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 Volume 13, Issue 75  |  September 17, 2021


With Hymns to the Silence, Jacques Garnier captures the sublime

By MARRIE STONE

“A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn’t borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window, and stairway to express it.” –Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

If architects bestow souls onto their structures, photographer Jacques Garnier lays them bare for the rest of us to appreciate. Like a portrait artist who captures a subject’s essence, Garnier’s photographs bring that same reverence and attention to architecture. But what of the artist himself? Where does the creator’s imagination originate?

With Hymns closeup

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Photo by Jeffrey Rovner

Photographer Jacques Garnier

Looking at the poetic tranquility in Garnier’s current exhibition, Hymns to the Silence – on display through October 24th at the Laguna Art Museum – no one could guess at his artistic origin story. Inspired by a lifelong obsession with beautiful buildings and iconic structures, Garnier can also trace his influences to some unlikely sources, including a college job collecting trash, a long love affair with poetry, and a captivation with abstract art. There are also hints of Buddhism and a fascination with the Japanese artistic treatment of negative space. 

Whether subject matter is implicitly incorporated or obviously left out, Hymns to the Silence represents the distillation of decades of work that’s come before it. Tracing the trajectory of Garnier’s journey is therefore central to appreciating his art.

With Hymns broad

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Photo by Jacques Garnier

Garnier’s image of the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, titled “The Veil and the Vault,” illustrates his use of spareness, light, and negative space

Deconstructing an artist’s odyssey

Artistic influences are often easier to appreciate in hindsight. After a photographer has amassed a body of work, and assembled several different collections, audiences can absorb them in one swoop, seeing trends and repeating themes. Though Garnier didn’t pick up a camera until his 50s, his mind regularly returned to similar subject matter and intellectual ideas for decades.

Garnier attributes a recurring job in college as one of those defining moments. In his late teens and early twenties, he spent his summers collecting trash for the Department of Sanitation in Los Angeles. Even in the 1960s, realizing how much waste Americans generated had a visceral impact on him. “The amount of working and useful objects thrown away left an indelible impression on me,” Garnier says. That awareness of how much excessive junk our culture accumulates – whether explicitly examined or intentionally avoided – is woven throughout his work.

Earlier in his career, Garnier made a study of clutter. One such exercise, which never made it into a formal collection, investigated the hidden mess behind hotel room doors. Instead of the unblemished, sanitized spaces that guests encounter at check-in, Garnier was interested in what they left in their wake – unmade beds with disheveled sheets, dirty linens, and trash cans that hadn’t been emptied. “I’m not interested in the people,” Garnier says. “I’m interested in the places people have been, and what they leave behind.” 

With Hymns hotel bathroom

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Photo by Jacques Garnier

Garnier’s obsession with clutter and waste led to an examination of hotel rooms where guests had recently checked out

Around this period, Garnier found himself attracted to the traditional Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, an aesthetic that embraces transience and imperfection. This worldview can be reduced to three principles: nothing is perfect, nothing is finished, and nothing lasts. Wabi-sabi adopts an appreciation for things that are imperfect, incomplete, and impermanent, finding beauty in the flaws. “I isolated pictures of the impurities of life,” Garnier says. “The neglected things that are often overlooked. I think this fascination began because of the garbage collecting. I was always interested in what was discarded and thrown away.”

In another series, called Second Chances, Garnier captured images of abandoned cabins in California’s Mojave Desert. World War II veterans, attracted by the federal government’s offer for land grants to homesteaders in the mid-20th century, came to the desert in droves. But the punishing heat and inhospitable conditions eventually pushed most of them away, leaving behind beds and couches, curtains and clothing, rotting appliances and rusted equipment. Even a few graves. Garnier’s photos bore witness to the tangible impact of human waste on the environment.

With Hymns cabin

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Photo by Jacques Garnier

“Second Chances” explored abandoned cabins in California’s Mojave Desert as a commentary on human waste

This hyper-awareness of clutter eventually led Garnier in the opposite artistic direction – an equally aggressive instinct to declutter. What if he could strip buildings down to their bare essence, subtracting not only the nonessential elements surrounding the structures, but even parts of the structure itself? This led first to the collection, LA Remembered, then to re[VOIR] and, ultimately, to the most extreme body of work in this series, A Deconstructed Odyssey

Moving into abstraction

Along the way, Garnier became interested in Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko’s color field paintings and abstract art. “I was emotionally drawn to the work, but I couldn’t figure out why,” says Garnier. “It was a visceral response.” Newman, Rothko, and similar artists moved Garnier’s photography from literal representations of spaces and into the abstract. 

“I’m not an expert on photography, but I am an expert on minimal and geometric abstraction,” says gallerist Peter Blake. “And that’s what I see in Jacques’ body of work.” Blake has followed Garnier’s work for years. Since 1996, The Peter Blake Gallery has exhibited four past collections of Garnier’s photography. “At some point, Jacques was shooting these rust spots in metal and making what looked like abstract paintings out of photographs. Then there was a period of architectural shots that, again, you wouldn’t know what they were unless told. But they had this sense of a kind of structural feeling to them that was really incredible.” 

With Hymns construct

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Photo by Jacques Garnier

A Deconstructed Odyssey chronicled Garnier’s first serious foray into abstraction. “Construct #96” is a representative sample, though not the most extreme.

“Something shifted,” Garnier says. “Around the time I began exploring black and white photography, a feeling of wanting to take away unnecessary things from the photographs started to percolate. I began taking black and white images, but without the background – or with a minimal background. I knew I was onto something, but it wasn’t working. It went through three or four different incarnations before I started doing the LA icon series.”

The concept behind Garnier’s LA Remembered collection was born when he discovered the classic La Cienega hangout, NORMS diner, was destined to be razed. “NORMS had such an iconic sign. It’s called Googie architecture,” Garnier says. “I wanted pictures of the building but ended up taking a photo of just the sign. I started playing with it, isolating the sign by itself, and floating it in negative space. Then I started doing that with other iconic buildings in Los Angeles.” The series includes images of Union Station, Capitol Records, Mann’s Chinese Theater, and the Theme Building at LAX (to name just a few). They’re all recognizable structures, the majority of them even including the signage to easily identify them. But when removed from the busy cityscape of LA’s congested streets, floated in the ether of white space, the buildings give an almost ghostly impression of disembodied architectural elements that’s both beautiful and haunting.

With Hymns theme

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Photo by Jacques Garnier

The Theme Building at LAX is part of Garnier’s “LA Remembered” series

A body of work distilled

In some sense, Hymns to the Silence represents the consummation of a body of work that’s been building for decades. As Garnier refines his process and homes in on his intentions, the images have gathered a kind of artistic momentum. 

The 25 photographs on display in the upper-level Thomas T. and Elizabeth C. Tierney Gallery of the Laguna Art Museum represent only about 40 percent of the total collection. Even viewers familiar with the buildings will experience them anew when reimagined through Garnier’s lens. Several images were taken at UCI: Langson Library, Gateway Study Center, Aldrich Hall, and McGaugh Hall to name just a few. Others are iconic to southern California: the Broad Museum, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and San Diego’s Salk Institute. But some of Orange County’s well-known structures, like the Segerstrom Center, are largely unrecognizable when stripped of their surroundings. 

In addition to isolation and abstraction, Hymns to the Silence explicitly makes use of another Japanese notion – the importance of negative space – more formally known as ma. In traditional Japanese art and culture, ma (literally meaning gap, space, or pause) holds as much meaning as the subject matter of the work itself. For example, the doors, walls, and windows of a house are structurally necessary. But it’s the space inside that’s the essence of the home. In other words, “the silence between the notes makes the music.”

This inclination toward negative space might be a nod to Garnier’s time as a poet. Earlier in his life, he produced four collections before applying those poetic principles to photography. “Poetry is ambiguity and I try to have that in my work,” Garnier says. His images, like his poems, reflect the idea that beauty often lies in what remains unsaid. They give the eye – and the mind – a quiet space to rest and reflect.

With Hymns infinitum

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Photo by Jacques Garnier

“Infinitum” an image of York Hall at UCSD is part of the “Hymns to the Silence” collection, on display at the Laguna Art Museum

“The exhibition is a beautiful visual conversation between dark and light, absence and presence, void and existence,” says Meg Linton, writer and independent curator. “The reduction of these glass and concrete monumental buildings to snippets of pattern surrounded in a pristine blackness poetically reveals the minuteness of the man-made to the vastness of the universe.” 

Beyond that, though, the photographs are also an homage to California’s contemporary art scene, while simultaneously evoking something more modern. 

“The two things that were important in California’s contemporary art genre were hard-edge paintings and light and space,” says Blake. “Jacques manages to capture both in these photographs. There’s a kind of hard-edge abstraction to the work and, of course, the use of light. He brings you back to an older time. There’s a feeling in these photographs that’s very Bauhaus, very modern. It has a certain feeling that takes you back to the 1930s. It’s a very strange thing.”

For the armchair art enthusiast, the images are simply stunning. Cody Lee, Director of Communications at the Laguna Art Museum, summarizes what guests can expect. “The photographs are endlessly fascinating,” he says. “They are at once aesthetically beautiful, with stark contrast of black and white; technically impressive, made with precision and detail; and very thoughtful, with architecture shown in abstract forms and from Jacques’ unique perspective.” 

The will of man made visible

Although Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead endures as one of the more controversial novels of the 20th century, her protagonist Howard Roark (loosely based on Rand’s architectural hero Frank Lloyd Wright) remains a clear-eyed visionary. The following excerpt refers to the New York City skyline, but illuminates one of Garnier’s enduring goals:

“I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of…skyline. Particularly when one can’t see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky…and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need?” 

Jacques Garnier will appear at the Laguna Art Museum on Thursday, July 29 at 6 p.m. to speak about the collection. Advance tickets are recommended: $13 for adults; $11 for seniors and students; free for LAM members. Visit www.lagunaartmuseum.org for more information about the collection, the event, and other exhibits on display at the Museum.

 

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Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Maggi Henrikson, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Stacia Stabler and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists.

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