I like to paint, so I paint

By Guillaume Clermont Piero Bisello

For more than 15 years, Guillaume Clermont has explored the nature of art institutions – mostly through painting. For one of his projects, Carnets d’errance (Dislocations), he abandoned his skull paintings – Guillaume only paints the same skull – in public space across the world. Ignoring the established (or establishment) of art institutions by translating public space into an art space, he challenges his interest in notions of abandonment, self-sabotage, repetition and the improbable. Playing at the periphery of what a space for the arts can be prompts existential questions: Do paintings need art institutions at all? Is painting compatible with public space – both economically and visually? How can the practice of painting deal with the very definition of art?

To explore such questions, Brussels-based art writer, historian and philosopher, Piero Bisello, met Guillaume Clermont at one of these spots you could stumble over a painting and ask yourself: Who lost that skull!? Is it for me? Does it belong here? Do I belong here? Why don’t we go together?!

An Interview About Art In Public Space

Piero Bisello I wonder if a necessary condition for public art is that public institutions support it. If so, many projects would be left out of this category, implying that public space is, in fact, the monopoly of government officials who decide what kind of art can be installed there. I am making a point with conceptual engineering rather than political philosophy. The question boils down to whether any art in public can be considered public art. For those who feel more conservative with their definitions, your abandoned paintings1 on the street don’t fall within the category of public art. Governments don’t know about them. They haven’t supported them in public space, at least not directly. Perhaps they are considered as subversive as graffiti or even political demonstrations. Theoretically speaking, do you consider them public art?

Guillaume Clermont I have never considered my abandoned paintings as such. I don’t think all art in the public space is public art.

Nevertheless, it is a matter of definition. In a book published following the conference Œuvres à la rue: pratiques et discours émergents en art public,2 one finds this definition:

The concept of public art refers to permanent or ephemeral artwork designed to be integrated into – or deployed in – public spaces, natural sites, buildings,or structures, through a process of planning or community engagement in which artists, citizens, architects and urban planners may participate.

My abandoned paintings would therefore not be public art. Neither permanent, nor ephemeral, these paintings left in the public space are abandoned artworks. They don’t become artwork because they are in the public space: they are simply there. The public space then becomes a space among others – a studio, a gallery, a museum, a room, a forest, etc. – where these paintings can be displayed or placed.

Your question raises an important point: Who decides what can or cannot be done in public space? In other words, who controls, monitors or authorises the actions that are allowed? Above all, according to which criteria?


Carnets d’errance (Dislocations), Brussels, 2014

My interventions in public space have been motivated by a simple question: What to do with all these paintings I am making? The artist Babak Afrassiabi pointed out to me that by finding a place for my paintings, I also find a space for my practice. In doing so, I take a critical look at the institutional context of the works’ presentations, their modes of reception and their commodification.

These Dislocations are also a way to explore new perspectives. I learn to see my work differently, to take it out of the studio, but also to let it live, to leave it there and to confront it with the precariousness of existence.

Piero Bisello The institutional theory of art, according to which art is defined only by the institutional context in which it exists, finds strong opponents. Arguably, even one of its founders, Arthur Danto later dismissed this thesis. For example, a melody sounds like a melody even if there are no ‘melody institutions’ certifying them for you. Perhaps it is different for contemporary visual art, where a urinal turns into a sculpture if there is sufficient institutional support to back it. How necessary is institutional context for your paintings? To borrow terms from Paul Ardenne, is it a way to demonstrate that ‘classic media’, like representational painting, can also be ‘contextual’?

Guillaume Clermont Isn’t painting, with its endless history, already an institutional context?

Still today, for many people, a painting is necessarily an artwork. One can judge this painting, say that it is good or bad, but in any case, it will inevitably be considered – well, almost – as an artwork.

It is precisely because painting is the archetype par excellence of artwork that it is possible for me to practice these abandonments. My paintings do not need an institutional context. Even on the street, a painting remains a painting. Would it be the same for any art object? I doubt it.

On the other hand, it would be wrong to think that my practice could be completely free of any institutional context. I would like to, but it is improbable, so to speak. If each abandoned painting can exist without an institutional context, the whole project as a totality can hardly be perceived without an institution, even a modest one. Knowing or not that an abandoned painting is part of a project where hundreds of other paintings have been abandoned changes our perception of it. This information can hardly be transmitted to the public without institutional mediation.

Concerning what Paul Ardenne – and before him, Jan Swidzinki – called contextual art, I am of the opinion that in fact, all art is contextual. Art is never without context. What interests me about these abandoned paintings is to point out how the meaning of an artwork can change depending on the context in which it is presented – whether it is in the Louvre, the M HKA or on the street.


Carnets d’errance (Dislocations), Seoul, 2014

Piero Bisello The subject of your paintings is always a skull with a dislocated jaw, appropriated from a 17th century diptych painting. At the same time, everything else changes: the skull becomes textured in different colours; it is placed in different scenes; it gets a hat, etc. I wonder how you approach these variations on the subject. Are they made meaningless with their banality and association with the painstakingly repeated skull? Do they need to play with the space in which the paintings are abandoned? You must realise they sometimes end up creating a specific relationship with their environment in public space – for example, when a colourful background of the skull in the painting mimics the colourful graffiti on which it lies.

Guillaume Clermont First of all, I think it is important to point out the motivation of my painting practice: I like to paint, so I paint.

This statement goes to the core of my practice. Perhaps it is also one of the rare justifications – if not the only one – on which a painting practice can sustainably rely. If the tradition of painting can fascinate with its centuries of history, it can also be heavy and suffocating. In the words of Edmund Alleyn, one must “consider painting as an entirely painted territory.3

Does this mean that everything has been painted? No. Only that this territory is known, mapped, which does not prevent it from being wandered in complete freedom. A map is only a possible representation of a given territory.

My approach to painting is rather intuitive. A few ideas, a desire, a mood, some images, or just a colour and I begin a painting. The only constraint: this skull with a dislocated jaw. I often paint many paintings at the same time. Because it can take a long time from the beginning of a painting to its abandonment – I don’t abandon all of my paintings – I rarely do a painting knowing exactly where to abandon it. I prefer simply to take a few paintings with me and abandon them as I walk along.

At the moment I abandon a painting, it is important for me to make sure that the intentionality of my action can be perceived. Indeed, it happens that a painting abandoned in a given public space resonates in a particular way. However, the documentation I make of this abandoned painting should not be mistaken for the experience an improbable viewer will have of it. The photographs that document these abandonments stage a moment that does not really exist.

Piero Bisello Your practice is divided between painting and research. The latter includes an investigation into the nature of art institutions. You have been founding your art institutions: a gallery in a locker, art shows hidden in a run-down room in Brussels, outdoor exhibitions in a back alley in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve in Montréal, art on Tinder. Like the abandonment of your paintings, these projects have been supporting your investigations. I suppose they have provided evidence of the ways art is distributed. Philosopher Catharine Abell says that “the notion of an artwork is essentially institutional, because facts concerning which things are artworks are institutional facts.” Do you agree with this statement? After all, your work on the borders of institutions, on the way art can be distributed between their margins – do you think there is more to art than institutions?

Guillaume Clermont I prefer to say that my practice is focused on painting and that research is only a kind of hobby. This may sound a bit glib, but it’s more accurate.

I am not familiar with Catharine Abell’s work, but I think this statement is accurate. However, the public is not always aware of this. There is also a difference between an artwork and an aesthetic experience – whether the latter originates in an artwork or a sunset. Unlike an artwork, an aesthetic experience does not find its justification on the side of the institution.

Does this mean that institutions are necessary for art? I try to think that the institution – no matter its size or reputation – is not necessary for art and does not guarantee the quality of any art.

As I pointed out earlier, if painting is in itself an institutional context, logically, it is the same for art. To make art, it is then to be on the territories and under the gaze of the institution from the very start. Unfortunately, it is difficult to deny such a state of affairs. Here lies perhaps the core of the problem.

  1. Started in 2007, this project is titled Carnets d’errance (Dislocations)

  2. Our translation, the original quote is in French. Conference presented in September 2019 at the Galerie de l’UQÀM – Bergeron, Yves, Guérin, Annie, Hardy, Dominic and Gilles Lapointe (ed.). Œuvres à la rue : pratiques et discours émergents en art public. Montréal: Département d’histoire de l’art de l’UQÀM, 2010, p. 127 

  3. Our translation, the original quote is in French. Alleyn, Edmund, Alleyn, Jennifer and Lapointe, Gilles (ed.). De jour, de nuit : Écrits sur l’art. Montréal : Éditions du Passage, 2013, p. 18