Quoi Faire? Quoi Dire?
Recent work by four Acadian Artists from Moncton
Curated by Charlotte Townsend-Gault
Catalogue translation by Sally Ross
January 6-23 1987; Anna Leonowens Gallery,Nova Scotia College of Art & Design
Catholic content in French Surrealism became skewed when it moved to America during the War. Several artists in this exhibition remind us that French Surrealism was first of all French, and got deposited in places other than New York when it crossed the Atlantic. We mix up Surrealism with American art: in art history the juncture is uneasily defined.
Perhaps the anti-clericism of an artist like Moncton's Yvon Gallant ( his Pope painting is discussed briefly below ) can help English artists remember that our European modernist heroes, the Bretons, Duchamps, Picabias - often grappled with a Catholic culture incomprehensible to us. This is a tricky question which isn't addressed by merely skimming off the art of Europe for ourselves.
Acadian artists in this exhibition mix up contemporary life in Moncton with French Surrealism of good vintage, and bring up intriguing questions about European, Acadian and Canadian culture as they work. What a revelation this exhibition has been to the Halifax community! It has generated a great deal of excitement - and embarassment at seeing vitality so close to home, and yet so little known. Perhaps this can be blamed on the globe-hopping cosmopolitanism of many Halifax artists: Moncton is too close. We are more familiar with East Village, Winnipeg and European art than with what can be experienced within a three hour car ride.
On the other hand, as Charlotte Townsend-Gault points out in her ground-breaking catalogue essay, these artists ARE relatively new: the first generation of Acadians to have been trained at the art department at the University of Moncton. They owe something to a spiritual founder, Claude Roussel, the University of Moncton's first artist in residence. It is not Roussel's abstract art that has guided the younger people, it is his example as a working professional ( Moncton artists are as tuned in as anyone to international trends - local heroes help. )
Yvon Gallant may be familiar to readers of Vanguard. His Quoi Faire? Quoi Dire? paintings included a depiction of Pope John Paul II's visit to Moncton, a contemporary philosopher dressed as Descartes, a cat at the vet's, an RCMP officer and a woman in an old age home.
The Pope painting is a send up of John Paul's Knights of Columbus attendants; one of them holds up a daub of an arm as if directing traffic. Gallant paints a raw, rough local cosmology of homely characters with a sardonic folk painter's touch. The colours in the Pope painting are brown, ochre, and green - subdued for Gallant. The painting was stapled to the gallery wall like a piece of burlap on a fishing shack. In his picture of an RCMP constable, a bird is painted in an unyieldingly flat black - a visual hole is made in the canvas; everything about Gallant's work is rough, painted with the subtlety a lumberjack might bring to the cutting of a stray log.
Hidden in the upstairs office area of the gallery was a late entry: a Gallant painting of a pig, a man, and a hypodermic needle.
The photograph of Gallant in the catalogue shows him dead-panning a pose with at least four ties around his neck - this guy is funny.
Gallant's work has affinities with that of Halifax painters like Janice Leonard and Eric Walker, who use Maritime folk art conventions to record local history.
Paul Bourque's paintings are more sedate - and sumptuous. There is a Rococo feel to them. The psychedelic colour of Jacques Arsenault's prints and Yvon Gallant's paintings is absent in Bourque's art; and he may yet develop into the most exciting colourist of the group, despite his tendency towards a cloying palette. His appropriated images of fish, antelope and mink are given lush - at times garrish- treatment. Viewers lingered at his Blue Beggars painting, which is full of impressionistic subtleties.
Brightly coloured prints by Jacques Arsenault dominated half of a wall. Franz Kafka is instantly recognizable in several of them. Kafka's ghost-face floats over images of city streets ( Prague? ), over titles like The Trial and The Sentence of K. There is a Statue of Liberty image in one print, and in another Arsenault writes AMERIKA across Kafka's face. There are angels with trumpets and a green devil lurking in the depths of individual works. In this exhibition, Arsenault plays Tragedy, Yvon Gallant, Comedy. It is quite a striking contrast. Arsenault brings Acadian surrealism to boil in images of a personal hell, where Kafka stands in for the viewer, and the viewer stands in for Kafka. It is quite a bleak vision.
Hermenegilde Chiasson is known to Halifax artists as a participant in the 1979 Mount Saint Vincent Art Gallery exhibition Survival Atlantic Style, curated by Barry Lord. For me his was the only familiar name. He is the oldest (read most mature) artist, and a bit of a polymath. Here he exhibited an installation work, which consisted of a projector focussed at the ceiling ( projecting a French verse about Andre Breton ), blown up photocopies of the same text, and objects placed carefully on top of the photocopies.
The objects are painted a deep bluewith gold stars. The blue could be night sky, Yves Klein blue, or the blue of the Acadian flag ( matching the Acadian flag gold stars ), or all of the above. As one surveyed the collection of painted objects, which includes a door knob, a tin can, parts of a tire jack, a piston head, a pipe, or a printing press roll, Chiasson emerges as the most poetic and perhaps the most difficult of these artists.
Is Chiasson's installation a lament for an Acadian nation or personal poetry? Are the Acadians more interested in local culture than international legibility? Why do their problems seem to be heightened versions of similar difficulties we have in Halifax? Questions like these inspired the great interest the Halifax art community showed in this work. Such interest is well worth pursuing.