Best known for her collaborations as one of the Young Romantics (George Gillmore, Angela Grossmann, Attila Richard Lukacs, Vicky Marshall, Philippe Raphanel, Charles Rea, Derek Root, Mina Totino), whom were given a 1985 show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Angela Grossmann’s engaging, atmospheric multi-media paintings address marginality, social displacement and youth, in fact many aspects of life in the margins of so-called mainstream society. There are distant echoes of the Holocaust but these are never direct, only inferences, always visually charged with the universalities of the human condition. For Affaires d’Enfants (1987), Grossmann painted inside suitcases abandoned by a Paris agency that booked camp holidays for orphans. Her ongoing series Scapegoats reworks and evolved out of British Columbia Penitentiary prisoner’s mug shots from the 1940s. For this interview, John K. Grande met with Angela at her studio in Gastown, Vancouver to refresh her long-term links with the Montreal arts milieu, of which she was a part for some years.
JKG: The Young Romantics that you were part of and exhibited with in 1985 at the VAG reinvented history, the human figure, with idealism. The idea of art as memory was brought into a new form. Vancouver left you young Emily Carr students a lot of space and freedom.
AG: It was an advantage. We were encouraged by renegade teachers who taught us to be renegades. Tom Hudson believed in this absolute freedom and was a great educator. Robin Mayer actually was a pirate at one point in his life while Bill Featherston was this hard drinking, Steinbeck-like character. These were people who were guiding us.
JKG: The lineage you are drawing from is vast. You yourself grew up in London. Did you encounter displacement, and the trauma of moving through cultures?
AG: I always felt displacement and with a German Jewish background.
JKG: Many of your paintings, collages, are frontal, indeed even classical in their presentation. Is there an intent in this?
AG: Well I like to strip down the image to essentials in collage. It’s not about place time context and I think it makes them more confrontational and so the conversation is more about my process and the conversation is about idea and materials. The struggle to gouge meaning and presence by ripping, tearing, drawing, reframing etc. As Henri Matisse once said “Collage is drawing with scissors.” In my case, collage could even be without scissors! Glue becomes part of the piece and I love that the materials and chance are very much part of how the pieces transform, mutate, and reassemble.
JKG: How did the Scapegoats series actually come about?
AG: One day on a visit to Vancouver I walked into an old bric-a-brac shop and the owner asked how I was, then smiled and pulled out an envelope of mug shots and files from under the counter. She saved them for me and I bought the lot taking them back to Europe with me. I didn’t touch them for two years. When I read all the files they were very moving documents on prisoners in the BC Penitentiary during the 1930s and 1940s. When they closed the Penn in the 1980s they threw out the files. So much for privacy… What amazed me was the “crime”. Vagrancy was even a crime. And the jail sentences were long, even draconian. Sometimes there were lashes for being homeless or addicted to drugs. Most of these images were of inmates who had been processed with their heads shaved and already in prison gear. After a year or so I did find a way to make work while mindful of the responsibility I owed these subjects. I attempted to bring back a sense of individuality and dignity to the ones I chose to work with. The mug shots were tiny black and whites but clear and I gave them colourful clothing and scarves to replace their grey cloth coats. I used floral bed sheets and lace pillowcases as a ground and domestic items that would be missing from their prison cells. It was a way of redressing unspoken injustice.
JKG: With the Scapegoats series, the photograph seems to be the point of departure. Do you see t that way?
AG: In the case of the prisoners I knew they were petty criminals, guilty of being vagrants or of having ‘deviant’ sexuality or of being addicted to substances. For the most part they were just guilty of being poor and falling through the cracks. I think I could see all of that in their tiny black and white mug shots. They all had a similar despondency in their eyes. I knew I owed them something, that I had a responsibility towards them to treat them with respect and bring them back to life with colour and charm. I knew that I had to disguise them while at the same time represent them. It was a tricky process.
I collaged them together with people I knew and also some classic Greek and Roman heads I particularly liked and in that way they became both personal and universal at the same time. I devised my own very complicated method to make this happen by sandwiching old bits of film using finicky and eccentric methods. I did not use the computer or anything, I like to make my work with my hands, slow and considered, it just turns out better for me.
JKG: Do you see photography as offering a different dimensionality of truth than painting?
AG: I like photos because they are the opposite to my paintings. Photographs actually happened while paintings are all about mood and atmosphere and what if. Paintings are hard to pin down in time, space and reality and that’s what makes them special whereas photos are actually rooted in a split second that recorded the past.
JKG: And so this dialogue we see between the photograph and the collage/painting in your art is about this duality that exists between the painting and the photograph…
AG: I like that! The conversation is in relation to the image I didn’t make. These photos are still images that I pick out. For some reason they appeal to or connect to me. I pick photos the same way I mix colours… I’m after a certain hue or tone. I don’t know why. I just follow my instinct.