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THE NEXT 7 DAYS:     EVENTS (23)     +     OPENINGS (9)     +     DEADLINES (14)     +     CLOSINGS (9)
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Tammer El-Sheikh
David Lafrance at Galerie Hugues Charbonneau
August 30, 2017

For its summer programming this year, Galerie Hugues Charbonneau organized 8 Artists: 8 Situations beyond its walls and around the city. To kick-off the program, artist and Refus Global signatory Francoise Sullivan showed digital prints of her walks through Montreal between 1973 and 2017. Guillaume Adjutor Provost and Nadege Grebmeier Forget took over the gallery’s Instagram account for the second and fifth Situations respectively, and Maria Hupfield installed lightning bolt and star-shaped benches around trees in Victoria Square for the fourth. In the third Situation a less upright reimagining of public space was offered. At Bar Cheval Blanc Cynthia Gerard-Renard launched her interspecies love story Le Renard Vulve, set on Mount Royal and featuring “a lesbian BDSM skunk couple, a stripper bat and a raccoon barmaid.” An equally convivial seventh Situation titled Forbidden Rendez-vous in the Ghost Wing took place on August 23 at the Mile End studio of artist David Lafrance.

David Lafrance, Étude pour Atlas No 2, 2014, acrylic paint on sculpted recycled wood

In 1962 Leo Steinberg reflected on the “plight of the public” over Henri Matisse’s Joy of Life. For Steinberg, the painting, with its airy, love-locked nudes in a hallucinatory landscape, frustrated expectations that nudes in a landscape would be legible and solid. Like any good contemporary work of art, Matisse’s modern masterpiece had a destabilizing effect. The appropriate analogy for Matisse’s “expanding and rhythmical” painting, according to Steinberg, is a ripple in water after a stone disappears beneath the surface, or a “circulatory system… of a city or of the blood, where stoppage (a traffic jam or a blood clot) implies a pathological condition.” Galerie Hugues Charbonneau’s Situations have this quality of spreading outwards from indeterminate centers, of presenting rhythmically rather than solidly, and of refusing to pin down the visions and energy of the artists involved.

Ghosts of the most daring European modernists haunted Lafrance’s studio “rendez-vous.” His restless “hybrid aesthetic” – part Fauvist, part folk-art, part caricature – measures itself against art-historical and popular values, then sends them in search of new ones. Across twenty years of production on view at the studio, the work moves from figurative to natural to mental landscapes. In the transition from symbols of unchecked egotism (like puffy-chested, bug-eyed wrestlers with raised fists) to troubled landscapes rendered as caricatures or human projections, the artist focuses ever more tightly on the effects, fears, and fallibility of humans.

Étude pour Atlas No 2 from 2014, a small, rough wood sculpture of the figure from Greek mythology, is an apt symbol for our ambivalent relationship with the environment. Almost buckling under the weight of an orb cut from recycled wood is Lafrance’s Atlas supporting the world or about ready to throw it in the garbage. In front of the diminutive Titan, several oil paintings from the artist’s Almanac Menace series are piled on a table. In Vent de glace Lafrance offers a caricature of climate change at a moment when we can no longer innocently talk about the weather. A warped Jack-O-Lantern with blood-red eyes and well-spaced, white teeth blows a wind in the shape of a balloon or an empty speech bubble over a devastated forest. The artist’s style for this and the other works in the series is carefully chosen. He claims, “we have so disrespected the environment that we deserve to live with a caricature of it” as a reminder of this history of opportunism and abuse.

Peur de perdre includes several small oil paintings of interiors that seem both imagined and lived-in. Déménager en égypte shows a cluttered room in stacked Cubist perspective with a picture of the pyramids of Giza hanging on a wall. At first it reads like a riff on Matisse’s Orientalized interiors, but Lafrance’s painting refers to his fellow-artist Sam Shalabi’s move to Cairo in the wake of the uprising there. Lafrance dissolves the line between imagined and actual homes to reflect on the itinerant life of a friend rather than Modernist fantasies of escape. In Autarcie Cherie we see other fraught projections of home. Moody pink and blue skies in the series look like Monet’s at Giverny, but Lafrance puts hovering portraits of old farmers at the centre of the compositions to capture the anxiety, toil, and impact of an uncertain relationship to the land.

David Lafrance, En ordre d’apparition 01, 2016, oil on canvas

As sure as we might have been in the past about our privileged place on the planet, Lafrance insists that our centers don’t hold for long. This view is somber when the artist takes on subjects such as environmental catastrophe and the loss of home, but it is energetic and inventive when he deals with the subject of painting itself. His most recent series En ordre d’apparition shows the aesthetic merit of a fractured view of the human. In each of the works we see a realistically painted hand near a floating mask, skull, or apparition. Head and hand in each case push through a glut of mental objects – cut-outs or silhouettes of tools, painter’s palettes, vases and jugs, fenced-in plots of land or caged-in nudes. The hand, modeled on the painter’s own, is an anchor around which to organize the picture’s content. It is also a painter’s hand without a brush, captured before or after the moment of painting but never precisely at that moment. For Lafrance the works are not fixed illusionistic representations of a creative act but unevenly resolved records of the passage of old, new, and emergent ideas. A little like Velazquez’s Las Meninas for the French philosopher Michel Foucault, Lafrance’s art is playfully, if darkly, caught between feints, glances, and lacunae, or between the hand and the head, very much of but never simply about the human situation.

Galerie Hugues Charbonneau:
8 Artists: 8 Situations continues until October 15.

Tammer El-Sheikh is a writer and teacher based in Montreal. His art criticism has appeared in Parachute, Canadian Art, ETC and C Magazine.



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