COZIC, a major figure of Québec contemporary art, is a two-headed, four-handed artistic entity born of the imaginations of Monic Brassard and Yvon Cozic. Part of the generation of counter-culture artists that emerged during the Quiet Revolution, COZIC has played a major role in the erosion of frontiers between visual arts disciplines in Québec: by breaking free from traditional means of expression like painting and sculpture, COZIC has challenged the very nature of the artwork. In step with other contemporary practices – Québécois, Canadian and international – COZIC began attracting attention in the late 1960s for its formally indeterminate, Pop-inspired works and its use of unusual materials – but also, and more importantly, for its sincere and avowed desire to bring art closer to life.
Maintaining its initial creative drive, COZIC has shown proof over the years of a remarkable ability to come up with new ideas. Its production, evolving in series that focus on artistic “obsessions” and “problems” to be resolved, has been marked by a number of aesthetic turnabouts. COZIC, in fact, can always be counted on to do the unexpected. But despite these “breaks,” there is coherence and continuity to the COZIC vision: recourse to ordinary materials, handcrafting and references to everyday life are omnipresent in an oeuvre where contrasts are all-important (form/non-form, hard/soft, volume/void, restraint/extravagance, highbrow/lowbrow).
COZIC has always married exceptional versatility with the joy of creation, pursuing a practice that encompasses sewing, drawing, folding, vinyl, wood, cardboard, performance, installation and site-specific outdoor projects. A sense of play in all its dimensions – artistic, sensorial, social, linguistic – makes its creations accessible on several levels and informs their reception, encouraging visitors to appropriate the works.
This first museum retrospective dedicated to COZIC provides a rare opportunity to appreciate the scope and fecundity of its multiform oeuvre. By bringing together around a hundred works executed between 1967 and the present, the exhibition highlights key moments and pivotal pieces, from the soft works to the Code Couronne project, and including the folding phase that gave rise to the celebrated Cocotte.
The Soft Sculptures and the Surfaces Series
COZIC’s early series, produced during the 1960s and 1970s, reflect its avant-garde position in a radically changing art world. Although, with their industrial materials and brilliant colours, the works from this period can be associated with Québec’s Pop art movement, they are unusual in being devoid of images or references to consumer objects. The soft sculptures can be linked just as closely, and possibly more so, to artistic approaches focused on exploring materiality and the occupation of space (post-minimalism, process art, anti-form, Arte Povera) – movements that took centre stage in the cult exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, held in Bern, Switzerland, in 1969.
Assembled by sewing, a “feminine” technique disdained by the fine arts, and made of flexible materials (vinyl, fabric, synthetic fur), the soft sculptures, with their biomorphic forms, are remarkable for their “active presence.” Worlds away from the static formats of traditional painting and sculpture, the works are laid out on the floor, or hung from the wall or ceiling. They burst into life, flow and spread through space, palpably reducing the physical distance between work and spectator. But despite their baroque extravagance and the transgressive nature of their materials, a number of the works, including the Surfaces, also possess obvious formal characteristics. So although they escape the pictorial framework, they nonetheless evoke – through the structuring power of pure colour and geometric forms – certain aspects of abstract painting. In so doing, they can be seen as extending the explorations of post Plasticiens like Guido Molinari and Claude Tousignant.
Beyond the Visual
A desire to counter cultural elitism and to utilize art as a vector of social change led COZIC to create a series of works that require the active participation of the public. At a time when Roland Barthes was proclaiming the death of the author and the birth of the reader, it seemed evident to many artists that, as part of the democratization of art, greater value should be placed on reception. By inviting people to handle its creations, COZIC was flouting one of the museum world’s most inviolable rules: do not touch the works. The use of plush, a humble and inexpensive fabric, obviously had the effect of undermining the hierarchy of art materials, but because of its tactile qualities it also called into question the primacy of sight – considered more intellectual – over the other senses.
In spite of their playful character, these works raise important questions that contemporary art is still pondering today.
- Must an object be placed – physically and conceptually – at a distance from the spectator to warrant the status of artwork?
- Is a monochrome made of fabric necessarily of less aesthetic and artistic value than a painted canvas, simply because of its material?
- Can museum works stimulate other senses than sight?
In exploring such issues, these works remain compellingly relevant.
Paradoxically, for conservation reasons a number of the works on view here cannot be handled regularly by the public. Some pieces are fragile, and repeated handlings and the subsequent necessary cleanings would damage them. The museum, which has the preservation of historically significant works as one of its mandates, has therefore opted for prudence. This decision, taken in concert with the two artists behind COZIC, has been the result of a lengthy process during which a number of questions were posed. Is it right to endanger a handleable work from the 1970s that has survived for over forty years? Should the experience of today’s public take precedence over that of tomorrow’s? Does the status of a work fundamentally alter when it enters a museum? If so, how?
Towards the end of the 1970s, COZIC completely (and courageously, it might be added) abandoned the type of explorations for which it had become known. The soft works gave way to a new artistic approach: appropriation. The chance rediscovery of the cocotte – the little origami bird that in French bears the child’s word for “hen” and that both artists had learned to make when they were young – triggered the production of a new series. For a full year COZIC compulsively made cocottes out of pieces of found paper in order to create the work entitled A Cocotte a Day Keeps the Obsession on the Way (1978).
For artists intent on questioning the status of the artwork, the act of appropriation is conceptually rich, since it erodes or disrupts three criteria of recognition: originality, authenticity and artistic authorship. The folded paper cocotte, which can be reproduced by anyone and whose origins are unknown, struck COZIC as particularly interesting when employed as a type of ready-made – a commonplace object selected by an artist to be elevated to the status of art. By altering the cocotte’s shape and fabricating it in materials other than paper, COZIC created an entire repertoire based on the form, which became a kind of artistic signature. Just as Campbell’s soup cans immediately evoke Andy Warhol, paper cocottes are henceforth associated with COZIC.
COZIC’s interest in folding grew more complex over the course of the 1980s. The semi-figurative motif of the Cocotte gave way to a freer approach, where abstract forms were created by apparently random actions. Pieces of pliant material folded back on themselves to form several layers resulted in original visual compositions grounded in part on the visible/invisible dichotomy. But, unsurprisingly, rather than limiting its explorations of folding to a particular material and a single method, COZIC produced a series of remarkably inventive and diverse works in which the folding, often simply illustrated, is largely illusory.
Interestingly, in a dual exhibition of works by COZIC and Jean Noël held in 1981, the Musée du Québec (forerunner of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec) became the first institution to show the Grands Pliages and Ground Pliages series. For the present exhibition, in a nod to history, COZIC has recreated a large wall folding that echoes an artistic act accomplished close to forty years earlier.
Gallery of Small Objects and Other Curiosities
This gallery is inspired by the COZIC studio, and though not an identical reconstruction it aims to capture something of the creative spirit that reigns there. The studio of Monic Brassard and Yvon Cozic, the two artists behind COZIC, is particularly fascinating to visit, chock-full as it is of curiosities, small sculptures, found and assembled objects, posters and archival documents. Given the insight this miscellany of elements offers into the vision that has shaped the COZIC practice over the years, it seemed apposite to reassemble it in a museum setting.
All the items on view here are from the COZIC studio. They are mostly not finished works but ideas – sketched, modelled or sculpted. Just as writers think with words, artists think with and through materials. So what is on view here is something visitors rarely see: the “naked” artistic gesture, in its most embryonic and simplest form. The crammed and rather haphazard presentation is designed to mirror the impression created by the objects in the studio.
Finely Balanced Sculptures and Works That Observe
After exploiting the technique of folding to probe the properties of surface and flatness, COZIC switched to the three-dimensional realm in order to investigate the character of solid materials. This renewed concern for materiality occurred at a time when, under the impact of advances in technology, many art practices were becoming increasingly dematerialized.
The sculptures on view here – all executed around the start of the 1990s save two, which are later – bear witness to COZIC’s interest in the occupation of space, recycling and hand fabrication. Made of a range of materials (including metal, wood, feathers and fabric) and devoid of plinths, these works break with traditional sculptural form in order to inhabit aerial space. Composed as much of voids as of masses, replete with trompe l’œil effects, they confound perceptions by creating an impression of precarious equilibrium.
On the other side of the large wall that divides the room is an entirely different series of works. Their main focus is the “gaze,” of significance to COZIC since the practice’s inception. Even though, in the visual arts, the active role played by the spectator’s gaze is central to aesthetic experience and the interpretation of artworks, it is easily forgotten. Well aware that it is in feeling observed that we are most conscious of the power of the other’s gaze – and by extension of our own – COZIC created several works that themselves “observe” the spectator. They act as a reminder that the gaze, inevitably subjective and culturally determined, is never neutral.
The Magic of the Everyday
Further proof of COZIC’s inexhaustible creativity, this final section brings together a variety of more recent pieces, executed for the most part during the past two decades. Aside from examples from the Code Couronne project, discussed in a nearby panel, this gallery contains works whose themes transcend the physical world to explore notions of spirituality, metaphysics and the mysteries of the universe.
The links between such questions and art have punctuated the history of Western culture and have helped shape an entire branch of modern art. Contemporary artists, perhaps more sceptical regarding “inner necessities,” have tended to disregard the issues they raise, although some are considering them anew.
Rather than aiming to produce a transcendental artistic experience by adopting an aesthetic of dematerialization, COZIC has chosen to broach these questions with a touch of benevolent humour. Employing a “DIY” neo-Pop approach quite different from the slick international version of this movement, COZIC has once again turned to everyday materials to fashion the works. Their kitschiness contains no element of mockery, however: rather, it reframes fundamental questions in a context of ordinary reality. Perhaps, in this era of crises (identity, humanitarian, environmental and spiritual), the quest for truth may depend on rediscovering the magic of the everyday.
The Code Couronne Project
The last major COZIC series, still ongoing, is the ambitious Code Couronne project, several examples of which can be seen here. Composed of flat, painted (or drawn) segments of colour arranged in crown-like circular shapes, these works may seem at first glance to be simply exercises in abstract art. They offer viewers a rich chromatic experience, recalling the works of certain proponents of geometric abstraction.
But aside from their strictly visual properties, the Code Couronne works explore the question of the codification of written language: each one represents a word that can be read by means of a decoder developed by COZIC. The code on which the entire series is based consists of a system of twenty-six coloured signs, each of which corresponds to a letter of the alphabet. In the process of making the works, the combining of coloured signs representing the letters of a chosen word creates unexpected colour juxtapositions, introducing an element of chance.
And there is an additional facet to the series: rather than eschewing any reference to the visible world, as is usual in abstract art, the works evoke the words they represent in a symbolic or schematic way. For example, in the piece titled Brume (2011) – the French word for fog, or mist – the central idea is reinforced by the frosted Plexiglas that covers it, while the work called Mot caché resembles one of the hidden-word puzzles for which it is named. In this highly original way the Code Couronne works create links between notions often treated as opposites – concept and form. The constant interaction established between the thing represented, its mental representation and its physical representation recalls the iconic work One and Three Chairs (1965) by the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth (which consists of a wooden chair, a photograph of the same chair and a dictionary definition of the word “chair”).
THE ARTISTS BEHIND COZIC
Lovers in real life, Monic Brassard (born in Quebec in 1944) and Yvon Cozic (born in France in 1942) met at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal in the early 1960s. Their artistic partnership, known as COZIC, led them to develop a “two-headed, four-handed artist,” rejecting the myth that artistic genius can only be individual. COZIC has shown its work in more than three hundred exhibits across North America and Europe and created some thirty works of public art in Canada.
Monic Brassard and Yvon Cozic have been recognized countless times for their outstanding work. They have been named Members of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (2003) and received the prestigious Jean-Paul-Riopelle career grant (2012–2013) from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, the Paul-Émile-Borduas Award (2015) from the Prix du Québec and the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts (2019).
- COZIC, Les Orphelins, 1973. Plush, padded sheet, wood, nylon cord, 127 x 13 cm. Private collection. © COZIC / SOCAN (2019)
- COZIC, Cocotte en peluche, 1978. Cardboard, plush, satin, 43 x 41 x 18 cm. Private collection. © COZIC / SOCAN (2019)
- COZIC, Mikado, 1991. Wood, acrylic, white chalk, 10 x 500 x 300 cm. Private collection. © COZIC / SOCAN (2019)
Photos: Idra Labrie