Learning about plants from a book

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Interview with Chantal Dupas

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By Courtney R Thompson

Courtney R. Thompson: Be they humble weeds from your garden, let’s start with the fantastic. Albertus Seba’s collection spun a desire for images of beautifully rendered drawings of specimens with his own subversions of classification systems across species—and in some cases, reality. The result is an articulation of detailed knowledge that is also not an accurate representation. For your series N 49º5_ W 97º1_ can you comment on your process in relation to representation?

Chantal Dupas: This series began almost 2 years ago when I was at a point in my practice where I felt I needed to move away from working with animals and the carcass. At the time I was also questioning my compulsion toward accurately depicting these highly intricate and detailed images, and how to move the painting beyond the representational. In an effort to find some answers, I listened to a lot of interviews and artist talks from painters. Something that resonated with me throughout these talks was the idea that a painting could be something that unravels over time; that changes how we experience time and can allow the process to manifest itself in the painting. It therefore became evident that I needed to abandon the photo as a reference source and try my hand at painting from life in an attempt to create work that was more fluid and open.

Within this same time period I was also learning to maintain a fairly elaborate garden at my new home, which resulted with me spending a lot of time in the yard, and the shift towards plants as a subject matter felt like a natural progression. Learning to identify the weeds began as a practical tool when I realized letting “nature take its course” left for a fairly unruly garden (I’m sure I lost a few prize perennials those first summers). I became fascinated with the sadness that hit me with every “weed” I pulled. I couldn’t help but question where this need to control and to “beautify” came from and would watch how the pulled weeds would transform as they wilted in the sun. It was here where I realized that I had my subject matter, still venturing into the abject, such as with the carcasses, but this was something I could bring into the studio with me and paint as it decayed.

CRT: So the temporal aspect both informs and in some ways undermines the accuracy of the image?

CD: Yes, exactly. The fact that my subject matter changed from day to day, forced me to abandon certain passages and start fresh, allowing the pencil lines and underpainting from the day before to be exposed and therefore expose the painting process itself. This way of working also abstracted the subject, moving it away from a traditional botanical illustration and allowing the image to shift back and forth, both providing information while also negating it. It became not just about painting an individual specimen but also about capturing a moment in time.

CRT: The title of the exhibition “Learning about plants from a book” speaks to methods of research. Outside of gathering specimens from your backyard you have worked with flora and its ilk in both field and lab settings including the Vascular Plant Herbarium at the University of Manitoba and the School of Visual Arts in New York. Can you speak to your experience in these different spaces and how they inform your work in the studio.

CD: The title is a nod to both the origins of the work, which started off primarily by referencing field guides and gardening how-to books, as well as my being a second generation non-farmer and the fact that I, well, had to learn about plants from a book. It just stuck with me that all it takes is for one generation to abandon a whole wealth of knowledge, something that has been passed on for generations, and then it’s lost. So when I reached the point where I felt I needed to move beyond books, I began to seek ways in which I could push the research further and view the relationships to plants from different perspectives. I was interested in, say, how a gardener would have a very different relationship to plants than a geneticist or a landscape architect would.

Within the University of Manitoba I have had the opportunity to be exposed to two very different relationships with plants: one in the Herbarium and the other in the Plant Anatomy Lab. The Herbarium functions primarily as a library, focusing on the classification and preservation of the specimens. The specimens also stay intact and familiar to the form in which we expect to see a plant. My time at the Herbarium has allowed for me to not only familiarize myself with the plants native to our region, but also to interact with them on an individual level. For me what resonates is how the staff at the Herbarium truly embody the origin of the word curator (to care for). Within the space, there is a sense of preciousness and affinity to each specimen, some of which are a hundred years old. My time in the Herbarium reflects this careful consideration of the species I choose to paint.

In contrast, within the Lab, the plants are so far removed from what we consider a plant to be. Specimens are sectioned, stained and manipulated in whatever fashion in an attempt to understand the goings-on at a cellular level. Rather than seeing leaves and flowers strewn about tables as you would at the Herbarium, in the Lab you see petri dishes, vials and hear gene sequences being called out while a colleague sits in front of a computer inputting the data. Although this level of genetic detail is not present in any of the work in this exhibition, it has, by far, impacted my studio practice, literally moving the studio into the Lab, enabling my work to venture into the realms of bio art and new media techniques for future series.

In New York, I took a few biological imaging courses at the School of Visual Arts where I was able to learn specialized techniques to help further utilize the equipment back at the University of Manitoba. The relationship to the specimens in the lab at SVA was more so a merging of the two experiences at the U of M, having both a relationship to the specimen as a whole and in its familiar state and then abstracting the plant through the magnification process of the microscope. The fact that this lab resides within an art school allowed me to begin looking at how the tools within a lab setting could be utilized in a more formal and conceptual way in terms of an art practice. Even something as simple as being in New York enabled me to recognize how my time at the University had already begun to alter my relationship to plants, landscape and geography. As I walked around the city looking at plants both familiar and completely foreign to me, I gathered this entirely new sense of distance from home.

CRT: It sounds as if there is almost a ripple effect in thinking through your botanicals. Moving from illustrations in books, photographs, specimens branched out on tables and eventually on lab slides. There are multiple iterations that represent a totality of representation.

CD: Well, that is what I am attempting at the very least. I am inquisitive by nature and it is within my personality to try and see things from all perspectives. I always find it to be an invaluable learning experience that teaches me not only about other species but other people and myself as well.


Courtney R. Thompson is a critic and freelance antagonizer. She has written for several publications including Border Crossings, Art in Print, and ArtSlant. She has an MA in Art History, Theory & Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.