Vancouver Art Gallery
March 9 – June 2, 2013
Co-curated by director Kathleen S. Bartels and artist Jeff Wall.
Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
On a rainy evening half-way through May, I walked to the Vancouver Art Gallery and took in the exhibition of Parisian photographer Patrick Faigenbaum. As I entered the gallery, there was a portrait visible from the main floor rotunda of the gallery. I am unable to resist an exhibition that works with the human face, and portraits comprise a major portion of Faigenbaum’s photographic practice. He is perhaps best known for a series of black and white group photos of the Italian aristocracy. Some are nothing but shades of dark grey, as if the light of the modern world could not penetrate the dusk of generations of family affluence.
The exhibit is co-curated by Jeff Wall, most famous of the “Vancouver School” photographers. But Wall also has an academic background in the arts – as assistant professor (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), and associate professor (Simon Fraser University). His writing and teaching helped define the “Vancouver School” and positioned a number of his peers (Vikky Alexander, Roy Arden, Ken Lum, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas and Rodney Graham) within it.
The works of Faigenbaum comprise the fourth exhibition in this series intended to introduce internationally acclaimed artists to a North American audience. The curatorial text positioned at the entrance to the exhibition said as much, and I would repeatedly encounter the term “international acclaim” in relation to these portraits of Italian bluebloods. What I would not encounter was the explanation of the acclaim. Was it just the difficulty in gaining access to them? What made these different from any other family portrait? The wealth that adorned the end tables? I found that the pictures had begun to be treated like the idea of aristocracy itself. It was all in the adjective: one should feel a certain privilege simply to be in their presence. However, many of these family group sittings have a casual, almost careless composition and I found neither narrative nor poignancy in them. Which is odd given the months of planning necessary to set up the shoots. It is also peculiar given the prominence of this series in Faigenbaum’s oeuvre.
Faigenbaum’s still life photographs recall his early ambitions as a painter. Curators and critics have also been quick to point out a painterly approach in his portraiture: “Faigenbaum’s use of chiaroscuro—strongly contrasting passages of light and dark—places him in a line of “old masters”, from Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio to Georges de La Tour to Rembrandt van Rijn.” (Robin Laurence, The Georgia Straight). As with a sitting in front of an artist working in traditional media, Faigenbaum likes to take an extended period of time in order to let a feeling of quiet and calm develop. This feeling is evident in his strongest works.
It is also the feeling that is conspicuously absent in Faigenbaum’s street scenes. The shift from portraiture is not just a shift in content, it is a disconcerting change in approach and style leaving one feeling that one has missed something. Indeed, we have missed something, the shift from the aesthetic-based portraits to the “conceptual art” basis of his other works. Yet this transition goes unannounced, despite the fact that co-curator Jeff Wall is arguably the best person to make such an announcement.
In the world of contemporary photography some images are so distinctive that only one person could have made them. The majority of Faigenbaum’s work seems almost unauthored, as if it could have been made by anyone. There is no signature lighting, no angle, no mood, no vision or subject matter to identify his genius.
I stood in an exhibition of photographs that were part quotidian street scenes and part formal sittings. I faced a large wall that held only one image. It depicted two people sitting at a restaurant table, their faces blackened by deep shadows, the table held general daily clutter, it could have been there, it could have not been there: a carton of cigarettes and a lighter; detritus. With the faces obscured and the visible content mundane, I asked myself why this image was hanging here.
The gallery copy tells me that “Patrick Faigenbaum creates a compelling ambience that isolates a moment outside the incessant flow of time, prompting the viewer to acknowledge the impossibility of fully understanding the complex narratives that extend beyond each image.” Yes, but what of the narrative within the image?
In a review by Shawn Connor of the Vancouver Sun, Faigenbaum mentions being drawn to photograph in Prague, citing an affinity for one of his favourite authors, Franz Kafka. “It’s this strangeness,” Faigenbaum said. “I always think about this when I look at my work: why is this going on?”
I could not reconcile the often beautifully still portraits with the other images in the exhibit. I could not answer “why is this going on?” And so I left the exhibit moved by the stillness of his portraits, and joyous before his lemons, but ultimately disappointed: with an inexplicable feeling that the artist’s best work (or some information vital to the understanding of his imagery) had been held back.
An Interview with Jeff Wall on Patrick Faigenbaum
by Here and Elsewhere
March 5th, 2013
Patrick Faigenbaum brings the flavours of Europe to the Vancouver Art Gallery: Painter-turned-photographer captures stately portraits of aristocrats, lively street scenes
by Shawn Connor, The Vancouver Sun
March 8th, 2013
Patrick Faigenbaum’s photographs place him in line with “old masters”
by Robin Laurence, The Georgia Straight
March 12, 2013