In the visual arts a number of Canadian cities developed a kind and style of artmaking that has been sustained in their communities and university art schools. Vancouver championed photo-conceptualism; Victoria foregrounded an eclectic sculptural tradition; Saskatoon advanced a flatland version of Greenbergian formalism; Regina went for California-inflected ceramic funk; Winnipeg was hooked, lined and sinkered by collectives with a decidedly DIY aesthetic; and Toronto tried everything.
In Montreal painting was the thing. Through the Golden Age of Quebec painting in the early to mid-19th century and into the Contemporary Arts Society founded by John Lyman in 1939, to Les Automatistes, catalyzed by Paul-Émile Borduas in the 1940s, and followed by Les Plasticiens, led by Guido Molinari and Claude Tousignant, Montreal has fostered a rigorous painting tradition that continues uninterrupted to this day. Since the late 1990s gallerists and artists have organized multi-venued mega-exhibitions as showplaces for the range and quality of that painterly activity. The initial venture, “Peinture Peinture,” which was presented in 1998, was generated by Montreal’s preeminent gallerist, René Blouin. Its aim was to celebrate the richness of painting in the city. In 2010 Blouin enlisted the help of painter and curator Ben Klein for “Peinture extrême/Extreme Painting,” an exhibition that focused on a painting stye that was expressionist in subject and material: there was a lot of fat paint on the walls in the works of artists like Kim Dorland and Allison Schulnik. In 2013 the Galerie de l’UQAM mounted “Le Projet Peinture/The Painting Project,” an exhibition that curators Louise Déry and Julie Bélisle called “a snapshot of painting in Canada.” Their lens was wide-angled; 60 artists were included, and the gallery show took the form of two consecutive instalments over the summer of 2013; there was an extensive catalogue and a web version of the exhibition was made available for five years.
Francine Savard, Truismes 2 & 3, 2016, acrylic on MDF, 195.5 x 429 x 9.5 centimetres. Courtesy Pictura and Blouin Division.
The most recent exploration of the practice of painting as viewed from Montreal is “Pictura: Painting … in Montréal’s image.” The exhibition was conceived and organized by Montreal artist Trevor Kiernander. His commitment to the idea of painting in Montreal is directly connected to the medium’s history in the city. In 1995 he was studying illustration at Sheridan College in Oakville and became fascinated by the Refus Global, the manifesto published in 1948 by Borduas and signed by 16 members of the Automatistes. In his research he realized that Françoise Sullivan, one of the signatories of Total Refusal, was teaching in the Painting and Drawing Department at Concordia. He applied, was accepted and in 2002 moved to Montreal, where he completed his BFA in 2006, which included taking Sullivan’s abstract painting class. He subsequently went on to Goldsmiths in London, where he received his MFA and worked at the university in various administrative departments until returning to Montreal in 2014. He is now teaching at Concordia.
In mounting “Pictura” he relied on previous associations, including with Ben Klein (who suggested the name of the exhibition and co-wrote the introduction to the accompanying catalogue) and Ian Gonczarow, a colleague from Goldsmiths (who contributed an essay to the publication on his online project called “Painting at the End of the World”).
Darby Milbrath, The Path, 2020, oil on canvas, 100 x 72 inches. Courtesy the artist and Projet Pangée. Photo: Jean- Michael Semirano.
Kiernander’s view of the art form in Montreal is that “the bedrock new movement in painting right now is that there is no trend, no discernible style,” and, to demonstrate that pluralism, 36 exhibitions were mounted in 27 spaces across the city, showing the work of 96 artists. Because the exhibiting galleries don’t exclusively show Quebec artists, painters from other parts of the country (Martin Golland from Ottawa, Matt Schust from Toronto, Adad Hannah from Vancouver among them) turn up in “Pictura” as well.
The pandemic changed the ambitious scope of “Pictura” (a one-person show by Berlin-based artist Verena Issel had to be cancelled, but it was replaced by a four-person exhibition of Montreal artists at Art Mûr). Isabelle Graw, the distinguished German editor, professor and art critic, had agreed to come to Montreal to give a lecture, which was not possible, so it was delivered online. Among her recent books is The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium, 2018. Her title can be seen as predictive. On the surface it appears that the success of Kiernander’s 2020–21 exhibition bodes well for the medium’s return in its next iteration, which is already in the planning stages. In 2023 Montreal will be the site and sight for an exhibition that might be called “Pictura Redux.” ❚