" Are you saying first-degree or second-degree level?  "

Interview de LAURENT LEBON
(conservateur au centre Georges Pompidou, directeur du centre Georges Pompidou Metz)

Laurent Le Bon : Could you briefly retrace your itinerary as a professional artist?

Jean-Christophe Robert: I am a self-taught artist. As a kid I had big jigsaw puzzles with paintings of renown masters like Van Gogh or Vuillard... This gave me a keen sense of observation and the precision required for each paint stroke. After graduating from high school, I would reproduce a number of paintings that I had seen in the Louvre, copying the reproductions that I had. Every day I would go back to the Louvre and contemplate the original paintings, and every day they turned out different. That is where I trained my eyes and learned the trade. Then I made the Beaubourg Center my headquarters, systematically taking advantage of the numerous possibilities it offered. I would get there at noon when it opened and would stay in the language lab for an hour or so learning some rudiments of a foreign language. I would almost never pick the same language the next day. At one p.m. I would go to the library and spend the whole afternoon reading books on 20th century art. When I got hungry, I took a break and went on the sixth floor to get a snack at the centre's cafeteria. Afterwards, I would digest my meal as I meandered my way through the open-ended collection of Pontus Hulten, someone that I got to know well later on. I gradually became familiar with 20th century art. At the end of the day, after visiting some temporary exhibition, I would go back home. It was a period when the Centre Pompidou hosted landmark exhibitions - Dali, Warhol, the Paris series -. After researching on my own for ten years, I studied at the "l'Institut des hautes études en art plastiques"; it was a wonderful experience for me. I was there along with twenty other young artists of various nationalities, and we would spend the whole day discussing with Pontus Hulten, Daniel Buren, Serge Fauchereau, Sarkis or some other guest artists and talking about their work. We saw our professors on a daily basis, among them people like Beaulieu, Renzo Piano, Hans Haacke, Niki de Saint Phalle, Michael Asher, Dan Graham. We used to have lunch with them at the library. I remember that Benjamin Buchloch spent two days with us, the thought-provoking way in which he viewed and analysed 20th century art has had a big influence on me.

LLB : Has it affected your artistic practice at all?

JCR : Not much really, but I was a little intimidated at the time because all the artists who were there had a strong academic background and knew how to get international grants. And I suddenly realized that working alone for ten years could have led me astray. At the time I had already started to exhibit my work at the "Galerie Valleix"; it was my very first gallery. My work was also exhibited in a group exhibition organized by Frank Perrin at Sylvana Lorenz's, and also in a place showing pieces by other artists who worked in suburban Paris (Seine-Saint-Denis).

LLB : What made you go to the Institut?

JCR : Next to my atelier which was located in Pantin, there were two artists. One of them suggested that I should contact the "Institut". In a way, going to the "Institut" helped me to know where I stood in relation to art circles. Some people like Jean-Louis Maubant, the director of the "Institut d'art contemporain" of the town of Villeurbane, who came there for three days was among those who liked my contributions. I found out that I had a certain kind of expertise as far as practice and theory were concerned, and it made me feel much more comfortable. At the "Galerie Valleix", we were two groups of artists and almost never agreed on anything. We had unending discussions about art over dinner. I finally left this gallery and went to Alain Gutharc; later, I accepted an offer from Jennifer Flay who was a very big name at the time.

LLB : In 1999 something crucial happened to you in terms of your artistic development...

JCR : Yes, something decisive. One of the most essential problems in art painting is the treatment of the background. In my earlier years, my work on the background has always agreed with the represented object even when it was abstract. Later on I simplified things and I turned the background into a less processed canvas. In a third stage, after painting over the canvas, I chose to wrap it and use it as a background item behind the object. All of a sudden, I had the feeling that everything made sense after all these years of research. Then I exhibited my works in various galleries for 6 years running, that is about twelve exhibitions a year. After that period, I realized that I was through with this phase of combining still life works and 20th century art pieces. I wanted to use painting to move further and I chose to explore the portrait; I consider it is one of the most beautiful art genres, even though it was thought to be corny at the time. Also, I became aware that people had often bought my still lifes for bad reasons. Some of the viewers merely saw objects and volumes when, for me, they were integral part of my questioning about painting. I began working on portraits and it took me a couple of years before I could find a satisfying format. I decided that I would continue to explore genre painting and that I needed a specific form for each. Unlike what I had done with my still lifes, I chose to exhibit a number of works in progress. It was not well received and brought me new critics and collectors but also held a number away. People tend to have very strict definitions about art forms and resent any changes. I worked in many directions, and over the years bonds and resonating lines have now emerged. For instance, my portraits are often very challenging, unflattering, dark and powerful pieces which may be too disruptive. Conversely, my landscape paintings are nice, attractive to the eye and are in line with genre. Mind you, the nicer and more attractive they look, the stronger the critique may be, but the viewer can remain at first-degree level if he wants to. I think humour is one of the things which prevails in my work.

LLB : Let us go back to your itinerary...

JCR : At "Galerie Jennifer Flay", I was able to show my works in progress and experimentation with genre; only my still lifes had reached a completed stage at the time. Commercially speaking, it was not the best choice, but symbolically I needed to go through that stage of exploration. It was only a few years later at the "Galerie Chez Valentin" that I exhibited my work in three of their galleries - I showed the three distinct art forms that I thought satisfying: the mythological scenes, the portraits and the still lifes. Later, I started exploring further the concept of the landscape and stopped showing my works for a while. I remained isolated for a long period; it lasted longer than I expected due to a road accident which took away three years of my life. As a result I withdrew from art circles.

LLB : How do you feel now that you're back on the art scene?

JCR : Jean-Michel Marchais had bought some of my pieces in the early 1990s. He has always shown an interest in my work. I told him I would like to work with him if he opened a gallery in Paris, which he just did. I'll start working on a new genre - landscape painting and sculptures. I exhibited my sculptures just once twenty years ago, and I must admit I have now solved an important problem thanks to a material I had never used before -gold. My work requires long maturing. I do like that though, it's essential to me especially these days where the notion of duration is no longer in vogue. At last, I have found what I've been looking for in almost two decades, that is a new way of approaching sculpture through what I call the "pocket" sculpture (not a jewel though), something which is just there, lying in your pocket, your wallet or your handbag.

LLB : What is your personal art pantheon? What are the works that have influenced you as an artist?

JCR : I think that Jean-Michel Sanejouand is a major artist. I discovered his work rather late; I encountered him when I was in charge of installing his first exhibit at the Galerie Chez Valentin. He never installs his pieces himself. He likes to experiment with totally different aesthetic forms but his oeuvre maintains a strong coherence. Like me, he had to face viewers' discontent because of his piece, "Calligraphies d'humeur" ; the aesthetic format he had chosen contrasted too strongly with his former compositions and it was not well received.

LLB : Would you agree that your mythological scenes and landscape paintings have parodic overtones?

JCR : Not in the least. I'm just dealing with mock first-degree humour, that's all. What I essentially do is incorporating things, digesting them and making them look so uncritical that you cannot escape the critical innuendoes. It's paradoxical in a way, but that is my own world's view made tangible through art. For instance, when I place "Nike's" logotype next to "the Nympheas", I do not want to compare them but to underscore the hidden quality lying in both pieces. I donšt think that irony, which has taken undue space in contemporary art, has brought any interesting breakthrough. Initially, irony is meant to question things, but today it tends to force answers on viewers, and I think that it has lost its capacity of confounding the spectator. And if artists have lost such capacity, they should take another job.

LLB : Can we discuss your technique?

JCR : I use the computer and serigraphy to design my landscape paintings. I get the image and then I do the painting part. For the portraits, I first apply seven coats of paint, I call that "skin foundation"; it varies according to the model's skin type. It takes me about forty-five minutes to do the portrait afterwards. When making the landscape paintings, I first get the image and I paint over the material whereas for the portraits I have the material and I paint over the image. For still lifes, I paint directly over the canvas in a kind of unsophisticated way.

LLB : Don't you think that what makes an artist's work hard and beautiful at the same time is the difficulty of innovating and not repeating one's work?

JCR : If you spend too much time showing your works in exhibits, it is quite awkward for you to grow. You must not be lured into creating just for exhibitions, otherwise you're bound to repeat your work. The balance between research and monstration is a difficult one to strike. It takes a great deal of maturity, and it requires that you primarily look at your oeuvre rather than on your career. After working for six years on still lifes I became aware of my limitations. I questioned my practice very strongly at the time. I don't feel sorry I did that because it opened up an open-ended space which I'll explore during my whole lifespan. In fact, exploring other genres and aesthetic forms can be very demanding, but I do enjoy this part of my work. It is not immediately rewarding; you suffer and labour a lot, but it has nurtured and brought novel aspects to my whole production.

This interview was made in January 2008 by Laurent Le Bon with the assistance of Claire Garnier.