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Isa Tousignant’s Top 3: Into the Deeps

1. Éric Lamontagne: Du haut de mon sous-sol at Maison des arts de Laval

Éric Lamontagne is an artist known more for his miniatures than his installations, but that’s largely a result of circumstance: specifically, the small size of his old, home-based studio. This exhibition, in which he made a witty and surreal homage to his childhood home’s basement, saw him stretch his legs into a grandly scaled, immersive installation, evoking my sheer delight. Welcomed into the darkened, windowless space of the gallery by a projection of a typical 1950s bungalow, viewers were corralled from tableau to tableau, each lit by spotlights. In one corner, a house roof jutted right out of the wall, with a taxidermied bird seemingly flying above it; in another corner, a painting of a moose had cut-out antlers that seemed to flutter right out of the surface. The centrepiece was a couch photorealistically painted on plywood, its falsity clear only from the side (since it was only six inches deep) and from the fact that it seemed to be melting into the simulacrum of a green shag rug. All the tropes of the 1970s teen-hangout basement were there, but left and forgotten as in a Mayan ruin, engulfed by the signs of time and growing roots into the floor. Animated by a soundtrack emanating from a small radio, the work felt like a life-scale painting one could walk through; half theatre set, half waking dream. The imagery was familiar to many—after all, who, of a certain age, hasn’t hung out in a shag-carpeted basement at one time or another? But left in ruins as it was, Lamontagne’s basement hinted at the loneliness of an empty nest, at the existential autonomy of inanimate objects, at the birth and death of a whole economic class—the middle class—and generally at the heights and subterranean lows of the simple passage of time.

2. Kent Monkman: My Treaty Is With the Crown at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Montreal

Kent Monkman has become a beloved figure in the Montreal landscape over the last couple of years, with exhibitions at Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain, the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal and, in March, the Ellen. Where curator Michèle Thériault surpassed the previous shows was in taking Monkman’s famously biting—and sexy—critiques of Canada’s relationship to its First Peoples and juxtaposing them with 19th-century artifacts and paintings from the MBAM and McCord Museum collections. Featuring new large-scale paintings by Monkman referencing a famous moment in Canadian history—the eve of the decisive Plains of Abraham battle between British general Wolfe and French marquis de Montcalm, each memorialized in paint in flagrante delicto with Miss Chief Eagle Testickle—the main space was decorated like a military camp, complete with tents made of sheer voile. The underlying theme of the show was hair as a symbol of power and its removal as an act of domination (Miss Chief shaves, or scalps, the two generals), and the artifacts exhibited played in perfectly—there were earrings made from woven hair, for example. The historical pieces were of various origins—European, North American and Aboriginal—but all from a period where historical paintings such as those riffed upon by Monkman were likely to have been made. Their inclusion was an astute museological device that gave further gravitas to Monkman’s project, while their decorative nature enhanced Miss Chief’s feminization of history and simultaneously drew attention to the heavy-handed kitsch factor of drag culture. Particularly hilarious was the presentation, in a museum case like those containing the historical artifacts, of Miss Chief’s well-used, mile-high, red-vinyl boots.

3. Anima at FOFA Gallery, Montreal

Curated by Christine Redfern upon the publication of the graphic novella Who Is Ana Mendieta?, which was created by Redfern and Caro Caron, “Anima” was a mise en abyme of some of Mendieta’s film work with art by contemporary Montrealers. The novella, an expressively illustrated tour de force about the art and life of the Cuban expatriate, examines Mendieta’s path in a patriarchal art world during the heyday of the feminist revolution. It was a particular pleasure in the gallery to see some the artist’s actual work and its recontextualization alongside pieces by some of my favourite locals—Karilee Fuglem, Elena Willis, Jason Sanchez and Caron herself. But the star of the show for me was Philomène Longpré. Longpré creates video art that is packed to the brim with impact and implications; her works carry a poetry in their aesthetic that’s dark, spooky, fragile and sensitive. Xia, the piece included in this exhibition, is an interactive projection that awaits a viewer’s presence to move. It features a woman wrapped in a long sheath of heavy paper, and lying on another sheet of paper. When she “senses” you, she shifts positions—the paper against paper makes a dramatic rustling sound, a noise joined by that of her breathing as she gets going. Her extremities are covered in what seems like charcoal—a substance, at any rate, that leaves traces of her contortions. It’s like watching someone battle insomnia, writhing from one end of an uncomfortable bed to the other, except that the paper that binds her implies fetishism, imprisonment and possible torture. In her conceptualization of the exhibition, Redfern took inspiration from a phrase of Mendieta’s: she wanted to unite works “grounded on the primordial accumulations, the unconscious urges that animate the world.” Xia hit it right on the nose.

Isa Tousignant, who writes criticism for various outlets, is a contributing editor for Canadian Art.

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