Interview in Artscope Magazine
Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014, 2:56 pm
Cecil Touchon now exhibiting at Lanoue Fine Art in Boston.
Cecil Touchon fits into a lot of categories, but would you expect anything else from the founder of the International Museum of Collage, Assemblage and Construction. Three works from his “Post Dogmatist Painting” series will be on view through October 4 at Lanoue Fine Art, 450 Harrison Ave. #31, Boston. Artscope managing editor Brian Goslow “Cornered” Touchon by phone at his new studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
TELL ME ABOUT THE WORK THAT’LL BE ON DISPLAY AT LANOUE FINE ART.
These three particular paintings that I’m sending up right now, which the gallery selected out of about 10 that were available, happened to all have an underlayment of paper from antique 1880s Webster Dictionary pages. That’s not particularly important, because it could be any paper, but since my work, at the moment, is based completely on typography using pre-existing type faces, then chopping those up and arranging them into abstract designs, it’s a reference to the whole idea of language and how language can be broken down into visual language that’s not really literary, it’s visual.
YOU SOMETIMES ARE CALLED A VISUAL POET …
Since I am working with remnants of language in my current work there is a relationship to the avant-garde visual poetry scene, where at least in the United States and Europe, I’m recognized as a visual poet. My work is a challenge to the difference between representationalism and abstraction because language in general has always been used in modern times as a representational medium. You don’t really look at the language itself; you visualize the ideas that are embedded in the phrasing. So, when reading, we’re looking past the language — the actual physical type — to the ideas that are being conveyed. My question is; what if those ideas are more about other things then words? What if it’s subliteral, where it’s down below the level of the letter. I’m playing around with the fabric of consciousness below the area where it actually manifests into meaningful word structures.
WHAT IS YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS?
A lot of my work is in a continuum. I produce works on paper first, like a small collage, often with found material, or more recently, with a lot of my work, I actually fabricate the papers myself and then manipulate them and chop them up and use them as the grist for the mill, so to speak. After I make the studies — the collages — then I photograph them, put them on the computer, and then, depending on the proportion of the painting, I alter the proportions of the collage image digitally so I can easily mark the composition out onto the canvas or panel. By the time I get to the painting, at least the composition of it is pretty clear. Once the painting starts, the actual surface manipulation and that sort of thing, that’s where it becomes the painting and not the study.
HOW DID THIS ALL BEGIN?
I started this idea of chopped up lettering pieces in 1999. It was based on when we first moved to Central Mexico and drove through Mexico City at 2 in the morning. They have a lot of big massive billboards along the highway going through Mexico City. When the advertiser doesn’t pay their monthly bill, or their subscription is up, instead of painting over it, they just go and rearrange all the panels of the sign so that it’s just a big jumble.
I thought they were really cool looking. Plus, I didn’t speak Spanish, so it was converted away from a foreign language into becoming the visual language that I was already familiar with. When I looked at these big massive panels of just chopped up letters that had been rearranged by 4 x 8 sheets of plywood or whatever they’re on, I told my wife, ‘You know what? In the future, people are going to see those and they’re going to say, ‘There’s a Touchon.’ I said that’s going to be my new style.
HOW DID YOU TAKE THE IDEA OF THE REARRANGED SIGNS AND MAKE IT INTO SOMETHING YOUR OWN?
At first, I was tried to find the real signage material to work with. At a certain point, I decided, why would I do that when I can just work at a smaller scale and then just make the paintings and not worry about the original materials, which is what I eventually decided to do from about 1999 to 2004, when I first started making the paintings of the collages — which was kind of an odd idea itself — I had to work out my whole aesthetic. How do I convert this image into a painting but still retain the information from the collage so that you can understand why all the parts are put together a certain way?
HOW DO THEY CHANGE WHEN THEY BECOME A LARGE-SCALE PAINTING?
Once the image is drawn onto the panels, I use sanding techniques and abrasion to give a feel of a built in natural history to the surface — which of course, is being fabricated — but it helps to convey the sense of the original papers. Then, the paintings themselves become more fleshed out in terms of shading and the color relationships and that sort of thing.
HOW OFTEN DO YOU GO OUT SEARCHING FOR MATERIALS?
At this point, I have about three lifetimes worth of material that I couldn’t possibly use before I die. However, I’m always on the lookout for material for the reason — and I tell this to other collagists — collect that paper because the 20th century was the age of paper and it’s passing.
The age of paper is going by. So if you collect a lot of those materials, from the 20th century and the 19th century, you can capture a lot of that history of handwriting and all the different kind of printing techniques they used over the last 100 years that no longer exist. Nobody prints things like that anymore, the old silkscreen printing they used to do for billboards, that sort of thing. You can hardly find a lot of those materials these days, so if you can, you should definitely collect it because it’s a reference to the century of paper and it didn’t exist to that great of a degree in the 19th century and it won’t in the 21st.
WHERE DO YOU SEE THE PLACE OF COLLAGE AND ASSEMBLEGE IN TODAY’S ART WORLD?
Ten years ago, when I was first getting the idea of the collage museum off the ground, collage and assemblage artists were constantly complaining that this work wasn’t represented out in the regular art market or in general. After I started my education program, you might say, I started pointing out to all of these artists, actually, that collage and assemblage is the dominant art form at this point because all film is basically a form of collage, all the advertising and how everything works on television is all a big collage of jumbled ideas that aren’t even related to each other, like in a series of commercials, let’s say.
We’re living in a collage world, and the whole Internet’s just a big assemblage or collage. When you’re moving from one random image to another, that’s a collage way of looking at the universe. It is a patchwork of disparate things that don’t even belong together. Since they’re all presented to you in an identical format – through a computer screen – then we tend to accept things as being roughly equal and that makes for a very interesting view of the world. It’s hard to say how the human mind is assimilating all of that information or if it is and how we’re dealing with that chaotic absorption of information. How does that affect us?
Fifty years ago, we didn’t think about anything in the way that we think about today because people were isolated and ignorant of everything going on around them except what they physically ran into. So if you went to an art museum 50 years ago, those pieces seemed very important because they were the only ones that you would ever see, otherwise in your city, or wherever you lived at, there’s very little you would actually physically encounter. Now you can sit at your computer and travel the entire planet and look at every piece of art that’s online — which is almost all art at this point.
ARE YOU FINDING MUSEUMS, NOT ONLY IN THE UNITED STATES, BUT WORLDWIDE, ARE INTERESTED IN ACCUMULATING YOUR WORK?
Not particularly. I’m in a lot of collections but those collections, the way my work got in there, was very often through Fluxus-related projects because I’m strongly involved in the contemporary Fluxus community. MOMA just acquired a massive Fluxus collection from the Silvermans and so they have a whole Fluxus room at this point. Fluxus was a 1960s early conceptual neo-Dada type group, but it’s essentially a group, more than anything else, interaction of a group of people, and so that group has developed and continued to grow over the past 50 years and the current generation of people that are working that way just decided to accept it as Fluxus and call it Fluxus and keep the idea going of Fluxus as a community. That is what is currently going on.
In that Fluxus community, which is also highly involved with off-the-grid art exchanges among artists through mail art or through projects where everybody sends 50 instances of something to one guy and he divides them up into what they call assemblings and then those assemblings might have 20 or 30 examples of artists from all over the world that participated and then a lot of those collections of things end up in all these different museum archives all over the world. So, consequently, I have things in a lot of those collections, but as a part of some Fluxus or mail art project that these institutions collected or had donated to them.
Then you have to ask yourself; well, I’m not in that museum with a major piece of my work; but then, on the other hand, I am in that collection so I guess I can write it down. Since I’ve been running my own museum project, for 10 years or so now, it’s been my big experiment in thinking about how museums function and what their purpose is. If you think about it, a museum by nature has to be extremely exclusive in terms of what they collect based on their mission statement. So the MOMA, for instance, only collects a certain sort of things and then when they collect them, since it costs so much money to run a museum, they have to justify it by only buying or receiving the most valuable crème de le crème, in their opinion, of pieces.
Of course, because they’re collecting that way, they’re missing the vast movement of things that are going on in the art world. Because of that, they’re doing a disservice to art history in general, because almost all working artists are not represented in any of those collections.
Why? Because they’re only collecting from collectors. We’re all depending on whoever these collectors are to actually have a sense of what should be collected — but that’s not necessarily what’s going on because it all gets wrapped up with massive amounts of money. When money gets involved, all of a sudden, all the other things go by the wayside — it’s just like, if a rock museum, and there’s plenty of those around, there are scientific museums that collect specimens of rocks, minerals and so forth. But if they decided it was so expensive to run the museum that they’re only going to collect diamonds, then all of a sudden, you’ll just have a diamond museum, you won’t have a rock and mineral museum.
It’s kind of the same way in the art world. If all the museums are only collecting the diamonds out of the pile, then it leaves the whole rest of the pile completely undocumented. So the museum project is about the rest of the field, not just the diamonds.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR OWN INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF COLLAGE, ASSEMBLAGE AND CONSTRUCTION AND THE EXHIBITIONS YOU PUT ON THERE …
For one of the more recent exhibitions that I curated, which was “The Collage/Assemblage Centennial 1912-2012,” artists from all over the world donated, for that show, about 450 works, to the Collage Museum, to be in that exhibition, which I put together in the town that I just moved from (Pagosa Springs), in Southern Colorado. I recently moved to Santa Fe; we’re just trying to move into our house. So I have a commercial space here that I’m going to use for the museum archives.
I invited collage artists from all over the world to donate a sample of their work to the Collage Museum so now there’s probably a total of about 20,000 works in the collection, all donated by the actual artists who produced the work. It’s an interesting kind of an approach — it’s an art museum idea but more of a research facility for collage and assemblage artists to come see what other artists are doing in the field. It’s pretty fascinating. So it’s my own little museum that I’m creating that’s gotten completely out of control.
Artwork is continuously coming in from all over the place, which is really cool. So I feel partially responsible for the resurgence that collage has been having the last 10 or 12 years, because that’s about how long I’ve been promoting the Collage Museum and inviting artists to send work for it because the collage universe really didn’t have any kind of a core because it’s mostly made up of fairly isolated artists working all over the world that are working in a medium that’s not widely accepted everywhere — or it wasn’t 10 years ago.
My idea was to create this kind of anthropological museum. It’s not really about whether it’s famous or important or expensive, but it’s about what’s happening right now, in the contemporary moment.
DO YOU EVER GO TO SHOWS AND LISTEN IN ON PEOPLE’S INTERPRETATIONS OF YOUR WORK?
Yes, and it’s interesting because most people’s ways of looking at anything is something like how people make faces out of clouds that are floating by. It’s not really about the cloud, it’s about whatever imaginary thing that they dream up. People bring to it what’s already in their head — and you can’t really prevent that.
When my wife is looking at my work, she comes up with these very complex stories about what’s going on and she assumes that I’m creating those stories, but I’m really not. It’s just a mirror of her own thought process; it’s just giving her kindling for imagining something.
When I’m looking at it, I’m just seeing the shapes and the relationships and the rhythms and the spaces and how they’re created and how they add up to a composition. And sometimes they add up to look kind of figure and I think that’s interesting. But since a lot of the construction is based on chance and the aesthetics of chance, I’m not really reading those images into the pieces myself.
When I hear other people discuss my work, like this other artist in Houston a few years ago, who was looking at one of my paintings, and she said, ‘Man, these are just so sexual’ and she started explaining the relationships that were going on in the piece and how that was some sex act happening — and she was real sexual herself — and I’m looking at it with her and she’s explaining to me all the different shapes and how they’re adding up to this image she has come up with in her head and I said, ‘That’s very interesting. It’s interesting because this same painting was hanging at a different gallery for another show and a lady came up to me and she was absolutely convinced that it was the Virgin Mary presenting Jesus to the Magi.’ And all of sudden, this artist became red-faced because she realized she wasn’t really revealing me, she was revealing her own nature — because it’s sort of a Rorschach in a certain way.
People bring to it what’s already in their head — and you can’t really prevent that, so — I don’t really worry about that part of the communication of the pieces because 100 people are going to see at least 50 different things and maybe 80. There might be a little bit of a connection with some people seeing similar things, so it might not be 100 different views from 100 different people, but it’ll be certainly 80 different points.
So I think that’s interesting. I’ve noticed that from the beginning of my career no matter what I’m painting. I gave up on the idea that I have an idea about what I’m trying to convey because it’s always going to be a failure. People are only seeing their own mind when they’re looking at anything.
I NOTICED THAT YOU UTILIZE PINTEREST, FROM TIME TO TIME …
I think it’s a fun platform for posting images. At a certain point, somebody told me about it, a year or two ago. So I looked me up on Pinterest, and to my amazement, there were probably hundreds of posts of different images of mine from different sources. I decided I should take a little more control of this and have the links link over to my blog as opposed to link over to someplace where they happen to find the image that wasn’t really related to me, and to include more information and writing, a quote or something that made it a little more interesting and created a little more connection with whoever happens to find the image and reposts them on their own webpage, their own Pinterest.
All the way back to 1995 or ’96, I took a strong interest in the Internet because I saw that was going to be the future for everything. I actually studied search engine optimization back in that time and consequently, a real estate agent from the little town I was living in at the time called me up and offered to pay me a monthly stipend between $500 and $1,000 to keep their website in the top three positions on Google. So I became very adept at search engine placement realizing that having web presence is one thing, but traffic’s a whole other thing and getting the traffic to you. Without the traffic, the website’s worthless, essentially.
Using someplace like Pinterest, that draws a huge amount of attention because of so many people using it, you want to be in those kind of places where there’s a nexus of interest and traffic. If you can do that and get some of those people to then go over to your personal blog or website, that increases your exposure. I just see it as an extension of communicating with people. I think of my work kind of from a — I wrote an article called “The New Beautiful” — I don’t know if you saw that or not — where I talk about that I think of my work in conjunction with all the designers that are creating the world we live in from toaster designers to car designers to so forth, which is the mandate from the early 20th century when those guys were radically altering how the world was going to become — getting rid of all the frou-frou and too much reference to tradition at that time, which was the aristocratic tradition, and to open the world up to the average guy, which is us, and make the world a place where everybody could access the design conversation and design how we live and what we live with. I think of my work in relation to that cadre of individuals that are designing the world we live in and how my work fits inside that totalitarian envelope we’re creating.