabanel]…I think it’s interesting to couple your subject matter of youth culture with these Romantic references because those paintings were about the sublime. And today, there’s a postmodern sublime that is often characterized by irony, which you seem to struggle against – thoughts?
MS: Yes, you’re right. I think (my work) is not cynical at all. It’s not ironic. I think it’s dealing with historical or Classical portraiture, and the grandiose feeling that it brought, being really a snapshot of the era. We had portraits of kings because we worshipped kings. But that’s very symptomatic of the period. Now I am not a king, and I’m painting these guys who are in despair or longing for something. And you know what? I like the fact that it’s romantic. I like it a lot. And I’ll defend that. I’ll stand by that. It’s not cynical and it’s not ironic, or saying something is wrong and I’m laughing at that. It’s historically inscribed. I like historical painting for what it bears or its meaning. When you go to museums and you go to the Louvre or to Washington and you see these extraordinary works, you can get lost. You forget that it’s a painting, that it’s a medium, you forget that the artist wants to instruct. You just look at it and you get lost.
HAT: In that sense, it is hopeful. The Romantics were interested in working from an emotional place; you are still using emotion as the basis for an aesthetic experience. But rather than point to some lofty ideal of the body, the bodies are literally elevated, but they are malcontented, subversive. It seems as though you interested in creating an emotional response from the viewer.
MS: Yes. I like listening to you! Yes, you’re right. I want people to have an emotional response. I don’t want it to just be theoretical or something that’s thought of. It has to be something that people can bounce from, and say, hey, there’s something there that is moving me aside from something that’s thought or something that was written saying it’s good or bad art. I want every single individual viewer to be taken somewhere somehow. I think that art should be an emotional experience everywhere, but unfortunately it has become this ironic cynical thing. If there’s one thing I would like to remember from this conversation is that my work is an anti-ironic position, an anti-cynical stand.
HAT: So what is your relationship to paint?
MS: The only way I understand it is that the paint comes in like a lightning strike. I have a lot of respect for that medium. I’m color-blind, so I’ve never been very comfortable with colors. I’m not a good colorist. So that’s why I do more black and white, relying on charcoal drawings. But you know the paint changes everything. The slightest little dot or spot can transform the whole painting, the whole surface into something else. I like to have the biggest effect with the smallest means, using just a little thing. Just like one word that can change an entire room, like in a theater piece or for example Michael Moore’s speech at the Oscar’s. He says two or three words and you understand that there’s something very serious happening. I think I use paint the same way, as a punctuation of something tough to say, and then again paying tribute to it.
HAT: A very careful mark of the paint, a kind of reverence for the paint in some ways?
MS: Yes, it’s some sort of ritual. Like in Calligraphy, waiting for the right moment for that splash or mark. But that’s fairly recent. I think a few years ago I was treating the paint more graffiti oriented, and then it became more like Calligraphy.
HAT: I’m interested in how you see your work in a political and spiritual context. I feel like your work is asking how can one be dissident these days?
MS: Exactly. That is what it’s asking. Are there any dissidents left? Is Michael Moore a dissident because he doesn’t agree with the politics of this country? Or if I go and say I’m not a believer or don’t believe in God or don’t have faith is that making me a dissident? There are so many taboos that have been destroyed - there are no taboos left, really. It’s a big discomfort that everyone has to deal with. Where do we stand? There’s this need to say I’m against this or I’m for this. So food became part of it. I’m not going to eat meat and I’m going to become a vegetarian and use biodiesel, and we transfer it somewhere else. What about human rights? No one believes in human rights anymore. Human rights are the most cynical subject matter of the past decade. It doesn’t exist anymore. Yes, so of course the work questions all of that. Andrei Sakharov was the last dissident that probably this civilization ever encountered.
HAT: You portray all young people in the paintings. And our culture looks to young people to be the dissidents. But what options are there? The image of the girl throwing up the Chinese Communist flag, we consume it now, it’s chic socialism or Communism. I’m thinking of the commodification of Che’s image.
MS: I don’t know where I stand. I don’t know if young people should go out and fight. The occidental civilization has been afraid of China for over fifty years, since the French existentialists, André Malraux wrote about it in La Condition humaine, about this fear of China. Where are we standing now? I don’t see any progress anywhere. It’s what is going on now. So we are afraid of China as if we have stage fright. It’s not real. There’s nothing happening there.
HAT: There seems to be tension in your work between youth culture, art making, and consumer culture…
MS: I think that art became a commodity. I go to these art fairs and I see these worthless objects, aesthetically worthless. They are being sold and bought for huge amounts by people who don’t know about art. Art has a duty to speak about the era that it’s produced in. It has to be a witness of the present times, and it’s not. We’re running away from that.
HAT: But you’re embedded in that, right in the thick of the business of art production and mindless consumption. Is it an uncomfortable place to be?
MS: Yes, it’s razor wire. But you know what? I can find balance there. I know where to stand. Instead of saying no I’m not going to go there. Instead of being cynical and saying no no no it’s a lost cause. I’d rather try it and try to walk that razor wire.
HAT: Because change can still happen on those margins?.
MS: Yes, and I think if you keep a certain pace, they can follow you, and say, ok, this is where we’re going and this is what we’re saying, and this is what we’re questioning or talking about. I’ve got lots of people reflecting or writing emails asking me, ok, what is this about? So people are bouncing back. And that’s where I feel it’s good to be out there. But this has become very unusual in the past decade about art, where it’s something that’s given, and we look at it and we worship it if it’s working visually. Which in my sense is stupid. My mind gets into these figures, but my work is always going to be outside of me. I made it for a certain reason, not for it to reach 10 million dollars.
HAT: So in some ways you have to be disconnected in order to move forward.
MS: Completely. I have to be dyslexic when it comes to understanding how the art world works.
HAT: Do you think being an artist is a difficult life?
MS: Being a successful artist is a very difficult life. I don’t consider myself a successful artist, but I think that if it comes to a level where there’s huge amounts of money, like way above survival, I think then you have to start asking yourself some serious questions. Where am I going and why am I doing it? If I criticize the system am I still doing it? Am I making it worse?
HAT: You’re in a delicate place, in terms of your career and your relationship to the art world?
MS: It’s a very weird place. But I wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s where I feel comfortable, in these weird awkward spaces. I’m not worried, like am I going to get a show at MOMA or am I going to become a good painter in my studio. And either way it’s fine. The questioning is fun.
HAT: Is that why you like to move around so much?
MS: Yes! And you know what? I think I run away from stuff, maybe from an image, from myself. But I think that running away from yourself is a way of staying alive, staying critical and intelligent. I find lots of comfort in running away.
HAT: Literally or figuratively?
HAT: You think your paintings do that for you?
MS: Yes. I haven’t worked long enough to reflect, to have the perspective to look back and say, well I did this and I did that. But I have the sure feeling that I will look back at some point, when I’m 80, and say, I did this then. And I know it will be a comforting thing to know that I was alive then, doing these things, and not just sitting and asking questions to myself and being angry at society and the present state of things. I just have to turn on the TV to find stupidity to get angry. And if I didn’t have these paintings there would be lots of steam coming out some other way.
HAT: It seems like you’re a thinking person, self-reflective, emotional, and your life is difficult no matter what you’re doing because you have to be uncomfortable with the world.
MS: Totally. I don’t think there’s a single day that a serious artist doesn’t ask herself or himself, why am I doing this? I’m not a doctor. I don’t have to go and save lives and get immediate retribution or get a paycheck every two weeks. There’s a trick there – you can be numb by it as well. I was sleeping in a pickup truck ten years ago, and so I know where every penny that I have is coming from. So there’s no way that I can get numb right now.
HAT: It’s almost the polar opposite...
MS: I think there’s a role here in this country for artists. There’s a respect for artists that is not so pertinent in other countries.
HAT: Are you talking about Canada and Europe?
MS: In Europe artists became public servants. It’s official, and they don’t look at it anymore. They just say, like oh you’re an artist, come and sit down, as if you were a doctor. It’s like they expect you to pull out a business card, and say, so there’s the artist, just like we have a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer. While here I think there’s still the need, or a waiting, for artists. It’s like people are going to look at it and listen. Like we’re ready for it, like an audience going to a theater. We know the rules and we’re ready to sit and listen.
HAT: There’s always the possibility for an artist to make everyone go up in arms, to offend people.
MS: But this is what other countries lack. I find this wonderful. There’s still this expectation. That’s very romantic. People act up and people expect things to happen from artists. But then it becomes sometimes much more of a business, then it becomes commodified. I am thinking of Andy Warhol, and how brilliant he was. And we only discovered later on how influential he really was, and still is.
HAT: There’s the possibility for reverberations in the wider culture.
MS: Fortunately, there’s still hope. Ok, that was a lot of talk! So now for some fun questions.
HAT: Hair color?
HAT: Eye color?
MS: I think gray.
HAT: Do you keep a journal?
MS: I keep a novel. I can not write for two years, and then I will. It’s one story but chronicles. So it’s not exactly a journal.
HAT: Red or pink?
HAT: When was the last time you cried?
MS: Yesterday or the day before. I can’t say why because it’s the cheesiest thing. I don’t understand why, but some cheesy stuff that moves me and then it happens. But like every other guy I try to hide it.
HAT: What is in your CD player/ipod now?
MS: TV on the Radio, and Bloc Party, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Beck, Sea of Change, which is an old one that I love. I like the Killers a lot right now.
HAT: Winter or summer?
HAT: Favorite part of yourself?
MS: Ouch. As pretentious as this might sound I would say my brain.
HAT: Least favorite part of yourself?
MS: I’d say my brain again!
HAT: What was the last thing you ate?
MS: A brownie.
HAT: Last movie you watched?
MS: I think it’s called Dodgeball. It’s a documentary about wheelchair guys.
HAT: Who do you miss the most?
MS: I’d say ET I think.
HAT: What book are you reading now?
MS: I’m reading a biography of Jackson Pollack. The one that won the Pultizer Prize. You know why it’s brilliant? Before they even say Jackson Pollack it takes 300 pages. So it’s the whole history of America, of immigrants. It’s brilliant and dense.
HAT: What is your special talent (aside from painting, of course)?
MS: Salmon fishing. Fly fishing. You have to go way up north, outside of Montreal.
MS: I like these questions.
ArtSlant would like to thank Marc Séguin for his assistance in making this interview possible.