Interview by Veronica Redgrave

In 1990, Schweitzer redirected his focus to his own inter-textual art practice, motivated by the endorsement of the abstract expressionist painter Robert Motherwell (whom the artist calls his “spiritual father’’), and the critic Clement Greenberg.

Although the influence of Motherwell, Hans Hofmann and Cy Twombly is evident in his oeuvre, Schweitzer explains that he has extended and subverted the modernist canon by introducing textual references through the medium of collage.

The subject of numerous exhibitions in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, including Germany’s Words and Images in Modern Art (2004), as the Canadian representative, his work is featured in private, corporate and public collections nationally and internationally.

Concurrent with the Pompeii exhibition, his Vallum Hadrianus collages will be shown at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ La Vitrine in collaboration with the Istituto Italiano di Cultura Montreal. I spoke with John in his studio.

VdA: How did you come up with the Vallum Hadrianus series?

JS: Throughout my forty-year career as a “collagist”, I have subverted certain notions of modernism, utilizing a post-modern approach. In other words, I choose to address formalist issues of self-referentialities, filtered through an historical sieve: modernism as seen from a rear-view mirror. More specifically, the Roman Empire, especially in its so-called decline, has served as an inspirational template to explore my pan-Hellenic, Latinate penchant. In Vallum Hadrianus, French author Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien was my specific inspiration.

The Vallum series represents an architecture that is both literal and metaphorical. By elliptically exploring the life of Emperor Hadrianus Augustus and his “empire without end’’, I propose several thematic binaries – civilization vs. savagery, nature vs. nurture, the organic vs. the geometric – alluding to his security palisade constructed to exclude marauding Germanic mercenaries.

Originally constructed in 122 A.D. Hadrian’s Wall stands as a symbolic protection of Roman imperialism. Using this point de départ, the collages in my series can be “read” as a narrative. Hence the “inter-animating” quality, in which individual collages speak with each other. For example, the diptych Redemptor Hominis and Et In Arcadia Ego may be viewed as a conversazione sacra of sacred and profane love in a Renaissance paragone. I am fascinated by the topicality of walls today, from Berlin to China and Palmyra – not to mention Trump’s threat to Mexico!

VdA: Have you added to the series since it was created in 2010?

JS: Yes, indeed! I regard every series (12 to date) as organic. Additional works are often prompted by the later appearance of relevant ephemera (often in the form of news clippings), which is incorporated into my open-ended mutating strategy of seriation.

VdA: Where do you find your ephemera for the collages and how do you decide which piece to use?

JS: Perhaps emblematic of Vallum Hadrianus, one entire wall of my studio is occupied by storage boxes filled with ephemera, either earmarked for specific future series and labeled as such (ie: Nero, The Myth of Sedna, Cosima auf der Welt), or untitled containers filled with culled objets trouvés that may materialize into new work. As a voracious reader of a myriad of print media, my habitual tendency is to maintain a syndetic stance, connecting in juxtaposition aleatory texts to construct a “literary” collage evocative of Walter Benjamin’s archeological dictates.

VdA: Why do you use old frames?

JS: Old frames evoke history; process. Each series is defined by a distinctive framing style. For example, works in Vallum Hadrianus are framed in an appropriate “primitivist” style – including collectible “tramp art” frames. The vintage frames not only bear the scars of use and a sense of abandonment but have their own imagery that metaphorically supports the theme.

VdA: You mention Virgil as well as Walter Benjamin, as a source for you. Why Virgil?

JS: As an admirer of Virgil’s Ecologues, I allude to the Roman author as an allegorical guide, a role he served in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Vallum, there is an implicit but invisible guide to Hadrian’s Rome, Londinium (London) and Anglia (England). The open-ended nature of collage allows a non-linear interpretative reading of layers and palimpsests.

Vie des arts, n° 243, summer 2016, pp 24-25

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