CURRENT ISSUE | SPRING 2018: DIRTY WORDS
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Michael Dumontier: From Miffy to Minimalism

In a quietly terrific exhibition at Winnipeg’s Plug In ICA, Michael Dumontier offers some pared-down but playful exercises in representation.

A founding member of the Royal Art Lodge, the influential Winnipeg-based collaborative group, Dumontier works with basic materials and simple shapes. At a distance, the show might pass for 1960s minimalism, with its sparse scattering of objects in a white-walled room. In physical terms, the pieces are rigorously reductive, but Dumontier’s minimalism has a prairie feel. He eschews cool containment for warmth and wonky humour. A familiar yellow mailing envelope is concisely suggested by an arrangement of masonite pieces; a tree is constructed from black string, a handful of nails and a fishing weight; two pieces of painted black wood form a very deliberate picture of an “accidentally” broken stick.

Combining elements of drawing, sculpture and installation, these pieces exert an unexpected emotional pull. The Royal Art Lodge taste for melancholy is here—in the wistful sadness of a discarded sock, for example. Many of Dumontier’s inanimate objects seem to possess mysterious inner lives: a magnet yearns towards a nail, a candle leans drunkenly, that single sock seems somehow bereft.

Like many Winnipeg artists, Dumontier brings a Value Village vibe to his creative process. He regularly rummages through thrift stores and garage sales for illustrated how-to manuals, outdated medical treatises, discarded 1970s craft guides and vintage children’s books.

A father of two preschoolers, the 37-year-old Dumontier is inspired by children’s art—not just art by children, with its wayward sweetness, but also art for children, where the sweetness is often bounded by formalist structure. Dumontier takes the exhibition’s title, “A Moon or a Button,” from a 1959 children’s book by Ruth Krauss and Remy Charlip, and he’s fascinated by the juncture where modernist design and graphics meet the imaginative whimsy of kids’ picture books. His blog references sources like Tana Hoban’s wordless books of photographs and the stories of Dutch artist Dick Bruna, who uses de Stijl simplicity to chronicle the adventures of a rabbit named Miffy.

One of Dumontier’s key influences is modernist-era children’s picture dictionaries, in which images match words with precise clarity so that kids can learn language. These books, with their interest in visual and verbal readability, can be seen to overlap with conceptualism and its investigation of language. Some of Dumontier’s works seem to be calibrating how much visual information one needs—and how much one can jettison—so that a picture of an egg reads as an egg.

Even when Dumontier’s pieces have a pellucid plainness—his socks are so socky-looking; his eggs so eggish—they contain sneaky-smart layers. Some of the works use trompe l’oeil, not the show-offy kind but the sort that trades on quiet visual puns. What seem to be small rocks and pebbles are actually lumps of broken-off MDF covered in crayon-coloured paper. What first appears to be a hard-edged abstraction, maybe a suprematist composition of black and white paint, on closer investigation turns out to be roughly torn fabric joined with tiny pins. On even closer investigation, however, the “pins” are revealed as illusionistic tricks made with a foil-stamping device.

In this beautifully understated, even introverted show, Dumontier relies on small, slow discoveries rather than big effects.

Notice to the reader: This article has been corrected. The original version incorrectly stated that the exhibition end date was April 1. The correct end date is March 25.

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