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Features / May 26, 2015

Marc-Antoine K. Phaneuf: Pop Cultist

Montreal-based artist Marc-Antoine K. Phaneuf turns his passion for the objects of popular culture into works that help us see our culture more clearly.

This is an article from the Spring 2015 issue of Canadian Art.

Marc-Antoine K. Phaneuf is the kind of guy who greets life with excitement and a cheeky irreverence. When we met at his apartment in Montreal’s Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district back in November 2014 to discuss his (many) upcoming projects, he served me cocktails composed of Canadian Club whisky mixed with Canada Dry ginger ale, which he deemed perfectly suited to our interview for Canadian Art.

A regular fixture on the Quebec contemporary-art circuit for the past 10 years or so, Phaneuf has been extremely active as of late, with several projects coming to fruition in the first few months of 2015. By the time winter is over, the 34-year-old will have presented three solo exhibitions, a residency and a curatorial project in various artist-run centres in Montreal and Quebec City. In 2014 he also received a creative-writing grant from the Canada Council to write a new book—a providential exploit that has allowed him to take a leave of absence from his day job as director of communications at the Regroupement des centres d’artistes autogérés du Québec.

At the root of Phaneuf’s art is a genuine passion for the objects of popular culture. He is an artist of the ready-made. His modus operandi is to build collections of specific types of pre-existing objects and present them together, with varying degrees of transformation, as a finished work of art. Purchased at flea markets, garage sales and via websites like Kijiji, or even—though more rarely—found in the garbage, these common, everyday items are given a new lease of life by Phaneuf, who approaches them not as things unworthy of intellectual consideration, but as potent emblems that can reveal all of the absurdity, humour and poetry of North American popular culture. Arranging them into colourful, baroque displays that are sometimes themselves references to well-trodden cultural tropes (from abstract paintings to natural-history exhibits), he also frequently introduces wordplay—whether in his titles or as a linguistic component of the works—that turns the experience of such familiar objects into one of remarkable strangeness.

Aside from books and CDs, which he buys “as a reader and a mélomane,” in his everyday life, Phaneuf does not collect, and his apartment is surprisingly uncluttered. He accumulates stuff purely in order to create artworks, and only once has he found the right pretext for executing a particular idea. (He is, in this sense, working in the conceptual tradition, wherein the artist’s own hand is not intrinsic to the act of creation.) Still, Phaneuf acquired an appetite for the gathering and ordering of things at a young age. Like any self-respecting boy growing up in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, in the 1980s and early 1990s, he was an avid hockey fan, and at 10 years old had a hockey-card collection that matched his enthusiasm for the sport. Vintage hockey cards form the basis of his work Canadian Painting (2014), recently shown as an installation as part of the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery’s Sightings series.

Speaking of this project, Phaneuf told me, “Hockey cards are special to me, because I really collected them with a passion when I was a kid. This was probably my first collection. I wouldn’t have made this work 10 years ago, because I wanted to be an artist and I only wanted to deal with ‘real’ matters and subjects. But it’s totally logical that I work with the cards, since they were the first manifestation of my object fetishism. I remember I used to take, like, 150 cards and mix them up just for the pleasure of putting them back in the correct order. To sort the objects was part of the pleasure of having the collection.”

Presented as five squarish panels in the Ellen Gallery’s off-site temporary “white cube” structure, Canadian Painting is composed of almost 5,000 hockey cards, organized by the most dominant colour of each. The cards, affixed at slight angles to create an all-over pattern, look from afar like abstract paintings by such Canadian modern-art icons as Paul-Émile Borduas and, especially, Jean Paul Riopelle, whose angular palette-knife strokes are cunningly recalled. Through this simple act of collage, Phaneuf brings together two myths of Canadian culture and blurs the line between ostensibly opposing spheres of cultural production—hockey and art. Looking at this work, it is hard not to imagine Clement Greenberg spinning in his grave—an indication of the enduring influence of the iconic art critic’s pronouncements on the distinction between avant-garde art and kitsch, despite 40-plus years of postmodernism.

The list of objects that Phaneuf has worked with so far demonstrates the range and depth of his engagement with kitsch: besides hockey cards, he has created works with such things as trophies, cookbooks, tabloid magazines, Harlequin novels, homemade for-sale/want ads, vintage button pins, Quebec-flag paraphernalia, JPEGs found on the Internet, souvenir spoons and commemorative plates. There is a definite element of tongue-in-cheek nostalgia in his use of this material since much of it stems from the late decades of the 20th century. For example, his work Vieux buffet (premier service), a collection of vintage cookbooks that was shown in 2011 at Galerie Laroche/Joncas in Montreal, highlights food fads that very quickly became outdated and now seem downright bizarre. Also displayed together in an all-over pattern, the 109 cookbooks—bearing titles such as Microwave Cooking for Today’s Living, Recettes au «Blender» and 101 Omelettes—are a slightly uncomfortable reminder that ideas on what constitutes healthy or sophisticated eating today will eventually seem just as odd.

The kind of stuff that the artist uses as raw material, and the sheer amount of it, acts as a critique of North American consumerism, yet this is not the aspect of his work that Phaneuf wants people to see first. “The critique of consumption is inevitably there,” he says, “I can’t deny it. But it’s there peripherally.” In a sense, by re-presenting and even ennobling what others have discarded, he demonstrates how little value is placed on the things that pervade our everyday existence. But perhaps more important is the way his works make viewers aware of their own historicity—the cookbooks, for example, which illustrate the gulf between past and present ideas on food. By treating various forms of popular culture as foreign objects to be studied, and by extracting them from the endless flow of consumption, Phaneuf prompts us to stop and take stock.

Phaneuf is himself keenly aware of his own place in history—an awareness fuelled by his studies in art history. He completed a BA in art history at the Université du Québec à Montréal in 2004, and though he began an MA in fine arts at the same university, he eventually dropped out in order to actively pursue his practice. He is an art historian who makes art, and an artist whose education has given him the tools with which to think globally and strategically about his career. He is conscious not only of where his practice can be situated on the timeline of art history, but also of what is possible for an artist living in Canada today, as compared to what was possible in the past. “To consider my art as being part of a career is essential,” he told me. “Taking the time to step back and observe what I’ve built, where I’m at and where I want to go—to me this is a good way to think about the future, about how I can get into history and how I can develop my work to make a living.”

During our discussion, I asked Phaneuf whether Dada artists had had an influence on his work. The answer was resoundingly positive:

“Oh yes, really. They just did great things. I heard about them for the first time when I was 14, and it was so weird to think that they had done this nearly a century ago. When I studied them later at university, I still loved them because they did anything: they did collage, theatre, happenings, poetry. Their approach was really vivid and complete; it was a state of mind. I really like the punk movement too, and to me it’s a perfect continuation of Dada. When I use humour in art—some of the ideas are just to put salt in the Vaseline, to shake people up and say: ‘Hey, look, I did a bad thing, and here it is.’ I like this posture, where you’re a bit like a trickster. My publisher called me a ‘clever fucker.’ I had never heard this expression before, but it’s like, yeah, I will piss you off but it will be funny, and this to me is very Dadaist.”

This begins to make more sense when we consider that Phaneuf is an author as well as a visual artist. To date, he has published three books of (unconventional) poetry with Montreal-based publishing house Le Quartanier. One of them, his 2008 Téléthons de la Grande Surface (inventaire catégorique), reads as a series of thematic collections of words. He also performs his texts in both literary and visual-art contexts. His March 2015 performance at La Bande Vidéo in Quebec City, for example, is a 40-minute slideshow that combines thousands of JPEGs of “ugly people doing crazy things” (culled from the Internet), with a narrated text of a fictional summer vacation. Once we’ve understood that literature is an active component of Phaneuf’s practice, the role that language plays in his visual works is elucidated. He crafts language, uses it as a tool with which to emphasize the absurd. A good example is his collection of 230 trophies, some of which he presented most notably in a solo exhibition at the Musée régional de Rimouski in 2013. Amassed over several years, the trophies are mostly left intact save for the plaques, which the artist had engraved with tags such as “General Idea” (on a poodle-contest trophy), “Hunter S. Thompson” (on a target-shooting trophy) and “Coups de Génie 1983/Valery Fabrikant” (on a mathematics trophy).

But it would be wrong to class Phaneuf as a mere—and perhaps critical—observer of the sphere of culture he investigates, for he seems sincere in his desire to participate in that sphere. The book project that earned him a Canada Council grant follows the model of a tract: the type of apocalyptic, rambling manuscripts that can be acquired on street corners from individuals who may well be suffering from some mental disorder. Phaneuf’s aim is to assimilate this vernacular literary genre by getting inside the minds of its authors; he wants to become a tract writer in order to produce his own prophetic narrative of the end of the world. A similar desire to participate without judgment also characterizes his relationship to the culture to which he is the closest: that of Quebec.

For it cannot be ignored that underlying Phaneuf’s work is a deep fascination with the culture of his native province, in all its complexity and contradiction. The Quebec culture that Phaneuf evokes has nothing to do with idealized histories of heroically rebellious figures nor with myths of hereditary purity. He looks instead at the components of a culture that is hybrid because it is imbricated in the worldwide system of production and consumption of goods. This is particularly well-illustrated by the work Champ de lys, an installation composed of Quebec flags and other blue-and-white items that was shown in the window of Montreal artist-run centre Articule during the summer of 2013. Sold for a song in local dollar stores and pharmacies in the weeks leading up to Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, the objects placed on view were largely made in factories on the other side of the world, resulting in an odd array of inauthentic shades of blue and deformed fleur-de-lys. Displayed in Articule’s ex-shop window, the installation could be taken as a simple expression of Quebec nationalism, or it could be seen as evidence of the fakery and consumerism involved in any nationalist sentiment. Phaneuf does not simply observe or criticize popular culture—he celebrates it and helps us to see it more clearly.