Peter Gnass en

Progressions and Projections Two Major Series From the Work of Peter Gnass

Standing before Peter Gnass’s photograph Ground Zero (2002), the viewer experiences a feeling of strangeness at the sight of this slice of urban architecture, which is both familiar and unsettling.

One always senses the massive solidity of the materials and structures in Gnass’s works, which rapidly or gradually deconstruct in ways that offset this initial effect and make us finally aware of the fluidity of our perceptions and the precariousness of the forms of observed objects.

Biographical Note

Peter Gnass was born in Rostock, Germany in 1936. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg before immigrating to Canada in 1957 to pursue his studies at Montreal’s École des beaux-arts. In 1965, Gallery XII at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts organized his first major solo show. Up to this point, Gnass had been interested mainly in printmaking but the following year he began to concentrate more on sculpture. He took part in the Alma Symposium and became president of the Association des sculpteurs du Québec. Until 1975, he drew on the qualities of metals, resin and Plexiglas, using them to produce the series Lumenstructure and Topolog. Gnass’s works have been exhibited in many venues including the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal ; the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec ; the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris ; the University of Vermont in the United States ; the 2nd Middelheim Biennale in Antwerp, Belgium ; the Palazzo della Permanente in Milan ; and the Salon Art 3’72 in Basel, Switzerland. It was also during this period that Gnass became a professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa, a position he held until 1995.

It should also be pointed out that the artist underwent highly rigorous training that enabled him to master the art of linear perspective handed down from the Italian Renaissance (he learned this in various schools of fine art) and the science of engineering, which he learned from his father, himself an engineer.

Gnass first exhibited works from the Progression series in 1976 in Montreal, (at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Gilles Corbeil Gallery) and Quebec City (at the Jolliet Gallery). He also executed an ephemeral sculpture entitled Progressions for the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal ; made from aluminum and neon tubes, this imposing installation took up the entire gallery space. Beginning in 1978, the public began seeing his first works in the Projections series, which included Key West, Fla., U.S.A. (in the collection of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal). In 1980, Gnass took up an art residency in Paris, having gained access to the Quebec Studio at the Cité internationale des arts. With his Projections, which quickly made a name for themselves in France, he won the Prix de la sculpture at the 25th Salon de Montrouge, along with the Prix Adam and the Prix Daum at the 32nd Salon de la Jeune Sculpture in Paris. His Projections would also be exhibited in Brussels, Belgium, as well as in various museums and galleries in Canada. In 1984, the artist began working on a new series of pieces on the theme of war (some of these can be found in the collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts).

From 1990 to 2000, Gnass did installations on themes increasingly anchored to the idea of ocean voyages ; during this same period, in fact, he crossed the Atlantic three times on a sailboat that he built. The Projections remained, nonetheless, a constant in his work, as we can see from his Blueberry Pie Box (2000), now in the collection of the City of Montreal. In 2001, Gnass began working on a series of photographs and drawings that appear to be a synthesis of Progressions and Projections (Atelier Barjols, Step it up…). Shortly afterward, in 2004-2005, the Galerie de l’UQAM and the Musée régional de Rimouski jointly organized a retrospective of his work ; for this occasion, the artist made two large-scale installations (entitled C for Cut) that were also part of his Projections series. These two institutions already had, in fact, a number of Progressions in their permanent collections and it seemed fitting to incorporate a new Projection into this exhibition.

Works from these two series can also be found in many other public collections. More recent acquisitions include two drawings—Projet de projection d’un polygone – Sq Albert Schweitzer and Projet de projection – 43, rue Vieille-du-Temple—purchased by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2004. The following year, one of the five editions of Re-framed (2004), Step it up (2004) and Atelier Barjols (2004) were incorporated into the Loto Québec Collection. Between 2004 and 2006, the Musée régional de Rimouski acquired ten drawings Projection sur une forme hexagonale, and Progression sur deux perspectives « 6 » (P2P6), which dates from 1975. And in January 2007, the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec came into possession of Progression positive/négative (1978).

More recently, in March 2010, Montrealers were treated to the sight of Gnass’s latest Projection, a work entitled Mon point de vue that was installed in the Palais des Congrès during the 10th edition of the Art souterrain event.

Ongoing Concerns

Peter Gnass’s approach to art making is based on ongoing, recurrent concerns that persist in his works regardless of the techniques he uses. In both the Progressions and Projections series, the artist has used sculpture and photography as much as painting and drawing to make his ideas tangible. “Very early on in my career,” he says, “I set out to treat images and objects in a variety of ways and took a keen interest in multidisciplinary forms of expression. I was convinced that one and the same idea can be interpreted and actualized in numerous media including sculpture, painting, drawing, and photography, as well as in the projection of still or moving images. Such alternate uses of media may be seen as an opportunity for the artist to diversify his modes of expression and to remain as close as possible to his original idea.” Gnass’s art practice comprises, therefore, widely varying uses of numerous techniques and media. At the same time, however, it is guided by certain key concepts such as visual perception and (cognitive or collective) memory. In his works, this often translates into rigorous representations of light in space and movement through time. As the artist explains : I explored the possibilities inherent in the use of light first in the sculpture series entitled Lumenstructure and then in the Topolog series, which included moving objects. I next developed the Progressions series to analyze these movements using a [linear] perspective device that led me to break down movement into sequences of still images. All the works in the Progressions series are rooted in the concept of sequence and operate via groups of successive fixed images that describe movement through time. The representation of sequential motion constructed around two vanishing points suggests— depending on the perspective—the passing of the image. This passing, which I have explored via different media, seems to me to be slated to stop at a certain moment, namely, when it comes up against a material form. In other words, I could say that it is form that takes shape through projection on surfaces. Finally, this idea could, from a perceptual point of view, turn back on itself, so that a projection that appeared to be a virtual image on a given surface could also be interpreted as a shadow cast on a form. This line of thinking led me to produce the Projections series (the projected form was generally a polygon), which made use of illusion and the process of anamorphosis to show how relative the phenomenon of perception is to point of view.

Progressions When Gnass set out, in 1976, to extend his experiments on the relationship to visual space, he used drawing as a way of envisioning what might be involved in the progression of a line as it develops over time. It was this that gave rise to the Progressions series, which was motivated by the desire to present within a temporal framework, and hence in sequences, the ways in which drawings move in space. Like film sequences, these drawings incorporated time into images that showed us in “real” time—or “imagined” time rather, since they were fixed on paper—the virtual possibilities inherent in lines’ meandering movements. Gnass then focused his attention on small-scale Plexiglas sculptures that conveyed linear development in space-time. Shortly after this, the artist began creating temporary installations in which the same lines were made to unfold within the space of the exhibition venues. In 2005, Ève-Lyne Beaudry aptly summed up the nature of this approach : “the concept of progressions constitutes a new artistic orientation, one in which forms move progressively through a determined ‘space-time.’ These deconstructed and reconstructed forms are perceived in accordance with the place they happen to occupy in the ongoing progression of a double linear perspective system.”

Projections The Projections series stems from questions raised by Gnass’s Progressions : the artist wondered what might happen to a developing form (or line) were it to come up against a physical obstacle. Up to that point, Gnass had been steering lines toward virtual collisions with obstacles. Now he considered experimenting with a form that would move in the direction of an actual, concrete obstacle : the form in this case would be transported by two trucks and would hit an object, thereby creating an impact. This project was never carried out due to safety concerns, and the only trace of the original idea exists in the form of a drawing. In the end, the artist used light to generate this impact on forms : he projected a geometric form—a polygon—onto various features of the urban environment and then recreated, by means of sculpture, the dislocated form he had produced. Gnass’s Projections, a focus of study for so many years, resurfaced with renewed energy ten years ago. “For the past decade I have been working on projects that often incorporate the concept of memory (the work of collective and cognitive memory), using cast shadows and superimpositions in the manner of palimpsests. Recently, some of my projects have turned out to be syntheses of my whole approach to art making, particularly those that use photography, which has remained a constant since the 1970s […] For works like Trou de mémoire (2004), I used digital imagery and superimpositions of photographed drawings.” Like Step it up, this work is in effect a condensed version of Projections and Progressions. With Les deux pouvoirs (2007), Gnass has once again articulated the main issues (this time with a more political dimension) of certain photographs in the Progressions series : after almost three decades, the telephone poles are back, now digitized and in colour.

Extensions of Progressions and Projections This is one of the obsessions of the artist who, in 2008, wrote : “I have been working for many years, in fact, on perceptual phenomena. […] Generally speaking, I am exploring that experience which viewers have when they find themselves in the presence of a natural—yet constructed— optical phenomenon, one in which they perceive surprising representations of their environment.” Gnass is one of those artists who constantly strives to be innovative. Indeed some critics have referred to him as an “inventor.” Pierre Restany, for instance, dubbed him an “artist of the mirage” in a text he wrote on Projections ; Louise Déry, for her part, described him as an artist geometrician in the catalogue she devoted to his work (she invited five other authors to contribute). In short, we could say that Gnass is always trying to solve the artistic problems that obsess him and that he, as a seasoned inventor, considers all means of plastic expression to be valuable. “My main interest in alternating means of expression resides in the possibility of imparting to the work a new dynamism and a clearer message for the receiver.” Ground Zero, a photograph that belongs in the Projections series, clearly demonstrates Gnass’s interest in political issues. Moreover, since 2005 he has been devoting more attention to the concept of collective memory (previously explored in the series on the theme of war). Ground Zero seems, therefore, to have been one of those beams that converged to create the recent series entitled La multitude déchue, begun in 2008. Here again we find “superimposed” images. Their accumulation is transformed, this time around, into juxtaposed posters displayed in the public arena. But this is another story, of which more later. . .

Christine Bernier

Christine Bernier is Professor specialized in museum studies and contemporary art, and chair of the Department of Art History and Cinema Studies in University of Montreal. She has been in charge of the Travelling Exhibitions Program and the Education Department at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. Christine Bernier is the author of L’art au Musée. De l’œuvre à l’institution published in Paris at l’Harmattan in 2002.