Drawing Lab, a place for experimentation

 Paris  |  18 March 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Not far from the Louvre, the brand new Drawing Hôtel is home to… the Drawing Lab, a private art centre wholly dedicated to the promotion of contemporary drawing. An encounter with Christine Phal, founder of the Lab and the Drawing Now fair, held at the Carreau du Temple.

Until 20 May, the Drawing Lab’s exhibition space is presenting Strings, a show featuring artist Keita Mori, accompanied by curator Gaël Charbau. The drawings, covering the walls and using thread, are projected in the air, stretch out across paper… or else turn into video performance. A subtle art, a metaphor of crossings and migrations, that one could say sums up the evolution of contemporary drawing in the last decade or so. Ever since, that is, the creation of Drawing Now, the fair currently being held in Paris, from 23 to 26 March.

Your choice of showing Keita Mori to launch your new venue, the Drawing Lab, is no accident. It reveals how drawing has evolved in recent years. The Drawing Now fair which you’ve been organising since 2007 was quick to integrate this evolution…

When I set up the fair, the type of drawing that artists wanted to present tended to be graphic works on paper, and the fair’s configuration was such that most propositions went in this direction. But the evolution of our gaze, of the way in which artists express themselves, and of the relationships that we’ve set up with other venues, have enabled us to move on. I remember that when Carine Tissot (editorial note: her daughter and partner in Drawing Now and Drawing Hôtel, who manages the hôtel – private mansion in French) and I were in New York for the Armory Show in 2009, we discussed the definition of drawing with Brett Littman, director of the Drawing Center. We agreed that it didn’t just mean drawing on a sheet of paper. We then tried to show this within the fair, or else outside, through the “Hors les Murs” section. What struck me as important was interaction with the public, like the work of Delphine Gigoux-Martin, who created a “drawing in progress”. The issue of temporality was also raised. A fair doesn’t allow an artist to develop a particular project, unlike the “Hors les Murs” component organised at Rue de Richelieu, where artists could set up to create site-specific works over a two-week period. This inspired our desire to have a long-term venue, the Drawing Lab, for this type of contemporary-drawing experimentation.

When you launched your fair, the enthusiasm for contemporary drawing was primarily seen as a response to the crisis: drawing works were less expensive to acquire and produce. This vision has changed a great deal, and contemporary drawing is now on a par with other mediums…

When we started out, we appreciated the financial accessibility of drawing. Over time, we came to realise two things. Drawing is a wonderful entrance gate for collectors wishing to discover artists, often young, without having a huge budget. And another thing has changed… Artists from previous generations who had always drawn, didn’t used to show their drawings – or rather, galleries didn’t show them. They had to convince gallerists to change. This year, Lelong gallery is presenting Etel Adnan, who is 92 years old, and we are showcasing a selection of drawings by major artists such as Giuseppe Penone and Aurélie Nemours. We’ve helped to boost recognition of this market, by showing, namely thanks to the old Salon du Dessin, that paper isn’t such a fragile medium.

You’ve now joined the international scene: foreign galleries make up 40 % of your fair, and the selection committee includes Elsy Lahner, curator at the Albertina Museum in Vienna and Julie Enckell Julliard, director of the Musée Jenisch in Vevey. But you haven’t set up any overseas branches. Why not?

We’re thinking about it. But our family structure fully finances the fair, and its budgets are just balanced. On the other hand, we invite and host many overseas curators and gallerists. This enables our visitors to meet artists that they wouldn’t necessarily see otherwise, and allows gallerists and artists to network. On an institutional level, a lot is said about defending the French scene by showing French artists. We prefer to promote exchanges informally. French artists can be discovered on the spot by foreign gallerists who then include them in their stables. This is how they can then gain a presence in other countries and at other fairs. And it’s a really important objective for us. As for our visitors, all German institutions come by because they’re in Paris for the Salon du Dessin. I mention Germany because this is a country where old drawing isn’t separated from contemporary drawing.

Can you explain the raison d’être behind annex projects that bring or have brought life to the fair, such as the presentation of private collections, the creation of a prize, the organisation of a symposium?

In our first three years, we presented private collections, including those of agnès b., the Salomons and Antoine de Galbert, in order to show that great collectors place an important role on drawing in their collections. When Philippe Piguet took over the fair’s artistic direction, he wanted to develop subjects related to drawing: drawing sketchbooks, giving carte blanche to Catherine Millet and the Palais de Tokyo. The idea was to gather works that were different from those being presented on stands. This year, we’re presenting “À fleur de peau” to show that drawing can develop on or through different surfaces. We’ve also promoted certain countries, namely Switzerland and Germany. This wasn’t an artificial marketing choice, but can be explained by a true fabric in these countries, of galleries, institutions, and a graphic tradition. In 2011, we launched a prize supported by the Fonds pour le Dessin Contemporain. And last year, for the tenth edition, we organised a symposium to take stock of this medium’s development.

Do you think that you’ve privileged a certain type of contemporary drawing in your artistic direction?

We’re very open, but it strikes me that we haven’t drawn close enough to comics. Presenting original comics storyboards is in fact very interesting, but we haven’t necessarily had any propositions from so-called comics galleries that correspond to our definition of drawing. On the other hand, this year, the gallery Vallois is presenting Winshluss; Anne Barrault often veers towards comics, so does the gallery Martel. We need to find a link.

Are there connections between the selections of Drawing Now and of the Drawing Lab, your venue for drawing experiments?

No, not at all. It’s by chance that the current artist is represented by Catherine Putman, and that Gaëlle Chotard, who we’re showing in 2018, by Claudine Papillon. But the next exhibition will be featuring Debora Bolsoni, represented by a Brazilian gallery that we don’t know, and the same goes for the following exhibition. I’ve kept two members of the Drawing Now committee in the Drawing Lab committee, Philippe Piguet and Marc Donnadieu, but I wanted three other figures so that the Drawing Lab would not be perceived as a permanent representative of Drawing Now.

What is your relationship, as a fair organiser, with the real-estate developer Soferim, your historic partner and the company founded by your husband Jean Papahn ?

The company offered us our first venues. Without Soferim I would never have set up the first drawing fair. We set up in a building that the company had recently restored. The second edition was in another building recently done up by the company. And after, the company financially invested in the Prix, to enable its organisation and to give the winner an exhibition space the next year in order to express talent in a different way than at the standard booth. I also help to integrate art into the Soferim company. Here, we’re in a building where an artwork features on the gable, in the context of the “1 Building, 1 Work” programme. I was the one who organised the competition, the selection, etc. In the lobby, there’s a work that was chosen following a call for projects. There’s a continuity there.

Since Soferim has acquired other Parisian hôtels, are you going to open other Drawing Labs?

No, but through this partnership, we give other types of visibility to contemporary artists. I initiated the collaboration between Soferim and artists for scaffold wraps and site barricades. At the moment, Frédéric Poincelet is working on the barricades of a construction site in the 14th arrondissement in Paris. I’ve also been in charge of a big barricade project near Gare du Nord. These were then reused by our partner Bilum, that transforms the barricades into bags, iPad holders…

How are you going to bring life to this site so that the public comes regularly?

We’re currently setting up workshops, related to the exhibitions, for a public of school goers. The idea of introducing children to contemporary art from an early age is very important. We’ve also planned a small programme of meetings because I think that in Paris, people already have many options. And we have a permanent mediator on the premises.

What link exists between the Lab and the hôtel housing it?

Carine Tissot manages the hôtel. She has chosen the artists shown in the rooms (editorial note: including Françoise Pétrovitch, Abdelkader Benchamma, Lek & Sowat). We keep one another informed, but we work independently. This is how we’ve been working for eight years. Carine joined me at Drawing Now and brought me her expertise, as she is trained in marketing and has worked at Reed Expositions (editorial note: company organising fairs, namely the FIAC and Paris Photo).




Drawing Now Paris. From Thursday 23 to Sunday 26 March, Carreau du Temple, 4 Rue Eugène-Spuller, Paris 75003. www.drawingnowparis.com

Drawing Lab. “Strings”, Keita Mori exhibition, until 20 May. 17 Rue de Richelieu, Paris 75001. www.drawinglabparis.com


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