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The 2019 Daniel and Florence Guerlain Contemporary Art Foundation Drawing Prize

Jérôme Zonder 

Interview 2019

Your work seems to accumulate more narratives than before. Why are you going in this direction?   

In fact, I wanted to develop my subjects around narratives nurtured over several years, in particular my last few series. To show these various narratives, I start a canvas, for example, where I add collages made of mixes of papers and fabrics. These cut-outs comprise the drawings and images connected to the history of violence, so that I can express it in a global manner. They come from archives, from certain emblematic paintings in art history or from my own drawings. Therefore, I work as much on perspective as on my desire to dig into the inside of the image being fabricated.  

When you started, there was a lot of talk about technical virtuosity, which might even limit the interpretation of your work. Have you wanted to move away from this?  

My work has always taken different directions that, today, are gradually differing in their own logic and appear more clearly. But it’s true that this relation to virtuosity, often restrained, bothered me a little. I have always wanted to question drawing in terms of its materials and its forms of understanding, because for me some logics are specific to the medium. Such as the connection between the character and its portrait – that is, its depiction - to which I add the question of the limit of drawing. When I was evolving, I put hyperrealism into perspective and the way in which I was using it. I observed the breaking up of my line and the dichotomy between what is extremely contained and what is going to be pulverized. This is another way of questioning the subject, leading me to work more on the side of the mass.  

But what remains of the drawing when you pulverize the graphite or charcoal powder? Isn’t the drawing more connected to the line and to a certain limit.   

A limit is always overstepped... and the question of the mass of the drawing is at the root of representation. Some years ago, I conceived a drawing about the first two symbolic manifestations of the work of man, starting from a photo taken in the Lascaux cave. There you can see the impression of a hand, adjoining a line. From the very beginning, the men who lived in that cave were conscious enough to say to themselves: I am here, but what am I going to become? I don’t do it only in the desire to combine opposites, but to demonstrate the different modes of existence that we experience.  

You have also said you use black and white so as not to give in to the facility of colour…

It was also to complement the very natural affinity that I nurture with line drawing since my earliest childhood. Furthermore, when you begin it’s perhaps easier to try to master a contained domain rather than to launch yourself into moving spaces. Then narrative elements appeared: conspicuous, theatrical, cacophonic and demonstrative scenes that were supplemented by a childish movement in the way they were depicted. At present, I assume more interiority. But there again, I go over the edges all the time, in this relation between the mass, the blurring and the lines.

Which you summarize when quoting polygraphy…   
Yes, because they are the expectations of drawing. 

At the Beaux-Arts de Paris, you were in Jean-Michel Alberola’s atelier. At that time, there was Vladimir Veličković, whom you know well and the artistic scene was also invaded by Free Figuration. Did you consciously want to distance yourself from this overly linear approach? 

For me, there is always a kind of storytelling in the sense that human space itself is narrative. It’s part of our substance, literally…even more so when we try to depict someone. At that period, I also looked at comic strips which interested me because polygraphy is more developed there than it is in the plastic arts. The example of Moebius is obvious, but the designers of the Manga culture also work at it. Then little by little, I attempted to make things more organic, by going inside the material. The image became more complex and seemed to be distanced or blurred, but I always work on the same question. I make no hierarchy between the physical sensation which is pure representation and the narrative sensation which nourishes the storytelling. 

Can we get back to violence and the references to the Second World War which were formally very present in your work. Did you want to bear witness to an exacerbated period of history?   

At the heart of what I call ‘the narrative matter’ that is the construction and translation of the subject, it is essential to look at the scars of history which we have grown up with. Those that form or deform us. Therefore, my eye turned towards the periods of paroxysm, in particular the Second World War, the atomic bomb and the Shoah. I have also added events I witnessed at the end of my teenage years in the mid-1990s with the Yugoslavian wars and the Rwanda genocide. Without reproducing a direct illustration or a documentary, I wanted to consider them. The first attempts appeared by way of a little theatre of horrors that would replay the scene in a child-like manner. Attention to trace and to memory developed. But in 2013, a residence in Leipzig put back the right pointer in relation to a story that I might fantasize. Once my relation to these stories was clarified, the work of impression allowed me to distance myself and turned out to be a necessary consequence of the portrait.    

Indeed, you make more and more of them, no?   

Yes, I invite them like a gang of friends, with all the teenagers and friends of the three characters I have created, and who make up a portrait gallery. In my last works, I mix them with impressions of the story by cutting out or choosing fabrics which are themselves narrative, passing via Africa, Japan or the United States… Through these reminiscences of other narrative scenes, a new drawing is created, a kind of construction-destruction where I return to working with the line in relation to that of the mass. From a distance, the figure is formed, but it explodes when we approach it.   

For that matter, you have often evoked the term of “de-fragmenting”.   

I try to demonstrate the fact that we all live together without being homogenous, but that a group gets organized in spite of everything. At the plastic level, I try to make a drawing that functions with different interpretations, provoking a circulation.   

Why have you always wished to include the spectator at the heart of the work? Is this also to disturb it and shake it up a little?  

That is, in fact, what I was looking for in the beginning, but today, it’s more important to me that a person “experiences” the drawing rather than simply looking at it. I want to exacerbate the drawing's physicality, both delimited and precise, but which can also come out of the frame. It’s a way of being in the world, both on the inside and outside of the great movements.  

Is your drawing very intuitive or made according to diagrams or sketches?  

No, I don’t manage to prepare it in advance but I need to realize a lot of works even if it means destroying some of them, as I reflect while I am working. On the large formats that I can conceive in two months, I install the character then develop the narratives. It may happen that I make photos that I print in photocopies and draw on them in order to reflect. I need to be inside my drawing to see where it can lead me.  

After having created three characters, Garance, Baptiste and Pierre-François, that you have followed from childhood to adolescence, are you going to continue to make them evolve in the future and, consequently, position yourself in a kind of anticipation?  

In fact, last year I reviewed these three main characters. I drew conclusions from the work made over three years with the young girl and prepared the coming years. I always develop the connection between construction and narrative, long and short stories, the relation to the impression. I have read a lot of Bernard Stiegler or Yuval Noah Harari and his ‘Sapiens: a brief history of humankind or Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow, which are historical writings about being on the road to a new species. Whereas Bernard Stiegler reflects on the tool, the technique, the difference between data and physical fact, virtual or real memory… Now that I have established a relation to history that suits me, I am going to incorporate these thoughts into my work. For one of the two boys, I want to imagine a character devoured by images, whereas the other boy will be a scientist…I also started from Kafka’s Metamorphosis and imagery from science fiction that I consider as a new playground. I am opening up a system of the order of the future and its potential. 

Do you have the feeling that this relation with history is generational?  

It’s true that we have been confronted, over a short period of time, to very gruelling events, generating a series of subjects on the end of history. For my generation, this is also interpreted as return to drawing, because the fact of making images by hand, by engaging your body, takes on a new meaning. The condensation of matter represents accumulated time. The question of the portrait is also to render its density, because time is needed to “charge” an image. The time I spend on realizing my works allows me to reflect, to dream and welcome future subjects.  

Marie Maertens - Janvier 2019