Inspirational Embodiments

The Incomparable Sculpture of Valérie Blass

In 2015 Valérie Blass made a sculpture called La méprise consisting of two porcelain objects in flocking, standing on a marble slab and facing a mirror. One of the objects is a black cat with its tail sticking straight up. Viewed from the side and in the mirror, the cat’s tail looks like a man’s protuberant nose, which, looked at again, comes to resemble a penis. This sequence of reading and rereading is a process experienced by everyone who encounters a Blass sculpture. Nothing is only what it seems on the surface.

Valérie Blass, To reside elsewhere, 2015, inkjet print on aluminum, wood, steel, sculpting epoxy dough, sculpture, 38 x 19 x 24 inches. Installation view, “To only ever say one thing forever the same thing,” 2015, Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver. Photo: SITE Photography. All images courtesy the artist and Catriona Jeffries.

For the Montreal artist, méprise is a voluntary misunderstanding. “It’s not a question of people lying,” she says, “but simply a situation where people don’t understand the same thing.” That sense of misunderstanding is one that she welcomes, because for every “missed” understanding there are a multiple number of understandings waiting to be found. It follows, then, that moving through Blass’s sculptural world is to be engaged in a journey of layered discovery. That trip can be curious, as in She Was a Big Success, 2009—the piece that single-handedly made Blass’s reputation as one of Canada’s most exciting artists—and curiouser, as in Déjà donné, 2011, a freakish confabulation of an Egyptian bust, body parts, an animal head and rude orifices.

On occasion, it can also be menacing. From one side, Flat man/j’en ai assez je dis oui, 2015, is a compact, powerful, two-sided sculpture that looks like a close cousin to any number of early modernist free-standing sculptures—it’s like a blackened version of Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space from 1913 without the flowing bellbottoms. From the other side, it’s a pyramid of three male bodies that is simultaneously erotic and strange. But the male figures that make Flat man so seductive are redeployed in I feel funny, 2015, where a pair of photographically rendered men seems to be pinned and racked like insect specimens on the wall.

In talking about I feel funny, Blass refers to the humour she finds in the act of sculptural deconstruction (she says her purpose is to divert and distract your attention and that her work is about “the continuation of discontinuity”). But, for her, the result of that disassembly is an altogether inventive reconstruction of something we’ve never seen before. What is so fascinating about her work is that it allows us to see clearly what has been taken apart, but then in the reconfiguring, we see objects and relationships that are completely unexpected.

Terminons en beauté (cruche phallique), J’ai percé un trou (cruche standard), Précieuse ma précieuse (cruche bauhaus), Bruit encerclé (cruche nouvelle), 2016, 4 objects, steel rod, embroidery fabric, threaded construction, PVC on plinth, 64 x 108 x 35 inches. Installation view, “La Grand Balcon,” 2016, La Biennale de Montréal, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

Blass has said that she is constantly involved in engineering doubleness. The formal register of that pursuit is discernible in her movement between abstraction and figuration; the aesthetic measure is evident in the inventive ways with which she folds photography into her sculptural production; the cultural dimensions are traceable in her toggling between the Internet and art history for the sources of her work. Étant donné le loris perché sur son socle néo-classique, 2008, borrows Duchamp’s famous title to show us a loris, a bug-eyed poisonous marsupial, clinging to a hairy creature that is a cross between the sasquatch and a satyr; Quel regret, 2010, looks as if Giacometti’s 1932 The Palace at 4 A.M. has been reprised as a wooden folk art model; Cargo Culte, 2011, is a three-dimensional hybridization of hands-on surrealism, Calderesque balance and Mondrian geometry; and Prête pour le pire, 2013, suggests that a collection of steel branches has assembled into the form of a praying mantis and is taking itself for a walk. All the objects and figures in her sculptures take positions or assume postures. In aesthetic terms, they give good pose.

Blass’s intention is always to make connections between things. As she says in the following interview, “All the time I’m trying to reveal two things at once, trying to tell two stories by merging them.” One of the reasons why she favours the mirror is that it is a device that doubles every perception; there is how something appears and then how it appears in the mirror through reflections and amplifications. The mirror adds to and changes the story. The story (closer still, the stories) being told through the sculpture of Valérie Blass is, are and will be incomparably seductive. In any serious art competition, she’s guaranteed to be named Miss Understanding.

The following interview is a collage taken from two conversations in the artist’s Montreal studio, the first on April 23, 2018, and the second on October 12, 2018.

Border Crossings: I know very little about your background, so I’m interested to get a sense of how much art was a part of your growing up.

Valérie Blass: My mother was an art teacher and my father, Gaétan Beaudin, was a famous ceramist, but my parents were not married and didn’t live together, so I was mostly raised by my mother. My father didn’t want the responsibility of raising a child. I met him for the first time when I was 12, and after that we were able to have a relationship, which turned out to be a really positive one. But he didn’t teach me anything about art or ceramics. There have been times when I’ve been working with ceramics that I wish I had my father because he could explain things to me. He was a ceramist long before it was really cool; he had a school in the late ’50s and early ’60s. He went to Japan, not as a student but more as a master to meet other masters. He died in 2002 at the age of 78. He was always looking for ways to develop new techniques. He liked the process of using materials, and when he would find something new, he wouldn’t stay with it. He kept changing all the time. I’m like that, too; I do so much research for each piece and when I finish, I think, “Now I know how I can do better.” I respect artists who take a small, simple idea and push it to the maximum, but I don’t see my art like that. Some people want to make objects that are super perfect, and my attitude is the opposite. I don’t need to be perfect or have complete control of technique. It is more about the results that come out of some idea. Usually they come when I work in the studio. I think some material I’m working with has this quality and if I put it in another position, something else will happen. I usually don’t know what that will be, but I do know that because of the torsion I set up, something weird will occur. I want what I do to be fresh. Sometimes I will do something and I think it is too small, but when I make it bigger I realize I can’t really do it in the same way. But I’m not interested in making a perfect thing; I just do it super fast because I love the energy that comes out of spontaneity.

She was a big success, 2009, expanded polystyrene, wood, artificial hair, pigments, 96 x 32 x 32 inches.

In earlier interviews you have talked about your attraction to modernist forms. What is it about them that you find so appealing?

First of all, I am fascinated by every movement of the avant-garde, including cubism and futurism. I was also attracted to an aspect of modernism that came out of primitivism and the way that Picasso was inspired by African art. I always like to mix my interest with other things because I like the contrast. I can draw inspiration from the sensibility of children’s drawings—this is one of those clear and simple things that I talk about. But what is important is when you read a work of art, you have a hierarchy of reading; the eyes are more important than the nose or the hair. I work with the idea of how you read a shape, how you read an idea. My strategy is to divert your attention away from the usual thing and towards some other thing. How I do that, for example, is to make the same thing two times but with a distortion, or I put the same texture on two pieces but one is figurative and the other one is abstract. The double turns up repeatedly in my work: the idea of two things with the same shape and the same motif and then a different shape with the same motif. My motivation in making a piece is about wanting to use material over which I don’t have too much control, but material that will give me some object and some shape.

I want to talk about your studio practice and the making of a work. A sculpture like She was a big success (2009) is relatively simple in that it has only two components. I saw the source images, which make me think that you must have known what you were going to do with that piece in the studio.

Yes. That sculpture is a collage, but not the kind of collage where you simply put two things together. I want to surprise myself with some shape that I can’t imagine and that I can’t figure out. When I find a strategy for making some object, it is usually not one that I have used before.

So the strategy of making comes out of your process in the studio. It is not predetermined?

No. It is more like what happens in Ne pas essayer à la maison (2013), where I stretched hair on a ball. What interests me is that the hair looks like a muscle. I don’t control the shape of the things too much. They can be an organic potato shape, or they can be muscles with ugly hair. And I don’t know why, but I have been fascinated with this fashion picture of a leg, which I think looks like an insect, sort of sexy but really aggressive and menacing. I have a friend who worked with a dancer who was normal when she started dancing—you know, cute face, blonde hair—but the more she danced, the weirder she became. Not weird in her spirit but in her body. She started to be like an insect. What I find so interesting is that the same body has the possibility to undergo such dramatic change that you feel it differently in your own body.

Tell me about Dr. Mabuse psychanalyste (2015). From the back I’m reminded of the woman in Jeff Koons’s Pink Panther bust from 1988 but, of course, without the panther.

Dans la position très singulière qui est la mienn, 2012, plaster, mirror, pigment, wood, 66 x 63 x 61 inches.

When you see the face in the mirror, you see the face of a baby, and the mirror makes the image bigger. I think more about a horror movie than Koons. The face is an object I constructed out of plaster. From the side of the sculpture, you can see that the face of the woman is cut and inside the head a small child is hidden. That sculpture was made for the exhibition “My Life” shown at Daniel Faria in Toronto and Artspeak in Vancouver in 2015. For that exhibition I was trying to make work that was more narrative and inspired by fiction.

What is it about the body that you find so fascinating? Even when you move towards abstraction, it still seems to be body-like. It’s almost an obsession.

Je suis une image, 2014, forton, modified handing system, underwear, synthetic hair extensions, 50 x 18 x 28 inches. Installation view, “My Life,” 2015, Artspeak, Vancouver. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

I’m surprised that you ask me this question because the body is everywhere. How can you not speak about it? I think the information in your body is really important. But I’m interested in a sense of eccentricity in the making of a body. When I start to make a sculpture, I don’t want to make a character that is stupid, like a Bonhomme, the kind of figure that represents a naïve attitude about sculpture. I know that a body in sculpture can be horrible, but I know I’m really good at doing it well. There are many kinds of aesthetics in how you represent the body and there are many levels within abstraction. It was even evident when Betty Goodwin made work with pressed pieces of clothes. The reason I don’t use a mannequin is because it is so different from a real body; it is not generic. For me, these kinds of detail are really important.

…to continue reading the interview with Valérie Blass, order a copy of Issue #148, or SUBSCRIBE today!

Volume 37, Number 4: Women + Sculpture

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #148, published December 2018.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.