Interview with Valérie Morisson

Lesley Hilling interview with French academic Valérie Morisson. Everyday objects in contemporary art.

When did you start collecting objects? Do you remember when you were first attracted by old objects? Was it related to a place that was familiar to you or to a person? 

I was attracted to old objects from a very early age.  I can remember being very young and mum bringing home small items from my grans house, rings, cigarette cards, little boxes – and they became my toys.  My grandad – who I never knew – collected everything from coins to stamps, old newspapers, medals …. I was encouraged to collect stamps and I loved the aged quality of the old stamps of my grandads.  I can remember afternoons, as a very young child sorting through my grandad’s cigarette cards and stamps with my mum, trying to catalogue them in our amateurish way.  Mum would say ‘these will be worth something when you’re my age’  –  they weren’t !! But a wealth of material for art making.  It feels like I’ve always collected and sought after objects that for some reason, probably embedded in my childhood, strike a chord with me.  I’ve always had an interest in artist that use everyday objects in contemporary art. I still enjoy rifling through second hand shops and car boot fairs although I’m trying to cut back on the amount of stuff I actually buy these days.

If I am not mistaken your assemblages mix objects that belonged to your family and objects bought on car-boot fairs. I am interested in this blend of the intimate and the other and I like to view your works as materialisation of a deep connection between people, of an archetypal material imaginary which was sketched by Gaston Bachelard. When you buy objects at fairs do you associate them with specific people or stories? 

Yes I do, very much.  For example the photographs I am attracted to will be of  working class families similar to mine, from my childhood or from my parents time.  Once I bought a bunch of primary school photos of large groups of kids taken in the sixties. I showed one of them to each of my friends and asked them to pick me out.  They all picked this one girl out and insisted it was me – even my dad thought it was me.  So there is a kind of generic look to our past – a collective history and that’s what I’m interested in and some how want to preserve.  The objects I use in the work come from a similar place, the old mincer that our mums would use, various ornaments that were on everybody’s side boards.  And this cuts across cultural borders – many of my friends whose parents came over from the West Indies or Indian sub continent share the same memories of similar items.  So the objects are related to us by being from a working class background.

Many artists who recycle objects or materials collect, store and treasure them for a long time before using them. Is it the case for you? What happens during this long time when objects are dormant presences in the studio?

They incubate! I have a room that is full of stuff for my work.  Even if I didn’t use the objects for art I would still store all these things because I feel very tender about them.  Periodically I go through it all rearranging and being inspired by it.  I’m 62 now and my memory isn’t so good  – I can never find that thing that I want so sorting through everything is something I do a lot – and often never find what I’m looking for, but something that does the job better!

When seeing images of your home and studio I cannot help thinking of fairy tales or fictions in which a door or a cupboard offers a passage into another reality, an escape into a world where mystery and exploration allow for heightened perceptions. How does it feel to live among these objects? 

There is a real feeling of cosiness and safety – of being surrounded by my memories and my family.  This also goes back to my childhood.  Two of my favourite books were Alice in Wonderland and  Alice Through The Looking glass.  I know I’ve sub consciously made my environment to reflect those books that gave me so much solace when I was a child. A lot of the things in the house – like the doors – I have become accustomed to.  People come round and are amazed, but we are so used to them we don’t notice with that sense of wonder. Things become familiar. 

One of your works, On Longing, bears the same title as Susan Stewart’s book in which she explores narratives of the miniature and collections. Her ideas are obviously relevant to your work. She relates the miniature to the intimate. What kind of intimate memories or feeling would you relate to the miniature?

Definitely loss and a longing for the past. I am drawn to cigarette cards, clock workings, small parts of things, screws, stamps, and so on, and I like to have a lot of them.  Holding something small and old in the palm of my hand reminds me of my childhood and there is something comforting about that.   On Longing was actually named after  Susan Stewart’s book as it struck such a chord with me. I’m really interested in the miniature and the use of everyday objects in contemporary art.

On Longing, a piece exploring nostalgia and loss by Lesley Hilling
On Longing

The combination of very small elements and large structures in your assemblages offers the viewers a possibility of travelling into a maze of images and memories. It evokes XVIIth century cabinets of curiosity which became fashionable when people started collecting natural objects to celebrate the diversity of the world. It also reminds me of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. What have been your sources of inspiration? 

Both the cabinet of curiosity and Joseph Cornell have been a huge inspiration for me.  I came to fine art quite late in life – I was a graphic designer for many years – I began by making collages and small boxes. A neighbour introduced me to the work of Cornell, it was like having a door open on a brand new world.  Learning about his life was important too, his strangeness made my strangeness acceptable somehow.  Another huge influence has been the work of Louise Nevelson and the contemporary artist Leonardo Drew.  Music is a big inspiration, especially jazz.  Its the polyphony and the structure and the layering that really feeds into the work.

I have heard you mention nostalgia. Nostalgia is often defined as a yearning for an ideal home that never existed, a desire for homeliness than cannot be fulfilled. Could you tell me more about your idea of nostalgia? 

For me its a longing for a past that never was and also a past that I never knew.  You could say that Cornells work is nostalgic for places he never travelled to, his fascination with France is a romantic one of his imagination.  Ours wasn’t a happy family and my mum would look back on her childhood and especially the war years when she was really happy and share her experiences.  We watched a lot of old films from that time too and I fell in love with the style and glamour portrayed.  Mum looked back on the war years nostalgically, because she was happy in the forces and had better times than working in a factory.  She seemed to forget the terrible stuff that happened – I think thats what nostalgia does – you see the past with rose coloured glasses.

Living in a digital age and one that often overlooks materials and matter, I am fascinated by works like yours or Phillida Barlow’s that enhance the materiality of objects, the textures, colours of each component and use everyday objects in contemporary art. Sculpture has long put materials to the service of idea(l)s. Is your technique a means of resisting the move towards dematerialisation?  

Yes.  It isn’t a conscious thing but I think I am resisting not only dematerialisation but the encroachment of the modern world.  Because of the digital, people can overlook the skills and materials used in even the simplest job. When graphic design migrated to the computer screen, the skills we had previously used -at drawing boards, laying out type and images, cutting, resizing etc were not needed any more.  Theres something so human about touch – how someone shapes materials, cuts wood, throws a pot, holds a brush, and so on.  To lose touch with this is to lose touch with our history and our humanity.

Wood is central to your work. It requires specific techniques of joinery which have persisted throughout the centuries and entail a very physical contact with the wood. Have you always been attracted by wood and the traditional know-how joinery necessitates?    

Yes I have.  My dad did a lot of wood work and as a child I would watch him, intrigued by the tools.  He’d give me small pieces to play with, snippets of ply and chunks of teak.  It was very natural to me to move from paper collage to wooden structures.  I went on an adult education class for many years where we learnt all the joints and put them to good use making cabinets and other furniture.

Cities

‘Make me wanna holler’ is a line from Marvin Gaye’s seminal tune Inner City Blues.  Written by Gil Scott Heron it’s as relevant today as it was in the late sixties, but for different reasons.  At that time our cities were suffering from decay and urban blight.  Today, issues of affordability and inequality have made it hard to sustain communities and every square foot is sought after by property developers.

 It’s nothing new – cities have always undergone a continuous process of change and modification.  Existing structures are repurposed, altered or demolished, and entire landscapes can disappear.  These historic and cultural changes and shifts are not new, they have happened throughout history, layers have been created and sedimented over time.  Homes have been displaced to make way for railways and roads, terraced houses have been cleared to build modernist estates, which in turn have been demolished to build new apartments for sale.  Human beings are constantly interacting with the dead stuff of buildings.

We are connected by bus routes, roads, tubes and train lines, water, electricity and gas are delivered to our homes by buried pipes and overhead cables and there are unseen systems and networks working day and night all around us. Although it often doesn’t feel like it, the planet is vast with huge amounts of open space and yet human beings cluster together in cities and have done so for millennia.  More than half the worlds population live in cities and it takes a lot of infrastructure to sustain them.

Today we are facing a key moment in the history of our cities – the huge scale of re-development means that we have to look again at planning and purpose, architecture and construction and how we live and how we could live.    The neighbourhoods where poorer people could once afford to live are being reinvented for a different class of people.  The words of garden city planner Ebenezer Howard are as relevant as ever: ‘the people, where will they go?’  In this ongoing conversation about the future of our cities we all have to be urban planners, accepting the past and investigating history, then looking forward to see what can be made with this knowledge. How can we keep neighbourhoods alive against a tide of blandness, when everywhere is being homogenised with the same shops and restaurants and expensive housing?  How can we use the remnants of the post war dream to build anew?

High Density

I like to think my work explores these themes.  For decades I have collected the detritus left by previous generations.  As London undergoes a building boom I have saved the discarded wooden debris from demolished buildings and the waste from redevelopment and repurposed it.  Salvaged windows, doors, lengths of architrave and timber are broken down into smaller pieces and then reworked into new forms. Some of it will remain as it is, while other pieces will be passed through the thicknesser (a giant plane),  erasing it’s history and giving it a new life.  Some of the pieces I make, like High Density, are like an aerial view of a city.  I hope that the viewer is drawn to consider things we take for granted, doors, windows, walls and corners and how they are constructed.  I use the methods and tools that carpenters would use when erecting a building.  The  pieces are constructed using halving joints – the most used assembly joint in joinery and carpentry.

The Grid

When I start a piece of work I often begin by building a grid-like structure that eventually will hold the construction together.  The end piece will be wild and obsessive and bear no relation to the grid – but its there all the same!  The grid gives me something to work with, a starting point and reference.   It’s like the steady beat of the music while the tunes weave around it.  

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Noah Purifoy

One of the places I would like to visit is Los Angeles – by the nineteen sixties a thriving art scene had established itself there, with many artists working in assemblage and using found materials. Assemblage was popular in the West Coast, not only because of the availability of cheap and disposable materials but because there wasn’t the commercial art network there was in New York.
An artist who should be far better known from this period in LA is Noah Purifoy. He was a social worker, teacher and assemblage artist, who had served in the US navy during WW2 and settled in LA in 1950. Originally from Alabama he was based in the Watts community in South Central LA. This was the hub of the Afro American community. The 1930’s had seen black people flood into LA working in jobs created by the war and escaping the Jim Crow laws of the south. Even so, schools and housing were still segregated and the black community lived as second class citizens.
Noah Purifoy was nearly forty when he graduated from the Chouinard Art Institute now known as CalArts. And this was no mean feat – no other black person had ever attended the institute. He must have been a very self confident and fearless man,- the civil rights movement of the fifties was just beginning and racism and discrimination was still the norm. He studied during the day and worked at night until in 1956 he became the first Afro American to graduate from the college.

In 1964 he co-founded the Watts Towers Arts Centre with Judson Powell. it was housed in a small bungalow near the Watt’s towers. This was an icon of the city built by outsider artist Simon Rodia from scrap metal and found objects, it was a huge influence on black artists living in the vicinity. The artists involved in the Watts Towers Arts Centre saw themselves as community artists whose goal was to provide arts education for the community. ‘Ive never been happy with the little things that hang on the wall. I perceived art as a tool for change and when I started the program in Watts I saw art as a potential saviour’

In the summer of 1965 a toxic mix of discrimination, poverty and police brutality kicked off the Watts rebellion. There was six days of rioting – Purifoy was able to see what was happening from the arts centre.

‘I was in the middle of it but I wasn’t afraid, I thought it was great because it was overdue and it turned out to be a gold mine for me. I collected three tons of debris from the riot and began making art out of it…the debris from the riot is what finally launched me on my own course’

The material Purifoy and Powell found was turned into the exhibition 66 Signs of Neon. Working with a team of artists they created the work in just thirty days in order to exhibit it at the Simon Rodia Commemorative Watts Renaissance of the Arts Festival in the spring of 1966.

‘We did not intend to provoke…We were talking about art that would demonstrate how within oneself there’s a creative process going on all the time and that one’s life should also encompass the creative process. We were trying to experiment with how you tie the art process in with existence’

The exhibition spent the next three years touring universities and galleries around the country. But afterwards it fell into obscurity and much of the work was lost.
Purifoy went on to exhibit work in numerous exhibitions devoted to African American art, while creating assemblage sculpture he was also director of social services at Central City Community Mental Health Centre.
In 1967 two artists opened a gallery that hoped to address the discrimination in the LA art world. In 1971 Purify used this gallery to install show called ‘Niggers Ain’t Gonna Be Nothing – All They Want To Do Is Drink and Fuck.’ As the title suggests it was a very controversial and provocative show.
For a long time Noah served as a founding member of the California Arts Council where he helped to develop programmes for schools and prisons. His efforts to change things and improve peoples lives were bogged down by administration and lack of funds.
On August first 1989 he left LA and moved to a five acre piece of desert near Joshua Tree National Park that his friend had invited him to build upon. Purifoy was a craftsman – he had worked in interior design and window dressing, learnt to be a carpenter in the navy and knew welding, maintenance and other technical skills. These he began to put to good use in the desert. ‘I’d been wanting to do environmental sculpture for a long time. I did a piece at the Brockman Gallery ….and ever since then, I’ve wanted to do environmental sculpture. But since you don’t have the room in Los Angeles, I moved out here’.
He lived modestly in the desert in a trailer for the rest of his life, building over 120 pieces of environmental artwork. Noah Purifoy died in a fire in his trailer on March 5th 2004. He was 86.

Discovering Noah Purify has made me realise that parallel to the contemporary art scenes growing up in the American fifties and sixties there was another creative world that we are only just learning about. Ive learnt about artists such as David Hammons, Charles White and Timothy Washington.
It seems today that a mountain of Afro American talent has at last been allowed to blossom – Theaster Gates, Nick Cave, Ellen Gallagher, Mark Bradford to name but a few. Noah Purifoy and his generation laid the foundations for this.

There is a really good short movie about him at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3tEFxYLQm0

Artists Working With Wood

Wood is our oldest natural resource. It has been fuel, food, shelter and made into tools for millennia – and it’s a staple that we can freely renew. Wood has a unique range of qualities – some woods are best for boat building while others are more suitable for furniture, other woods can be easily bent and twisted into complicated forms, as in the work of Italian sculptor Roberto Almagno and harder woods can be carved and polished like Barbara Hepworth’s solid round sculptures. From house building to delicate veneering wood is central to human creativity.

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