Let’s be honest: “the jack of all trades, master of none” adage normally does well to summarize the portfolios of so many artists who attempt to create multi-media exhibitions. But Pascal Blondeau’s demonstrated expertise as shown through his numerous successes in various art forms places him far outside the norm. Though he humbly calls himself a photographer, his oeuvre tells a tale of great artistic variety and a passion for communication through any means necessary.
We caught up with Blondeau over coffee to discuss his work, his relationship with one of Andy Warhol’s famous “Superstars,” and his unique passion (for lack of a better term) for plastic dolls and stuffed animals. *This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Art Zealous: You’ve worked in a lot of different art forms.
Pascal Blondeau: Yes, I know! That’s actually a problem in France, but not in America. American people love it when we do a lot of different things, and they want to understand why we do them; but in France, it’s bad for your image to constantly change what you’re doing. So throughout my time in France, I ran into a lot of problems with gallerists. They would tell me I needed to choose between my roles as a photographer, as a scenographer, and as a performer, and that whatever I chose, I needed to stay that way. I am not that type of person. I want to change all the time.
AZ: You were involved in music very early on in your career. Tell us about that.
PB: Yes, in France my first job was as a singer. When I was young, I studied at the Alice Dona school, which is very famous in France. I was there for five years, and I studied as an actor, writer, dancer, many different art forms. Actually, my dream was to become a performer on Broadway. So after my education at school, I worked as a singer for many years, eventually returning to my first passion: photography. I used to work for a museum in Paris, a museum of decorative art, a famous museum in the Louvre, and I worked as a scenographer there. One day, I took my camera with me to work to photograph my scenography, and one museum proposed doing an exhibition featuring my photography. But now, after many years, my performances for museums in the US incorporate my singing in addition to my pictures.
AZ: Are they distinct areas in your conception of the work, and also in the audience’s reception of the work, do they see your performance and your photography as distinct areas?
PB: It’s very strange, I don’t decide to do something specific for my works. Instead, it is a collaborative process with others. When I arrived in New York 9 years ago, I met a famous artist named Ultra Violet, who was a famous muse of Andy Warhol. We instantly became very good friends. We worked together for five years, even sharing a studio. We had three exhibitions together, including our work, 9/11 Oh My God! One of my greatest influences when I was working as an artist in France, was Andy Warhol, so meeting Ultra Violet, an actual artist from “The Factory,” was incredible. She brought me everywhere, feeding me anecdotes of her experiences with Andy Warhol. It was as though I shared these experiences with Warhol himself.
I remember one specific time, I asked Ultra Violet for her advice regarding a choice between two pictures I took to put on display for an exhibition, and she told me, “Do you know what I think Andy would say? Don’t choose between the two. Mix both of them, and you will create something that is very pop art.” I said to myself, my God, it really is as though Andy Warhol is with me. Ultra Violet passed away 3 years ago, and when she passed, I felt lost here in New York. I met her right as I arrived in New York 9 years ago, so for me, my New York was Ultra Violet and so it was very lonely afterwards.
I decided to write about my experiences with her, and someone proposed that I take to the stage again at FIAF (French Institute Alliance Francaise), and the president said to me, “I want to do something with this story about your relationship with Ultra Violet. You should come on stage and read your text about her.” I accepted, especially because I was hoping to compile my texts into a book. But in my meeting with the artistic director, I told him about my former work as a singer and decided to incorporate a performance art take on my work. I composed some songs based on my texts about Ultra Violet, and included some of my pictures. It was a complete performance art piece. I had eight months, I worked with a young composer and a choreographer, so for me it was an example of using every art form with which I am familiar into a single performance: dancing, singing, composing, writing, photography. Eventually, I gave that same performance at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
AZ: Does the pop art influence continue to affect your work?
PB: My interest in pop art came before I went to New York. My work at the time was pop art, and I remember distinctly Ultra Violet telling me, “Pascal, you must kill your father, you must kill the Warhol, you must leave him. You are not pop art, you are surrealist.” I thought my whole life was pop art, but that was a big change. She actually hated Warhol, despite her many years at The Factory. She used to work with Salvador Dalí, she loved him and his work, so she knew surrealism, and told me I was surrealist. My work changed a lot after my relationship with Ultra Violet. She inspired so much of my new work.
AZ: We’ve heard that you shoot with a Pentax camera.
PB: Yes, I have a very old Pentax camera that works perfectly, but I don’t use it all the time. I’ve switched to modern methods. I use a Canon Proshot. Sometimes when I want to use the old camera, the problem is finding a good laboratory and paper for development.
AZ: Do you use a lot of photo-editing programs?
PB: It depends on the work. If I want to retouch something, the purpose is to transform the piece, to make it something else. But take my work, “Swimming Pool: a Tribute to David Hockney,” for example: when I exhibited the series at Galerie Mourlot, a lot of people approached me at the opening to say, “Yeah, but Pascal, you edited/retouched them so much!” But in actuality, I didn’t. I found myself in a palette of oranges, blues, reds, and I thought, I have to shoot this. The swimming pool reflected the colors in a way that made people think it was photoshopped. The house itself, built on Shelter Island by Peter Stamberg and Paul Aferiat, is a tribute to Hockney, their close friend. The palette is reminiscent of his work.
AZ: What was the reason behind your move from Paris to New York in 2009?
PB: It was my lifelong dream to come to New York. Throughout my childhood, my idol was Sheila, the French singer, and when she moved to New York, I would always read magazines that covered her life there. I decided I wanted to move to New York. My partner, Ambassador Gérard Araud, also had to move here for his job, so it was a very practical opportunity, as well. I love my life here.
AZ: In an interview with Washington Life magazine, you mentioned that Parisians are a bit more aloof than Americans. Tell us about that.
PB: The overall communication between people here in the States is better. I found Parisians to be very arrogant, unlike Americans. There were always difficulties with contracts and galleries, but overall I prefer the daily life here in New York. Although sometimes, the American preference for very direct communication can be a bit too much.
AZ: One of our favorites of your work is “Double Je.” Could you tell us more about that project?
PB: I called it “Double-I” because I took a series of portraits of real people and superimposed them with portraits of mannequins to create this contrast of beautiful and awful, creator and monster. That is my vision of humanity, we are bad creatures trying to be good.
AZ: If you indulge, where do you go?
PB: I love champagne and organic wine, but it’s difficult to find restaurants that serve all organic food. I love Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, because it has that old, classic atmosphere combined with some of the best jazz musicians in NYC.
AZ: Are there any art forms you have yet to try using?
PB: This is very sad to admit, but I will never be a painter! I’ve tried many times, but it always ends in disaster. I can’t paint. I’ve met five year olds who paint better than me. But we can’t do everything right?
AZ: Your identity as a gay man seems important to your work, as we can see in your photography series, “Single Man.” Could you tell us about this aspect of your work?
PB: Three or four years ago there was a decision regarding the law of gay marriage in France that ended in tragedy for those of us in the LGBTQ community. They continue to refuse gays the right to marry in France. Ultra Violet had taught me to always include my experience in my work, that it always has to have me in it. Before meeting her, I think my work was aesthetic, but only aesthetic. So I decided to do just that with my work, Single Man. It was my first work involving a subject that was so close to me and about which I was so passionate. The self-portrait captures me as a gay man and in the role of a gay, single father, and what that means in modern society. I am very proud of that picture.
AZ: Why use a plastic baby doll?
PB: I had used mannequins many times, and I actually have a distinct passion for dolls. I include dolls in much of my work. I am working on a project now in which I am depicted as a couple with a mannequin, photographing us in the shower, at the dinner table, in bed, etc., as though we live together.
Another example of my affiliation for material objects: I lost my dog not long ago, and because I travel so much it has proven inconvenient to get a new one. So I take my stuffed animal dog everywhere with me (which conveniently doesn’t cause any of the security problems at the airport that a real dog would). I love all the fake things like mannequins, dolls and stuffed animals. I always collected Barbie dolls when I was young, and my grandmother would make costumes for them.
AZ: What is it about them that makes you so drawn to them?
PB: One reason why I include them in my work is to explore the answer to that question. At this point, I am not sure. Although, some friends of mine say it’s because I don’t like people, and I can imagine these fake creatures how I want! Maybe I need to see a psychoanalysis, but I view my work as my own psychoanalysis.
AZ: Could you tell us about some of your upcoming projects?
PB: I will be taking my aforementioned performance about Ultra Violet to Korea this summer, and in a few months Washington, D.C. I am also in the process of a studio recording of the performance’s 10 songs. The performance itself will have a pianist, but I am working with an electronic composer for the album release.
I don’t like to have a lot of projects at the same time. I like to focus solely on one project at a time, immersing myself in it.
Follow Blondeau’s projects on his website.
Top Image: “Swimming pool-tribute to David Hockney” Photo // courtesy of Pascal Blondeau