The Angel is in the Details

VIE D’ANGE, Montreal’s “hippest” exhibition space, opened all five of its doors in the summer of 2015. Located in the Marconi Alexandra district, the gallery is a former automobile paint shop that also did oil and tire changes. VIE D’ANGE is close to Bar Alexandraplatz, another former garage that has been converted into a bar and is a popular hangout in the Mile-Ex neighbourhood. The gallery co-directors are Daphné Boxer and Eli Kerr, and the name they picked for their space is rich in linguistic possibility. “Life of angels” is straightforward enough, but vie d’ange is also Quebec slang for street refuse, a naming that suits both the roughness of the building and the area’s makeshift transitional character. The fact that it also suggests the act of emptying out a container nods in the direction of the building’s former life. Boxer and Kerr might not be changing oil, but in the three years they have been programing the gallery, they keep emptying out one set of contents before filling it with another.

VIE D’ANGE, exterior, 2018, Montreal.

Their programing is smart, current and eclectic, inviting artists from all over the world. They have curated group shows—in 2015 “Unsafe at Any Speed” included heavy-hitters like Michel de Broin, Jon Rafman and Valérie Blass—and two-person collaborations, like “Guttersnipes” with Janine Marsh and Nadia Belerique in 2017. But their penultimate exhibition this year focused on a pair of solo shows, one by Abbas Akhavan from Toronto and the other by Carlos Reyes from New York. (The final show before they closed for the winter was a one-person exhibition by the English artist Emily Jones, called “Folk Hall for a Village.”)

Both Akhavan and Reyes contributed pieces that fit the space like a greasy work glove. Akhavan occupied the inside and the outside of the building, adding gold leaf to the security bars of an exterior window frame and a site-relevant rooftop text sprayed in paint. Reyes and his collaborator, Max Stolkin, continued with the second part of an exhibition that involved salvaging the material and the memories of the West Side Club, New York City’s “premier social relaxation club for men.” While Reyes and Akhavan are different artists, Boxer appreciated the ways in which their work became cross-resonant; each of them employed texts and each dealt with invasive species: Akhavan with plants, Reyes with birds.

Carlos Reyes with Max Stolkin, Wst Sd Clb (West Side Club). Installation view, 2018, VIE D’ANGE.

In their programming Boxer and Kerr choose artists whose work they admire and then hope they will understand the curatorial structure and resources of the gallery. The artists have to be willing to try things, and they have had remarkable results. Kerr recognizes that the space “can be a medium and a site all at once.” So the peeling and painterly walls in the second gallery, already an inscription of the building’s previous life, became a perfect location for Reyes’s barely legible bathhouse messages, a reclamation of a lost language of handwritten desire. The art and the space exist in a deceptive kind of harmony, and there are times when you’re not entirely sure which is which.

One of the attitudes that keeps VIE D’ANGE functioning is a practical and economic flexibility. The life of angels is dependent upon gestures equivalent to their nature, and Kerr admits that the building’s owner has turned out to be remarkably supportive. “He knows what we’re doing and he believes in it, so he just lets us alone.” In addition, they have been able to rely on the kindness of neighbourhood strangers, like the owner of a glass store who had left a large pane outside his building and told Kerr to “come back at night and make it disappear.” Boxer says they have also augmented the gallery’s lean budget by renting out the space for an occasional film shoot and for fashionistas looking for a setting that epitomizes industrial grunge.

Carlos Reyes with Max Stolkin, Wst Sd Clb, A’s, E’s, I’s, O’s, U’s and Y’s from the names of Rare/Accidental birds of the Birds Checklist of Montréal (Avibase Bird Checklists of the World, Denis Lepage 2018), 2018, West Side Club Scrape type, textured wall spray on wall, gloss (detail), dimensions variable.

But it would be misleading to suggest that Boxer and Kerr are naïves who have lucked upon a temporary space and generous community support. They are highly intelligent, well-connected and aware that they are the newest iteration of a long-standing Montreal tradition. The city has always had inventive alternative galleries and Kerr has written about that legacy while assessing where their gallery, and others, fits into that cultural history. As he says, “It’s a generational thing that happens every ten years and it can happen again. There are a lot of new spaces popping up and the unconventional has become the conventional.”

The provisional circumstances of the gallery have turned out to be a blessing (how else could the life of angels be viewed?). “We’re a small team, there are only two of us and we’re very flexible,” Boxer says. “We do what we do with a sense that it might be over tomorrow and I think that’s what gives us the energy to do it.” Kerr agrees: “We live with the urgency and the knowledge that every show could be the last.” Instead of being a limitation, that sense of unpredictability has been liberating. “We wanted to go more experimental and to play with the space, and the location and the insecurity allowed us to do that,” Boxer adds. In assessing how the gallery will proceed, Kerr picks up on his partner’s observation and seems unaware that his response underlines the attributes of her name. “It’s like a boxing match,” he says, “you want to stay until the building goes.” ❚