Thanks to an invitation from the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization to give a talk on the art market -- I suggested that it was all a Ponzi scheme, with taxpayer-supported museums playing the part of the "greatest fool," which seemed to go over well enough with the populist Canadians -- I was able to undertake a whirlwind tour of Montreal, the second-largest French-speaking city in the world (after Paris). So much French, so close to the U.S.! Don’t tell the Republicans.
Downtown Montreal is a pleasant mix of skyscrapers, good restaurants and funky storefronts, with plenty of young people, thanks to the presence of McGill University, and a reputation as Canada’s Sin City, thanks to a liberal attitude towards strip clubs. The downtown scene includes several museums and galleries as well. All this leads Claude Gosselin, longtime director of the Biennale de Montréal, May 10-July 8, 2007 -- more about this below -- to boost the city as the country’s artistic capital.
Currently at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal is "Once upon a Time Walt Disney: Sources of Inspiration for the Disney Studios," Mar. 8-June 24, 2007. Though the show is being sold as a big bunch of Mousketeering fun, in fact it’s a historical investigation into the artistic roots of Disney’s imagination, comparing his early cartoons to the Expressionist films of Fritz Lang and ending up with Destino, Salvador Dalí’s Disney collaboration from 1943 (which was only finally assembled and released in 2003).
Less than a mile away is the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, currently boasting "Bruce Nauman," May 26-Sept. 3, 2007, a touring show of neons organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum complemented by a retrospective selection of video and films, organized by curator Sandra Grant Marchand, plus the artist’s new room-sized One Hundred Fish Fountain (2005). The array of 97 suspended bronze fish in seven different forms, all spouting streams of water into a large, square provisional pool, the fountain -- owned by the Sender Collection -- is noisy, odd and a little nightmarish, like a lot of Nauman’s work.
The permanent collection also has its rewards, especially to the extent that it suggests a parallel art history, following familiar paths but with local practitioners. Thus, down in the lobby, the museum displays two new acquisitions, recent paintings by Montreal artist Dil Helebrand (b. 1974) and Vancouverite Étienne Zack (b. 1976), that look like they might come from the Leipzig School.
Similarly, in a gallery upstairs is an eye-popping installation of Op Art from the mid-1960s by Yves Gaucher, Claude Tousignant, Jacques Hurtubise and Guido Molinari, not the usual lineup. Interesting, too, is the way that the curator has contrasted these brightly colored, precisely done paintings with several dark, primitivist sculptures in wood and metal. Also on view nearby is a 1991 painting by the late Larry Rivers with stenciled words giving a French vocabulary lesson (c’est le nez!).
But the energizing event for the local art scene at present is the fifth "Biennale de Montreal," which was organized by Wayne Baerwaldt, former director of the Power Plant in Toronto and now head of the Illingworth Kerr Gallery at the Alberta College of Art and Design. Titled "Crack in the Sky," the show is installed at five different sites, notably the École Bourget, a former school building, and the Parisian Laundry, a beautiful two-storied loft-like structure of dark brick and industrial clerestory windows that is about three kilometers away.
Baerwaldt has given the show a strong Canadian complexion, reaching across the country to include artists from its far-flung and divergent provinces, often enlisting the help of local curators. The approach seems fairly progressive; apparently Montreal often plays in contrast to the ROC, that is, the rest of Canada.
In his selections, Baerwaldt reveals a taste for stage sets and dioramas. Among the participating Canadian artists are Graeme Patterson (b. 1980), whose impressive, large scale models of buildings from a Saskatchewan ghost town fills the ground floor of the Parisian Laundry, and David Hoffos (b. 1966), whose illusionistic nighttime dioramas, viewed through holes in a wall and enlivened with projected video figures, are marvels of verisimilitude.
Kent Monkman, an artist who was born in Winnipeg in 1965, makes drawings, photographs, paintings and installations that are witty mash-ups of 19th-century views of what Canadians call "First Nation" culture (i.e., Native Americans) with a comic gay sensibility, notably through burlesques involving a character Monkman has named Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.
The biennale also includes muscular drawings narrating Eskimo life by Annie Pootoogook, an Inuit who is also included in Documenta 12, and drawings by Paul P., who was born in Ontario, narrating a homoerotic Arcadian fantasy.
The "electroclash" musician known as Peaches, whose underground hit is titled Fuck the Pain Away (and who performed on the beach last December as part of the festivities at Art Basel Miami Beach), contributed a kind of mini-Quonset-hut structure of fur, lined on the inside with bras, underwear and other fetish items that fans had thrown on stage during her performances. Visitors to the show could crawl inside and watch a video of a Peaches "fandemonium."
Out-of-towners include the Irish artist Theo Sims (b. 1969), who has created a perfect, life-size replica of an Irish pub as part of the show, and Virgil Marti, who contributes two hanging screens of gilded bones made of cast resin. Downstairs in the basement of the École Bourget is playing a new ten-minute film by the Danish artist Jesper Just. Titled A Vicious Undertow, the black-and-white movie tells an allusive and mournful tale of forsaken love, with no dialogue other than whistling. The soundtrack includes an evocative new arrangement of songs by the Clash and the Moody Blues, notably Knights in White Satin.
Another highlight of the biennale is an exhibition of works by David Altmejd, who was born in Montreal but now lives in London, at the Galerie de L’UQAM -- a show given added interest by Altmejd’s selection for the Canadian pavilion at the forthcoming 52nd Venice Biennale. Altmejd’s elaborate neo-Goth constructions are undeniably weird -- sort of like Alberto Giacometti’s 1933 Palace at 4 A.M. with added hair and mirrors and fur and plastic flowers and crystals.
One of the most recent works at L’UQAM, The Hunter (2006), is a kind of large hollow skull shape, inset with mirrored cubes and boxes, adorned with taxidermied squirrels, pine cones and oak tree branches, as well as odds and ends of leatherman regalia.
Time was growing short, but I had an hour or so to dash through the "Belgo," a funky five-story building on Rue Sainte-Catherine filled with commercial galleries, artist co-ops and artist’s studios. Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain has some alluring monochrome watercolors of "hunting scenes" by the aforementioned Kent Monkman, a nude chief in high heels sitting on a nag, for instance. The watercolors are $3,800 Canadian.
Galerie SAS is featuring, with the assistance of Elle Quebec and Lancôme Paris, among others, an exhibition called "Mille Femmes Montreal de Maraval," an impressive collection of portraits of women looking rather flirty, since they’re all photographed looking over one shoulder, as if turning to smile at a wolf whistle!
At La Galerie B-312, the artist Randall Anderson has done an installation featuring a wall covered with randomly arranged bright sheets of paper and a striding statue of a kind of white golem, constituted of fluttering paper pieces himself. Not dissimilar to Umberto Boccioni’s classic 1913 bronze, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Anderson’s figure is titled Zoom! The price is $12,000 Canadian.
And at Galerie René Blouin is an exhibition of sculptures and drawings by Patrick Coutu, who seems to take some of his inspiration from the strangely gemlike forms of coral. One marquee piece, titled Chute, is made of aqua-toned cement and resembles a large upside-down branch dripping icicles or moss. The price of Chute is $12,000 Canadian.
Artist-run nonprofits are a strong force in Canadian art, and the Belgo building contains the headquarters of several. One is a 22-year old center for emerging artists called Skol -- the name is derived from that Scandinavian drinking toast, and represents the significant role that "celebratory cheer" plays in the group’s activities. Another sign of the anti-commercial approach, perhaps, is the guest book by Matthieu Lefévre that has with pages of black paper, so that any signatures are next to invisible.
On view in the gallery is a sprawling group exhibition of about 90 works on paper, photos and other things that can be pinned to the wall. The result of an open call for proposals and a yearlong "collective construction," the show is designed as an investigation of "expressions of individual impulses and a testament to the source and origin of all artistic projects. It is titled "As If All Were Well."
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.