Spec­tres of René Payant

Re­mem­ber­ing an in­flu­en­tial Que­bec critic and art his­to­rian— who died of Aids-re­lated causes in 1987—through the margina­lia, un­der­lined pas­sages and draw­ings he left in his books

Canadian Art - - Contents - By Vin­cent Bonin

An in­flu­en­tial Que­bec critic is re­mem­bered through his margina­lia by Vin­cent Bonin

In his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Be­fore Pic­tures (2016), art his­to­rian Dou­glas Crimp tells the par­al­lel sto­ries of his life as a gay man and emer­gent art critic in New York in the 1960s and ’70s. Crimp chron­i­cles his sex­ual en­coun­ters and love af­fairs while com­ment­ing on the city’s bur­geon­ing con­tem­po­rary art scene. In the grey zone be­tween th­ese two nar­ra­tives, he ad­dresses the emer­gence of the queer cul­ture that pre­ceded the AIDS epi­demics. Que­bec critic and art his­to­rian René Payant, a gay man from the same gen­er­a­tion as Crimp, did not leave any mem­oirs, nor ar­chives, af­ter he passed away from an Aids-re­lated dis­ease in 1987. What’s more, he of­ten ques­tioned the use-value of bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tives in his writ­ings. Payant lived be­fore the po­lit­i­cal up­ris­ing of the fol­low­ing decade, which em­pow­ered peo­ple with AIDS to as­sert their rights, and mo­men­tar­ily for­ti­fied sol­i­dar­ity in the art world. Know­ing that the end was close, he as­sem­bled his texts, sev­eral of which were then un­avail­able, into the an­thol­ogy Ve­dute: Pièces dé­tachées sur l’art (1976–1987). Yet un­like Crimp or fel­low the­o­rist Craig Owens, who are both firmly can­on­ized and widely read as art his­to­ri­ans ad­dress­ing the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of gay iden­tity, Payant re­mains largely for­got­ten be­yond small in­tel­lec­tual cir­cles in Que­bec.

Sev­eral Mon­treal artists, crit­ics and his­to­ri­ans, who stud­ied or started to work pro­fes­sion­ally dur­ing the 1980s, en­coun­tered Payant, ei­ther in a class­room or at a con­fer­ence. In 1995, I de­cided to pur­sue my stud­ies at the Univer­sité de Mon­tréal, where Payant had taught art his­tory from 1979 to 1987. Dur­ing their sem­i­nars, Alain Lafram­boise, Lise La­marche and Jo­hanne Lamoureux, who had been very close to Payant as col­leagues and friends, en­cour­aged us to read Ve­dute. Though my re­la­tion­ship with him has been mostly me­di­ated through the tes­ti­mony of oth­ers, it re­mains in­ti­mate by way of an­other se­ries of cir­cum­stances. Be­fore his death, Payant gave a se­lec­tion of his books to the univer­sity’s li­brary. Dur­ing my stud­ies, I in­ter­mit­tently found th­ese vol­umes in the stacks, their pages marked with his margina­lia. I be­gan to imag­ine the path of a young art his­to­rian forg­ing his way in the aca­demic and con­tem­po­rary art world. Through th­ese un­der­lined pas­sages, scrib­bles and some­times in­tri­cate di­a­grams, Payant had a spec­tral af­ter­life.

From the be­gin­ning of his ca­reer, Payant at­tempted to dis­tin­guish his ap­proach from the con­nois­seur­ship at the root of art his­tory’s core im­per­a­tives of at­tri­bu­tion and in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Dur­ing the 1970s in Que­bec and else­where, the field of semi­otics bridged the gap be­tween dis­ci­plines of the hu­man­i­ties, for bet­ter or worse. Payant em­braced this “turn” though he never al­lied him­self firmly with any sin­gle school of crit­i­cal thought. In­stead, he adapted aca­demic lan­guage to new po­si­tions and for­mats while dis­cov­er­ing con­tem­po­rary art prac­tices that chal­lenged th­ese frame­works of anal­y­sis.

In 1979, Payant co-or­ga­nized Sit­u­a­tion du for­mal­isme améri­cain, an in­ter­na­tional sym­po­sium at the Musée d’art con­tem­po­rain de Mon­tréal that reap­praised the legacy of Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ism be­yond Amer­i­can bor­ders. While it is stan­dard Cana­dian art his­tory to men­tion Cle­ment Green­berg’s visit to the Emma Lake work­shop in Saskatchewan in 1962 as a piv­otal mo­ment in our re­la­tion­ship to avant-garde paint­ing south of the bor­der, lit­tle has been pub­lished in English about the as­sim­i­la­tion of mod­ernism in Que­bec apart from the Au­toma­tistes, the Re­fus global man­i­festo, and later, the rise of the Néo-plas­ti­ciens. Ul­ti­mately, Payant and his col­leagues hoped to build a crit­i­cal ap­pa­ra­tus that would link the pe­riph­eral his­tory of paint­ing in Que­bec to its bet­ter-known Amer­i­can and Euro­pean man­i­fes­ta­tions.

That same year, French philoso­pher Jean-françois Ly­otard pub­lished the book-length ver­sion of his land­mark study La con­di­tion post­mod­erne: Rap­port sur le savoir on the value of univer­sity knowl­edge in com­put­er­ized so­ci­eties. De­spite the fact that he was in con­ver­sa­tion with Ly­otard, Payant re­mained less in­ter­ested in the re­port’s ob­ser­va­tions on the end of the grand nar­ra­tives of progress and eman­ci­pa­tion. He fo­cused in­stead on an aes­thetic un­der­stand­ing of post­mod­ern think­ing that could foster a co­hab­i­ta­tion of styles. His friend­ship with painter Louise Robert, which started in the late 1970s, is one in­stance of the way he rec­og­nized the chasm of the fig­u­ral and the dis­cur­sive in art. Robert’s paint­ings brought to­gether ges­tu­ral ab­strac­tion and po­etic lan­guage writ­ten on the can­vas in sten­ciled let­ters, re­fer­ring both to the ma­te­ri­al­ity of paint and the ir­re­press­ible af­fects press­ing in from out­side the frame.

It was also dur­ing this pe­riod that Payant loos­ened his grip on the log­i­cal squares and grids that con­ferred him his early le­git­i­macy. He be­gan to ap­praise more openly the re­turn to fig­u­ra­tive ex­pres­sion­ism, sculp­ture’s new the­atri­cal­ity, per­for­mance, video and the ex­panded com­plex­ity of in­stal­la­tion art. Al­though he was ret­i­cent to talk about him­self, Payant al­ways started to think from the speci­ficity of his own de­sires. In one es­say from 1984 en­ti­tled “Rhé­torique du corps” he ex­am­ined gay mag­a­zines, films and the work of painters Salomé, Lu­ciano Castelli and Rainer Fet­ting, to ques­tion the in­ter­nal­ized op­po­si­tion be­tween pornog­ra­phy and eroti­cism. Be­ing well versed in lit­er­ary the­ory (he wrote about Mar­guerite Duras), Payant was also in­ter­ested in the way art dis­course me­di­ated sen­so­rial ex­pe­ri­ence. He ad­dressed the co-de­pen­dence of per­for­mance’s im­me­di­acy and the par­al­lel nar­ra­tives in which it be­came en­meshed be­fore or af­ter the event. More­over, he was in­volved in the many de­bates at the time on the evolv­ing sta­tus of pho­tog­ra­phy in con­tem­po­rary art prac­tices. He raised aware­ness of the risks of fetishiz­ing the ma­te­ri­al­ity of the im­age, while cau­tion­ing against a re­turn to a ba­nal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the pho­to­graph’s icono­graphic doc­u­men­tary con­tent.

De­spite this open­ness to the diver­sity of art prac­tices emerg­ing dur­ing the mid-1980s, Payant’s long­stand­ing at­tach­ment to the painterly ges­ture re­mained a di­ver­gent touch­stone. While fel­low crit­ics, such as Philip Monk, de­scribed the em­brace of fig­u­ra­tive ex­pres­sion­ism by the mar­ket as mostly “pas­sive,” and cham­pi­oned art­works pro­mot­ing the ac­tive de­con­struc­tion of var­i­ous sub­ject po­si­tions in the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of sex­ual dif­fer­ence, Payant en­vi­sioned paint­ing as in­her­ently en­dowed with a li­bid­i­nal econ­omy be­yond gen­der assig­na­tions, re­sis­tant to com­mu­ni­ca­tion and even com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion. In sev­eral in­stances, Payant wrote or spoke about fem­i­nism as an ally, but it seemed that he re­mained at the thresh­old of other as­pects of the iden­tity pol­i­tics that fu­elled visual arts at the time.

Thirty years af­ter Payant died, his loss is still deeply felt among those who crossed his path, ei­ther di­rectly or in­di­rectly. Rare pic­tures of him still cir­cu­late, and only a few au­dio-visual doc­u­ments ex­ist in which he can be heard lec­tur­ing pub­licly. Dur­ing re­search for an ex­hi­bi­tion a few years ago, I found the record­ing of a 1984 con­fer­ence, Art and Crit­i­cism in the Eighties, or­ga­nized by Para­chute at the On­tario Col­lege of Art. Payant took part, speak­ing in English with a Que­be­cois ac­cent. While lis­ten­ing, I tried to imag­ine what his voice would have been like in his na­tive French. Un­til re­cently I be­lieved that the art his­to­rian Claude in Denys Ar­cand’s 1986 film The De­cline of the Amer­i­can Em­pire was mod­elled on Payant. In fact, the char­ac­ter was re­port­edly based on film­maker Claude Ju­tra. Still, I con­tinue to project Payant’s fea­tures on Claude when re-watch­ing the film. It is from th­ese ghostly traces that resur­face in un­ex­pected places and ways—and, of course, in re­turn­ing to his texts— that, for me, Payant echoes with a last­ing pres­ence. ■

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