Nearing his 72nd birthday, visual artist Raymond Gervais passed away on Jan. 6, at peace with himself. I was but one in a throng of acquaintances who braved the chills and the storm one week later to pay our last respects.
Beloved by all, he was affable to a fault and couldn’t resist a good laugh. In his work, however, he was committed and serious, though there was a playful streak to it as well. His chosen field, conceptual art, was not only a profession, it was his lifeblood.
Early in life, he was something of a dabbler. A music buff weaned on jazz, he loved turning on others and did so as a record salesman. Next, he tried his hand at the saxophone before involving himself as a show presenter-cum-guiding spirit of the Atelier de musique expérimentale (AME), a collective of young avant-garde improvisers active in the 1970s. From then on he drifted into the visual arts, where he found his home, simply because it was the most welcoming one to him. Intuitive by nature, this autodidact was very much driven by improvisation, something he had retained from the music he loved so much, to the point of incorporating it into his own work.
Working in his own corner, he shirked all materials and mediums used in visual arts. He used neither paint brushes nor pigments, nor did he churn out canvases, prints or carvings of any kind. The crux of his work was not so much the objects as such as the ideas behind them and the meanings to be gleaned from them. His goal was not to produce pieces to be hung up for permanent display, but to assemble existing objects into installations for temporary exhibits. Using pictures, videos, music stands, turntables, LPs and record jackets (replaced later by jewel cases), he would configure them in free associations and stimulate a kind of synaesthesia that would invite the ear to see and the eye to hear.
Without question, the visual medium best suited him, acting as a point of convergence for everything he valued. Not only that, but it enabled him to look beyond reality and peer into the imaginary. One of his recurring themes was conceiving encounters between artists of different vocations and eras.
A case in point was his last major installation that took place in Paris in 2012, one whose title, Finir, may well sound prophetic now (finir means to end). In it, he brings together two of his favourite artists, Samuel Beckett and Claude Debussy: on one set of music stands, he displays excerpts from the former’s final writings (Oh! Tout finir), and on another he indicates the instrument names for three sonatas planned by the latter but never written.
In a 2014 video short, Gervais expresses his wish to create sound in silence in order to see it better. Fortunately for him, he lived long enough for others to recognize him as a pioneering conceptual artist in Canada. In 2010, the Nelligan Foundation awarded him its Ozias-Leduc Prize for lifetime achievement. Four years later, he was honoured by Canada’s Art Council with one of the Governor General’s prizes for visual and media arts.
Of the many unusual things that caught his fancy, he had a particular fondness for coincidences. Had he known that one of the jazz greats, Dizzy Gillespie, passed away 25 years to the day before his own end (and of the same cause!), I’m sure he would have been amused.
“The way I see my work is something like setting a stage for the eye and the ear.”
Please view Raymond Gervais – Le regard et l’écoute (available with subtitles on YouTube)