URBAN LANDSCAPES AND GLAM BUGS WITH ARTIST XAVIER NUEZ
BY AMANDA SLATER»»
"My art is very much about dignifying what's been rejected"
Xavier Nuez's Alleys & Ruins series has captivated many with Nuez's unique style of photography that makes his photos of urban landscapes seem almost other-worldly.
iSPY had the opportunity to discuss the Alleys & Ruins series and more with Nuez, who discussed the time he spent living in Ann Arbor, how he got started taking photos and some of the dangerous encounters he's had on the job.
When did you live in Ann Arbor and what brought you there?
I lived in Ann Arbor from 2003-2006. Before that, I was in Toronto and had divorced the year before, so I was looking for a fresh start. I was earning a lot of my revenue from commercial work, but I felt I was ready to go full-time as an artist, and I had a rep living in Ann Arbor. Plus, I loved the city and had friends there. It was a no-brainer. I loved the friendly people and that you could be in the city one minute and driving along a country road soon after. As a Canadian, I also liked how the city shared many of my moral and ethical views. I used to play pool a lot in Monkey Bar, which I think now is called Full Moon. And I was a regular at TC's Speakeasy in Ypsi. And, of course, it was so close to Detroit—a city I loved to explore and photograph. I think I walked through every downtown Detroit alley in my three years living in Ann Arbor.
What have been some of the biggest "milestones" in your career as an artist?
By far the most prestigious recognition came from The New York Times. A reporter followed me around Brooklyn while I shot at night and wrote a lengthy exposé, calling the Alleys & Ruins series a masterpiece. Just as thrilling, at age 18, The Montreal Gazette wrote one positive sentence about my work within a larger piece about the group show I was in. (Not only do artists crave recognition, but they need it to move up.) I've exhibited in many museum group shows, but another milestone is coming up: my first solo museum show at the Bolinas Museum, which is 30 miles north of San Francisco.
How did your career as an artist/photographer start?
I used to paint and draw a lot as a child and through my teens. When I was 18, I took my one and only photography class in college. It literally transformed me, and, for once I knew what I wanted to do with my life. After graduation, panic set in as I was forced to face the reality that no one hands you a career in photography. I pursued my art, while trying to make ends meet with small commercial jobs and with jobs assisting other photographers. After five years, I had gotten into debt and decided to take a regular job working as a file clerk for the government at correctional services. It was a million miles from where I wanted to be, so, after a year of this, I renewed my commitment to my art and quit my job. It was a defining moment. Within a year, I had developed the Alleys & Ruins series and the Glam Bugs series, and I made a serious effort to get good commercial jobs—which eventually did start coming my way.
How did you get the idea to start photographing your Alleys & Ruins series?
Many roads in my life merged in the same place to create the series. As a child, I loved playing in alleys and exploring aban-doned or "haunted" houses. As a teen, I often dragged friends into these places to show them what I thought was an alternate type of beauty. My dad's tales of being homeless as a child also had a big impact. Then, growing up in a French separatist part of Quebec and being cast as an outsider for having immigrant parents and for being in English school had another profound effect. Virtually every day of my life, I was reminded I didn't belong. I started to struggle with depression and social anxiety. I remember a key turning point in my life was when I became transfixed by the space under a stairwell and finally decided that, if I ended up homeless and living in an alley, I could live with that. It was an epiphany. The alley series began soon after. I would photograph these grim, bleak and dangerous places, but I would add an idealized, fairytale version on top of them. This duality became important to me and permeates most of my work, this idea of something being [all] of these extremes at the same time—both ugly and beautiful, depressing and inspiring, downtrodden and powerful, bright and dark, repulsive and inviting, tense yet peaceful. I started developing a kind of affection for the underdog. My art is very much about dignifying what's been rejected. When I started the series 20 years ago, I wanted to shoot these places exactly as I found them in a true documentary spirit, while seeking out the conditions that would create dreamy versions of a grim and stark reality.
Some of your photos look almost unreal. What can you tell me about your artistic process and how you achieve that look?
In my three main bodies of work, I think I'm trying to build another world. A large part of that process is how I'm imagining that other world and that thought tangent is difficult to explain. I rely mostly on my still faintly beating child's heart. When a scene takes me back to a certain vision from my youth (to a time I've tried but failed to pinpoint), I know I'm onto some-thing. I'll be staring at a scene in a dark alley, and I'll suddenly get a flush of feelings that we live in a world full of mystery and magic and that an enchanted land might be waiting behind a crumbling door. These are warm feelings in a cold environment. That's when my logical side has to move in and try to re-create what I'm feeling. I bring lights and colored gels to these places at night. The technical process can vary greatly from one image to another, but what is usual is that I will shoot a very long exposure (20 minutes is average, but some are as long as 90 minutes). I shoot with a 50-year old Hasselblad film camera, and I use film that gives me vivid colors. The variety of city lights creates different colors on film, and that is the base of my lighting. During the long exposure, I'll walk around with my lights and colored gels, adding layers of illumination and color to the existing light or to areas that are completely dark. Half of the time, I'll walk into the frame in front of the camera so I can light stuff more precisely, but I wear dark colors and I move quickly so I won't appear in the photo. The Glam Bugs and Crystals are shot in a studio, where I use large studio lights. The bugs are difficult to light, but the process is much more traditional than the night shots for Alleys and Ruins.
Tell me a little about your Glam Bugs and Crystals series. What made you start taking these photographs?
The Glam Bugs are closely tied to the Alley series conceptually. In both bodies of work, I'm dignifying what's been rejected. With the night shots, I'm glorifying rejected space, while, in the bug series, I'm glorifying rejected creatures. In both series, the images are all about people, even though there are none in the shots. The Glam Bugs actually has little to do with bugs. The bugs I use and the little sets I build are a way of propping up the rejected and dejected of our society. I take these bugs, which get little to no respect and which are considered ugly—even horrifying close up--and I make them powerful figures in the alternate world I create. There are war heroes, pop divas, evil villains and so on. And, as in the alleys, ! ultimately make these dead (and often decomposing) bugs look beautiful. The Crystals are close up photos of dinner plates that I re-glaze and re-paint. It's a very odd process I dis-covered by accident over 20 years ago. They connect to the other two bodies in that I'm taking rejected plates, found in yard sales or Salvation Army stores, and creating a chic, dignified style of beauty with them.
What is one of your craziest Alleys & Ruins stories?
The craziest story has to be when I went to Compton, California in south central Los Angeles in 2008. I was in an alley with two friends, lighting an old water tower with a bright spotlight (Alley 116). In retro-spect, I was just asking for trouble. The gang ruling this turf saw the lights and found us. They chased us back to our van, where we had time to throw the gear in and lock the doors. They were yelling at us to get out of the van, and I suspected, if I tried to drive away, there would soon be bullet holes in the doors. It's a long story and available on my web site, but it involves us amazingly becoming friends with the gang and being given permission to continue with my photos, later being followed by two cops storming us later with laser-guided weapons, who were then scared off by the fact that this gang was paying off their boss! In the end, I produced two of my best images—Alley 116 and 103. We ended the night by going for dinner and beers and with my new friend, Jorge (the gang leader), telling me I was welcome back in his territory any time. I sent him prints of the finished photos.
For you, is the thrill of these encounters or the possible danger that accompanies these photo shoots part of the appeal of these particular subjects?
The danger has never been part of the appeal—it's just something I've had to put up with. But I have to admit, after a bad incident occurs, there is a part of me that thinks that was cool.
What do you think is the purpose of art? Why do you enjoy creating art?
Imagine a world without visual art in your home or in public spaces, or on the big and little screen or coming out of speakers or performing on stage and you'll understand the purpose of art. But, to take it a step further, art has a different purpose for the creator and the consumer, and every consumer has different triggers making them connect or discon-nect in their own way. I don't know why a happy song and a sad song can both be just as beautiful and transcendent. I create art because I don't know what else to do.
What is your advice to aspiring artists?
Every path is different, but I know I wouldn't have made it if it weren't for a thick-headed perseverance, combined with planning and a non-stop re-assessing of what I was doing. I love making art, but being an artist is also a business. The sooner you can be comfortable with that, the better off you will be. I also wouldn't have succeeded if I had lost my zeal to make art. It took many, many years to find my vision and then to let it grow and mature. It is still growing today. And, because of my love for the process of creating, the way to let my vision grow was just to step out of the way and allow it to find itself. Xavier Nuez lives in Chicago. His family lives in Montreal, where he grew up. He does gallery and museum shows across the country. To see more of Nuez's work, to read Alleys & Ruins stories and for more infor-mation about upcoming shows, visit