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Pascal Normand: The Art of Social Purdah, Pariah and Paradox
Pascal Normand / Artiste Photographe
It is uncanny already that something as seemingly “low-brow” as graffiti is considered to be, can also be considered fine art—uncanny and paradoxical, but then, paradoxical is a key component of Pascal Normand’s work. There can be no doubt that graffiti is, indeed, art all on its own, but Normand takes that graffiti and all that that implies (abandoned buildings, deserted brick factories, archaic constructions with broken windows and otherwise abused features) and both praises it and raises it into the realm of fine art. From uncanny to uncannier and even into uncanniest, the work of Pascal Normand’s art takes graffiti, solitude and abandonment, brushes them off and brushes them up, and brings them into the sleek penthouse urban life from what many might consider to be decidedly the proverbial wrong side of the tracks.
Normand’s art form is mixed media, but he begins with photography and sets his sights on some of the homeliest, most neglected, run-down and just plain ugly spots in Montreal’s forgotten areas— forgotten, that is, by the city’s officials and developers, yet used and likely even beloved areas of gangs, runaways, homeless and the indigent. For these people, these buildings become homes and shelters, and they mark their territory much as the rest of us do: while we use fences and house numbers, these other folks use graffiti. Ergo, if a suburban home with its front yard and door posts and street number can be “a sight to behold,” why can the others not? Graffiti becomes the equivalent of the manicured yard, that is, in Normand’s art.
How does he accomplish elevating these places to the pedestal point of beauty? He begins with masterful photography. His subjects are carefully and painstakingly surveyed prior to making a photograph. Time, early or late, also plays an important role, as does weather, adverse or not. But Normand’s mixed media is the feather in the cap, if you’ll pardon the cliché. He dresses up his photography with painting and other techniques in order to give his art an organic feel, as though his art is part of the subject of his own work. It’s extraordinary! He scuffs his own work, frazzles the edges, taints the image just enough to give it the feel of being a piece of discarded debris or forgotten propaganda left behind by those who abandoned the building that appears in the photograph.
Among the more pointed examples of Normand’s work is “The Base.” The title suggests that the subject is a refuge for gang members, and its appearance seems to substantiate that idea. It is a structure that seems to be standing desolate and entirely alone—no other buildings in sight. The photograph is centred on an exterior corner, which gives the building something of an artificial appearance—almost too geometric, too mathematical. And, as I have discovered while studying it, the building seems to invert, as though the corner, which is presumably the closest part of the structure to the viewer, becomes suddenly the farthest point. The sky appears to be at once blue, but also overcast—beautifully ambiguous, and the image appears to have suffered some water damage. The graffiti—overlapping, jumbled, confusing— is really the focus of the image and in a way, serves as a warning to the viewer. As if to say, you have entered our gang’s territory. Enter at your own risk.
I am reminded of the man in the famous American Gothic painting by Grant Wood (1930). In that iconic painting, the man stands forebodingly and forbiddingly with his infamous pitchfork almost daring the viewer to step closer. Even the fist holding the farm implement is threatening. The famous painting is supposed to depict a suitor come to inquire about “courting” the young woman on the left of the painting, that is, on the farmer’s right hand, and she modestly and innocently averts her gaze from the viewer, submitting to her father’s challenge of the viewer as though “viewer” is what we have in mind regarding the daughter: Lust rather than love, impurity, unwholesomeness, impropriety. Normand’s “The Base” offers viewers a similar sense of warning. “Back away slowly, and make no threatening moves.”
Normand’s subjects are not limited to stationary structures. He can turn his photographic gaze to other constructions that seem to have at one time been somewhat mobile. They may have lost that mobility, however. At least, this is what Normand’s art potentially suggests. The subject is a cargo-carrying railcar sporting the name Canada and its flag. The name, however, is marred by ages of rust and neglect and adorned with the graffiti of at least four different artists, and, let’s be candid here: These graffiti artists were able to take their time with their art, and they appeared to have done so; there is clearly a great deal of work that went into these designs; they are not random, nor are they without careful execution. The subtle paradox that Normand almost lets viewers miss is that the full moon is high in the sky behind the railcar, but the light illuminating the car is decidedly not sunlight, but emanates from an artificial source. Ergo, it is night time. This abandoned railcar, still set up on its tracks, is still illuminated at night, and the observant viewer is forced to ask why. While we are not offered any insights, it is obvious that the light source was well taken advantage of by the “hoodlums” who decorated it. Paradox over paradox.
It is not just the graffiti that gives viewers the sense of isolation in Normand’s art; it can also be found in his tone, and in other subject matter. As a final work to discuss, consider “The Don Valley Situation,” a work I am still trying to decipher. In this image taken distinctly at night, we see a man in the foreground in silhouette standing placidly on the road in the light of an oncoming vehicle in the distant back ground, and the only thing between the man and the vehicle is the almost gothic arch of a bridge in the mid-ground. The word from the title that seems most illuminating is “situation,” as viewers are forced to ask, “What the %(%$!%^ is going on?!” And the problem is not that there are no answers forthcoming; the problem is that there are far too many answers, some confirmed by others; some contradicted by others; and some standing aloof from others. Is the man suicidal waiting to die via impact with the vehicle? Is he planning on meeting the driver of the vehicle? Is the vehicle the property of the man in the image? Why is he alone at that time of night?
Normand Pascal doesn’t just “take pictures.” He takes thoughts and puts them in print. The power of his art lies in the many questions he evokes, the paradoxes he foments, and the over abundance of answers he provides. It’s like taking a test with an enormous section of matching a long row of questions with a longer row of answers. Which answers will you use? Which will you use more than once? Which will you ignore? Viewers are left hanging and pondering like some of the great episodes of “The Twilight” zone did, and, perhaps, a comparison of that great TV series from so many decades ago is the best way to understand and appreciate the magnificent art of Normand Pascal: the man with the answers.
Gallery – click on image to view full-image slides.