Garth Amundson and Pierre Gour met at the Banff Center of Fine Arts Residency in 1986 and have collaborated in various degrees for the last 27 years. Some bodies of their work are literal collaborations, conceived, developed, and actualized side-by-side. At other times, they serve one another in a support role: one-person sewing panels together, applying photographic emulsion or realizing the design and installation of the work. In either context, they are truly a collaborative team of artists who insist on continuing to produce challenging work that keeps them stimulated and provokes an audience response.
Their work explores the perceptions and politics surrounding the home and domestic sphere and identity politics. Using the technique of collage/montage and photo scanning to speak metaphorically about the social construction of identity, their installations invite the viewer to think about one’s own gender construction by psychologically projecting themselves into the images.
In each project they seek to explore and dissect identity using their own experience as a point of departure. For example, during Amundson’s eight-month Fulbright in Mexico in 2007, their own sense of home was put into question. After being forcibly separated at the U.S./Canada border, and after 22 years as a couple, they were faced with the prospect of not having a home together. Underlying all of their work, are these recent experiences with immigration laws, which have threatened their sense of home. Although legally married in Canada, the Defense of Marriage Act bars same-sex couples from all federal benefits in the U.S. conferred by marriage, including the right to sponsor an immigrant spouse for permanent residence. Same-sex bi-national couples can be forced to separate because U.S. law views them as strangers.
Appropriating vintage studio portraits as metaphors for different situations, provoking questions in the viewer's mind. Each print tells a distinct story alluding to hidden histories and how communities were created through a series of secret codes, unspoken language, and clandestine connections. They are now working on a body of work for exhibition in South Korea, in the spring of 2013.
Amundson holds an MFA from Syracuse University and Gour from the University of New Mexico. Both are founding members of Shift Collaborative Studio in Seattle. Amundson is a Professor of Art at Western Washington University. Gour is an independent artist and visual manager for Macy’s downtown Seattle.
The Advocate: Working at as a collaborative team in visual arts raises a lot of questions. It's not the same thing as a musical writing team where one person usually writes the lyrics and the other person the music. Do you have certain roles you each usually play in the process?
Pierre Gour: Each project is different in how we approach it. We influence one another, share ideas, research and challenge ourselves pulling from our own artistic backgrounds. Garth's background is in photography, mine is in painting. So we're able to tap into these contrasting skill sets in order to actualize each project. For example, in "Mr. & Mr." we worked together to create large combined images of double-headed surrealistic portraits. The photographs were appropriated from our collection of turn-of-the-century vintage cabinet photographs. We worked together in order to layer the images. The dialogue and process involved discussions regarding how much, how little, and to what degree the images would be manipulated.
Garth Amundson: So, we don't maintain distinct roles while collaborating. At times, Pierre is the "lead" regarding concept and development of any particular project. Other times, I'll take on that role. This is a very organic process that is usually decided throughout the act of making. Recently, while working on the piece entitled "HEAD(S)", Pierre was instrumental in the layout and design of the installation, while I spent the bulk of studio time pre-assembling the hand-cut heads by gluing them to large tailor bank pens. Since we split our time between two different locations, our individual studio experiments are brought together when we meet. We exchange ideas via email and often shuttle images back and forth.
Your work that depicts your inventories of items in your various collections is interesting. Ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein wrote on collections as a form of biography. Do you each have your own specific items you collect? Or are they individual mania? And what would you say your collections tell us about you?
Pierre: Yes, collections do act as a form of biography and tell us a great deal about the collector. In our case, we have been in a constant state of flux over the last 27 years, moving constantly for work from one state and country to another. Our collections remain a constant. They act as a souvenirs marking events throughout our lives together. Truly a form of documentation creating an archive of memories. From Albuquerque to Norway, we have gathered objects ranging from vintage photographs to wooden platters. Obviously, each object represents a different time and place. We spend an inordinate amount of time searching for treasures together and surprising one another with new additions.
Garth: The project entitled "Inventory" was initiated by a simple phone call with an insurance agent. We were told to document our possessions and/or anything that was unique and irreplaceable. We looked around and realized that applied to nearly everything we owned. In the process of documenting the objects, I often said that we should photograph everything and then sell the objects. The contradiction of owning and being owned by possessions is something that we deal with every time we move. The end result of the project were giant over-sized panels depicting several of our collections. "Contemporary art has examined the museum archive extensively through cataloguing, categorization, and presentation. However, the idea of dissecting more personal collections is new territory. While exploring ideas of anxiety, autobiography, and taxonomy, Amundson and Gour's work goes beyond posing the question of why people collect, and seeks to understand how people delineate their existence through the amassment of things."
Mr. & Mr. I, II, III: The work itself is in keeping with the rest of our experiments with appropriation of vintage photography. In this context, we have paired turn-of-the-century studio portraits of two men into single images. Referencing the complexities of queer identity and the often convoluted morphing of two beings into a single relationship, these "couples" awkwardly hold space in an absurd and monstrous fashion. As if they were suspended trophies, the couples hang together in a strange and whimsical grouping of three.
Does working and living together ever pose problems? Yes, this is personal but your situation is a fantasy for many couples and so there is a natural curiosity about the difficulties as well as the rewards.
Pierre: I take great satisfaction in living and working together. Our lives are intertwined in our day-to-day activities in regards to what we're doing and how it impacts our work. Although not always perfect, what is most important to me is not just simply being together, but relying on one another for love and support both in and out of the studio. Our work is directly related to our lives and relies on an autobiographical component which is, at times, a literal citation of our personal history and, at other times, a point of departure for our investigations and experimentations.
Garth: One man's fantasy...Working together is challenging at times but I'm determined that it takes two people to create one successful artist. The amount of energy that it takes to maintain an active studio and exhibiting career is considerable. By working together, we're able to capitalize by doubling our resources and energies. By referencing our own personal experience and using it as a lens for most of our projects, we're able to use what's in our own backyard and combine it with research in order to make our work. Whether it's surrounding immigration and our own story about being a bi-national gay couple struggling with the US Defense of Marriage Act or reflecting every day queer domesticity, we are never at a loss for ideas, topics or themes. Through good times and bad times, our life together provides an endless wealth of material to draw from.
This body of work was initiated during the summer while participating in a residency at Fundación Valparaíso in Southern Spain. Utilizing the climate, we chose to further experiment with cyanotypes and various alternative processes. By citing our surroundings and combining information with existing source materials we were able to explore new ideas and techniques. Although concepts shift and change, we are still fascinated by the use of appropriated vintage images and continue to question photography’s history while deconstructing notions of documentary truth.
This installation is a by-product of both Cut-It-Out and Penetrating Cuts, which are scanned images of thousands of photographs and snapshots, both vintage and contemporary. In this project, we have selected to use the cut-out male faces to mount with two-inch bank pins directly into the wall. The display references the historic use photographs for scientific categorization and identification. In this context, we are reflecting on our own social construction and the fluidity of masculinity and how it is presented through portraiture.
In this body of work, the narratives in the photographs are embedded like any other hidden history; they reveal themselves through the interaction with the viewer. The fiction created within this dialogue completes the link of communication. The prints are selected from hundreds of vintage photographs we have collected over the past 26 years. Physically, the images are scanned, magnified, silkscreened with a translucent layer of a historic wallpaper pattern, and cut. These appropriated studio portraits act as metaphors for different situations, provoking questions in the viewer's mind. Whether it is two men engaged in fraternal camaraderie or a young boy in costume, each image conceals and reveals fragments of a story.
An exploration spearheaded by Amundson & Gour's investigation into the historic application and use of vintage photographs. Over the last five years they have been concentrating on work that addresses topics ranging from domestic motifs to immigration and identity politics. For this body of work, they have created large scale digital 111 cm x 290 cm prints using hundreds of vintage photographs found in thrift stores and antique shops as well as personal snapshots which they have been collecting for the past 24 years. According to the artists, "These photographs metaphorically become historical evidence of our own lost identity. Social historian Judith Gutman expressed that 'photographs may be our most perfect cultural artifact.' We are interested in this notion of artifact / evidence not as a means of looking at the past but an expression of the present day." Seven of these pieces were created specifically for exhibition at CANDYLAND/rum för samtidig konstupplevelse, Stockholm, Sweden.
Sub-divisions was created during an eight-month Fulbright investigation of the themes of domesticity, immigration, and national identity. The photographs are composed of Mexican landscapes with incomplete houses under construction called Obra Negras ("black works") contrasted with vintage appropriated images of the idealized American home. This body of work was fueled by their experience with immigration laws, which threatened their sense of home. The Federal Defense of Marriage Act bars same-sex couples from the right to sponsor an immigrant spouse for permanent residence. Most same-sex bi-national couples are forced to separate because the U.S. government views them as strangers under the law. Sub-divisions addresses the universality and fragility of their collective dream of having a home.
Photo credit: Kai Michael
Amundson and Gour are currently part of an exhibit at the Kirkland Arts Center in Kirkland, Washington:
RESIDUE presents recent mixed media works by four artists that challenge and interpret notions of identity, gender politics, and domesticity. In our highly charged, ever-changing political environment, narratives addressing the home often appear to be almost quaint. The universal idea of home — a retreat, a sanctuary, and respite from a fast-paced and often-hostile world outside — is something we all try to define and embrace. Through October 20.
For more of their work: Garthandpierre.com