All Dressed

Always Another Medium: in conversation with Nelson Henricks

Undeniably, there is something thrilling about hardware stores. Artists love them. Maybe it’s the sheer volume and variety of objects on display, a microcosm of possible worlds: hammers, hinges, ladders, lightbulbs — everything including the kitchen sink. Maybe it’s the unmistakable hardware store smell, that combination of turpentine and sawdust that awakens the senses.

Whatever it is, the Montreal-based artist and academic Nelson Henricks, whose two multimedia installations, Don’t You Like The Green of A and Heads Will Roll, are currently featured at the Musée d’art contemporain’s auxiliary Place Ville Marie space, finds inspiration there, too.

“There are certain places that I go,” Henricks tells me about locating his creative muse. “There’s also this really great prop shop in the east end of Montreal called Gascon & Krukowski and I just love going there and looking through all their stuff. I think there can be these places, like hardware stores, that really inspire us, and materials that really inspire us.”

Nelson Henricks is one of Montreal’s most interesting contemporary artists. In 2002, he won the coveted Bell Canada Prize in Video Art. He has curated programmes at the Montreal Festival of Cinema and New Media and the Saidye Bronfman Centre. Henricks’s works reside in the permanent collections of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and his writing has been collected in numerous edited volumes and magazines. He teaches supercool courses at Concordia on subjects like “Video History and Theory” and “Art Culture(s) and Technology,” and he will soon begin a collaboration with Ubisoft, the video game company.

Henricks’s works have a prop shop material quality to them. It is not immediately clear to which tradition they belong. Are they video art, or sculpture; are they paintings, or fashion, or wallpaper? Among them, there are key elements of all of these things operating in accord. “It’s really like a series of components that mutually reinforce each other,” Henricks explains of the two shows. “You have the spotlights, you have the video, you have the paintings and the costumes, and they’re working like a network. There’s a series of parts that come together.”

The tongue-in-cheek piece entitled Heads Will Roll prominently features a figure wearing a drum as a helmet, along with other noisemaking elements loosely related to civil disobedience and social protest. For the installation, Henricks collaborated closely with Stuart Jackson, the classically trained percussionist.

“I was really interested in working with [Jackson] because he could play a lot more accurately than I could,” Henricks says, self-deprecatingly.

“My timing was really off, when you get down to the millisecond level. Whereas Stuart had a lot more accuracy because he’s a professional musician. He can play with a metronome and almost match it to the millisecond — which was great. In our conversations, he was telling me about all these different things we could do, and all of these different things he was playing: pieces of metal, glass bottles, or using Styrofoam on drums and getting drums to resonate in different ways. Then the idea became, why not get Stuart to play pots and pans? So, it will kind of be about the Maple Spring.”

But for Henricks, there was also a deeply personal connection: “These are pots and pans that belonged to my grandmother and my mom. So there’s this idea of a call, in a way, like banging on a pot or a pan to call people in from the field at the end of a work day. So they’re about this relationship to family, too, like my grandmother’s voice, and finding a way to put that in the work.”

On an altogether different note, Don’t You Like The Green of A poses synesthesia, the fusion of two or more senses, as its central theme. “It’s been with me for as long as I can remember,” Henricks says of his own grapheme-color variety, the most common synesthetic instance in which subjects associate colours and alphabetical letters, and which Henricks shares with the late American abstract painter Joan Mitchell.

Henricks tells me that his synesthesia even extends to days of the week and months of the year, “like, Thursday begins with ‘T,’” he says, “so it has the same colour as ‘T.’ Or Monday begins with ‘M,’ so it has the same colour as ‘M.’ Part of my doctoral research was really around this question of synesthesia,” Henricks explains, “and the thing that I noticed in my art practice was other artists, and people, had synesthesia. And one of them was Joan Mitchell.”

Researching Mitchell sent Henricks down the proverbial rabbit hole: “The machine driving Don’t You Like The Green of A is this colour chart that Joan Mitchell drew up where she was documenting her colour-letter associations really precisely. I really tried to track down what her colour-letter associations were. This involved contacting the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New York and having a back-and-forth with them about that. I think sometimes things that inspire me are just encountering interesting little historical incidents or factoids that intrigue me.”

Henricks, however, is reticent to spell out the meaning or draw any quick conclusions. “As an artist, your words have a lot of weight,” Henricks suggests. “And they can really quickly shut down any sort of productive ambiguity about the work, and really anchor it in a certain type of context. So I try to be careful about talking about the work in those ways. I find that talking about the two pieces at the museum has been really challenging. On one hand, Don’t You Like The Green Of A is a really research-based piece, and it was coming out of a lot of facts. And Heads Will Roll was really more of a musical, compositional problem. There was this woman over at our house and she’d seen the show and she was saying, one piece really works on your mind, and one piece really works on your body. I found that a really interesting thing to say. Like, Heads Will Roll kind of works more on your body. It works more on the level of sensation.”

It was that sensorial attraction that spurred Henricks to incorporate programmes of Andy Warhol’s films along with his exhibition: a series of six Warhol works, including Kiss and Haircut, were screened on 16mm in January at the Cinémathèque Québécois, and a selection of Screen Tests — Warhol’s renowned single-reel facial studies — are projected in a loop in the MAC’s peripheral screening room. Warhol’s works are a fitting accompaniment to Henricks’s immense mixed media installation — big chunks of colour, big chunks of video, and definitively, big chunks of human experience.

“There were certain other parallels I was seeing between the Screen Tests and the work I was making for the show,” Henricks recalls: “a kind of monumental presentation of the face, and a really sculptural way of presenting time. These big blocks of time are just on display.”

“During the lockdown, I read this catalogue of the Screen Tests,” says Henricks, “And I found it really fascinating reading and I was like, I wish I could see them. And then another catalogue came out last year — this really minute documentation of all the Warhol films from ’63 to ’65 — and I knew some of these works because I had seen them in different contexts over the years. But again, I was kind of like polling people I knew and asking if anybody would be interested in seeing Warhol films in Montreal. Like, am I the only person who would want to see these things? Apparently not.”

The double feature showing of the dual-screen gem Outer and Inner Space paired with a Velvet Underground concert was sold out, and a number of eager cineastes attended all three evenings.

“When I went to the Museum with a proposition of doing a Warhol programme, they were really enthusiastic about it, which was a pleasant surprise,” says Henricks. “I was just thinking about that space at the museum, that kind of black box, and presenting something in there that wasn’t so demanding. They are demanding in a way, but it’s a really modular programme. You could watch one, or two, or three — as many as you want. They’re silent, so they’re contemplative. They’re not really narrating at you.”

On the final night at the Cinémathèque, the post-film discussion, moderated by the McGill professor Ara Osterweil, turned to notions of film’s material significance. Warhol’s works are notoriously difficult to see. Save for some YouTube bootlegs, few digital copies exist. “They’re not expensive,” Henricks says. “You just phone the Warhol Museum and rent them and screen them. But I subscribe to Criterion Channel and why aren’t these on Criterion?”

“I believe in that idea of medium specificity,” Henricks declares, “and I do say to my students, when you get a chance to see a 16mm film version of Warhol, or Stan Brakhage, or Michael Snow, go out and see these works. But then another part of me wonders how much of that doesn’t become a form of censorship, how much it doesn’t become a form of gatekeeping. There’s kind of a snobbery around the work, and I think that, ultimately, these things were meant to be shown. I think that the quality of projection at the MAC — these are digital copies, and they look great. They look amazing! Were there flaws in the Cinémathèque projection that could have been avoided had we been using digital copies? Yes, absolutely.”

The question of analogue or digital, software or hardware, medium or message, elicits genuine ambivalence.

“I wish I could give a rubber stamp of the guy holding his chin. I’m really divided and I feel like, ultimately, the work at the MAC, especially Don’t You Like The Green of A, is a piece that’s completely about refuting the importance of materiality. I’m saying, this work could be wallpaper, or it could be paintings, or it could be projection, or it could be a video — and it doesn’t really matter.”◼︎

Nelson Henricks New Works continues at the Musée d’art contemporain until 10 April 2023.

All Dressed

Permanent Waves: in conversation with Keiko Devaux

“The aesthetic theme throughout this opera is noise,” says Keiko Devaux over the crackling airwaves of a cellular telephone.

The Montreal-based composer and award winner, most recently, of the Juno for classical composition for her 2022 piece, Arras, is telling me about her latest production, a major new operatic work entitled L’Écoute du perdu, to be premiered across three performances at the Darling Foundry in February.

“It starts with the idea of turning a radio on. You’re lost in noise — the noise of space, the noise of silence — looking for a signal, and you tune into this signal.”

Devaux’s opera, co-presented with Group Le Vivier and Musique 3 Femmes, is something of a supergroup, too, a veritable who’s who of Quebec’s best and brightest talents, with mise-en-scène by the celebrated contemporary theatre director Marie Brassard; the Paramirabo Ensemble performing Devaux’s score under the conductor Jennifer Szeto’s direction; texts commissioned from the authors Daniel Canty, Michaël Trahan, and Kaie Kellough; sung by soprano soloists Sarah Albu, Frédérika Petit-Homme, and baritone Raphaël Laden-Guindon; Lucie Bazzo on lighting conception; scenography by Antonin Sorel; and with the legendary filmmaker and Godspeed You! Black Emperor member Karl Lemieux providing video imagery.

L’Écoute du perdu draws together a star-studded company and wrangling them is itself an impressive task.

“It’s my first big, ambitious, and really high-concept work,” says Devaux. “And being surrounded by such amazing artistic collaborators — I really mean it, sincerely. I was like, wouldn’t it be great if we could get these people? And then we got them.”

Devaux initially conceived of L’Écoute du perdu on the concept of wireless telecommunication, the rhythms of memory, and memory’s distortion via repetition.

“My whole doctoral thesis is about memory and its artistic and actual applications,” says Devaux, “so this is a theme that’s been running through quite a few of my pieces. My music, aesthetically, is very immersive. I knew immediately that I didn’t want a story, a linear story. I didn’t want a narrative. I wanted it to be based around different treatments of the voice, and because it was going to be based on memory, I didn’t want it to be one individual’s memory; I wanted it to have more of a universal appeal, a more fantastical appeal.”

L’Écoute du perdu is inspired in part by Devaux’s fascination with the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi’s most famous innovation: radio. “I’m kind of an amateur science geek,” Devaux admits. “I read about brains and different phenomena in nature and stuff, and it’s very evocative for me, musically. And I’d come across the story of Marconi, who believed that sound waves never die, and perhaps one day we’ll invent a machine that can tap into these sound waves. It was such an evocative idea and I thought, this needs to be a large-scale work.”

A delightful incongruity exists, though, between Marconi’s wireless radio waves, which are ephemeral, and our understanding of memory, a more permanent, enduring repository for the entirety of human experience. L’Écoute du perdu’s experimental form and structure emphasize this tension with at times bilingual and at times non-lingual passages repeated, looped, stretched, and their corresponding musical movements varied through reiteration and distortion.

“When I was reading about memory, I came across the idea of episodic memories, or ‘flashbulb’ memories, as they’re often called in pop culture,” Devaux elaborates. “Memories have strong emotional links to them. We play them back a lot because they help develop a sense of self. And the more you play back a memory, the more you distort it. And I thought, that’s so beautiful — and sad — this idea that the things that are most emotionally important to us and self-identifying to us are the things that become most distorted. I mean, we remember them vividly. We remember the smell of something, or how something felt. But then you forget what colour something was, or how many people were in the room.”

Yet Devaux’s work is memorable, indeed, and a packed house on opening night concurs. L’Écoute du perdu is a world-class compositional achievement adroitly weaving acoustic and amplified strands and sonic and visual elements together into striking aesthetic unity.  

“It’s not like an ‘oh, you killed my father’ kind of opera,” Devaux explains. “It’s a more subtle thing we’re working with. You are connecting to a sound that’s invisible in the air. You’re remembering something. It’s evocative. I didn’t really want coherence in a traditional way. I didn’t want to serve an audience a story. I wanted it to evoke a really clear emotional arc or narrative, and for there to be a tension between the audience and the piece in terms of understanding. I wanted for it to be really focussed on sensation and emotion, but not in an overly acted way. Just in the way the words and the music are treated. And I wanted it to have a high visual impact. It’s taken on all these different dimensions as all these different people come on and dialogue about it and add their artistic expertise. So, voilà!”

In spite of her magic touch, Devaux is gracious and seems especially indebted when discussing the collaborations and meaningful connections she has cultivated.

“There’s a difference,” says Devaux, “between people just doing a gig, doing it well and professionally, and people really being invested in the piece. And there’s this real feeling that everyone’s really invested. There was a lot of thought put into our conversations right away — talking a lot about the concept with the singers. Voice is so personal. I don’t know about you, but I can tell, even if someone’s amazing when they’re singing on a piece that they don’t really love, or that they don’t even really get. These three singers get it.”

That unmistakable sense of being tuned into another wavelength is at the heart of Devaux’s work. “Heightened emotion brings this sort of distortion,” she says, “and yet it brings at the same time this really intense sensorial vividness.”

Devaux takes a beat, laughing. “And I thought, oh, this is kind of how I feel about my music.”◼︎

Cover photo credit: Robin P. Gould

All Dressed

Hold This Thread: in conversation with Kee Avil

“There is something in Montreal,” says Vicky Mettler, reaching for a more evocative term.

We are talking on the telephone about what makes our music scenes unique and how Mettler’s works weave in. Mettler, also known as Kee Avil, the Montreal-based recording artist whose eerie and weird 2022 album, Crease, impressed critics and listeners alike, recently returned home from a triumphant tour and is contemplating her next move.

Released via the iconic local label Constellation Records, Crease earned unanimous high praise: Bandcamp’s Miles Bowe called it “a debut of fiendish creativity”; Antonio Poscic of The Quietus drew comparisons with Jenny Hval, Gazelle Twin, and Scott Walker; au courant music retailer Boomkat even dropped Kate Bush’s name, describing Mettler’s record as “a widescreen set of torched, gothic wyrd rock music that falls in and out of genre with skill and grace.” One could extrapolate that description to encompass Montreal itself; this city has produced its fair share of torched and widescreen music — from Tim Hecker to Godspeed, it’s kind of our thing.

Vicky Mettler appeared on my radar when Kee Avil performed as the opening act in 2018 for Fly Pan Am at their reunion show following a more than decade-long hiatus. The gig was chaotic, held at the Mile-End art gallery Dazibao, a space not particularly designed with sound in mind. But the energy was memorable, the pre-pandemic luxuriousness of an unselfconsciously niche art-rock performance. That energy is what propelled Mettler across Europe in the fall of 2022.

“Touring does give me energy,” Mettler says. “I came back from the last tour and there is something inspiring about it. You go on tour and that’s all you’re doing. That resets me a little bit. I don’t have all the rest of life; it just kind of gets put on pause. And I come back and I’m usually inspired. I’m more energized than tired. I could tour every day — for a long time.” Mettler stops to laugh: “But I also like coming back home.”

One of the most outstanding visual features of Kee Avil’s live performance is her crocheted costume, which Caro Etchart, the textile artist behind Argenta Crochet Lab, designed. Etchart brought her slow fashion brand from Argentina to Montreal in 2021 and has since worked to create an astonishing collection, including the distinguishable garments that serve Mettler’s music in surprisingly tangible ways. Kee Avil’s mask, in particular — half moth-eaten lace helmet, half spiderweb — is indeed an unsettling presentation piece.

image credit: Caro Etchart

“I have a few outfits that I’ve been wearing,” Mettler says, “and I feel like the mask is always striking. When I do it, it works well. Caro makes everything — tops, skirts, gloves. It’s kind of nice to be able to mix and match all of these pieces and see what comes up. I feel like we really get along in what we like, so it’s very easy to find stuff that works.”

Etchart tells me via email that their creative partnership fits hand-in-glove. “I have always been intrigued by costumes and characterization,” Etchart says. “The first mask that I ever crocheted was actually the one that started my experimental crochet project. When I first met Vicky, I was in the middle of a huge mask exploration, and the fact that she sees beauty in them, too, was crucial to start working on the outfits. One of them was definitely going to have a crochet mask, even more, a complete crochet outfit.”

Etchart’s ensemble appears in the live video for “HHHH,” creating just the right amount of creepiness to accent Kee Avil’s serpentine sound. “I simply find masks fascinating,” Etchart says, “and it feels really easy to become someone else or get into character just by covering or decorating your face. A lot like a second skin, but that was somehow hidden. Very beautiful and dramatic.”

“I like the idea of having a mask on,” Mettler admits.

“I would be curious to know, actually, what it’s like to see it. I’ve only worn it twice live, and it makes me feel different, so I’m still figuring out if I like it. Or what works about it and what doesn’t, and how to adapt it to make it better. I feel like it does separate me from the audience in a way. But sometimes I like the setting of the show. If there are no visuals and no projections, I will wear something like that when there’s nothing else in the background. That adds a visual element that I like.”

Mettler’s music is composed just as intricately as her wardrobe, sonic fibres intertwined in remarkable balance. I ask how she does it. “I compose while recording, basically,” Mettler says. “The last record was song-by-song. It was a discovery of what the record should be. I write a song, we do it; I write a song, we do it.”

Mettler then scrubs over her rough tracks with sound designer Zach Scholes. “It helps us to discover the sound of the music, really. Each song is different, too. Like, the source material can be different. Some are more guitar-oriented and some are more electronic-based. It’s really about discovery — how to write songs. I wanted to push that more and I didn’t really know how, so I was figuring it out. I feel like recording at the same time helps because you can add things and take them away quickly if you’d like. I like hearing things and being able to do edits right away.”

Is a new album in the works in 2023? “I feel like that’s the goal, but we’ll see.”

A sense of composed spontaneity is what characterizes Kee Avil’s recordings, and also what places her rightly amongst some of this city’s more legendary artists — and on the roster of a record label that to a certain extent defines Montreal’s storied independent music scene.

“It’s a specific sound,” Mettler opines, tying together the strands of our impure-laine aesthetic. “I feel like maybe we have more space or something here. There’s a way of living that’s different in Montreal. It’s still cheaper than, say, Toronto or New York. I think that somehow affects it, like, how many people can do this stuff. Different cities have different sounds. But there is a Montreal sound.”

Mettler pauses in thought: “I love Montreal. It’s its own thing.”◼︎

Cover photo credit: Carole Méthot

All Dressed

La Femme 100 têtes: in conversation with Janet Werner

The visionary 20th century artist Brion Gysin believed that trends in the visual arts arrived, innovatively speaking, about a half-century ahead of those in modern literature. Thus, only by the late-1950s did Gysin and his most famous collaborator, the Beat Generation author, William S. Burroughs, deploy in narrative fiction those decades-old cut-up techniques that Surrealists like Max Ernst called “Collage,” or filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein dubbed “Montage.”

The internet, though, has scrambled these clear temporal taxonomies, and today, it is more difficult to define which trends influence which, and when. The cut-up has become a legitimate artistic method that, true to form, exists best out-of-context, when it neither follows nor is followed.

Cutting into the written word, like cutting into the photographic image, produced for Burroughs and Gysin unexpected and often exciting juxtapositions — transitions that possibly reveal concealed meanings, tease out inscrutable interpretations, and even render the psychically repressed in sharp relief. The meaning of things evolves and adapts, too, across disparate media and genres. More recently in the Hip-Hop lexicon, for example, the phrase “in the cut” is used literally to designate an actual, physical location where something — or someone — is concealed. In the cut, some fundamental truth is obscured, lurking, threatening to be laid bare.

The Montreal artist Janet Werner’s latest cycle, collected in a beautiful new publication entitled Sticky Pictures, rests squarely on the splice. A number of Werner’s provocative paintings take fashion photographs — almost exclusively women — as their subject matter, cut, pasted, and represented in Werner’s striking, painterly figurative expressionism. In the cut, which paint on canvas makes even messier somehow, Werner’s viewers are encouraged to look between, to search beyond the image for what was omitted, and what, if anything, exists in the void.

“It’s been a kind of sideways step,” Werner tells me of the montage style, during a December visit to her studio in Montreal’s Mile-End district.

“It’s been a kind of accidental move into that cinematic idea. Lately, I’ve been intercutting images, which causes a shift. You can’t read the images in the original way because there’s something happening. I guess I want them to be objects that contain questions, and that make you wrestle with how to interpret them. So, it’s not necessarily a critique, but it’s an opening up, possibly, of how to interpret the images. I was for a long time hiding the cuts. Now, most of these paintings have these splits in them. You can see where the collage is happening. Having not studied cinema, I’m not familiar with all the terminology, like jump-cuts, and different cinematic techniques. There is a sense of time that’s introduced by these splits.”

It is that sense of time that lends Werner’s work its urgent momentum, propelling the viewer forward or alternately scrubbing backwards over the rupture. It’s not unlike our experience nowadays of scrolling through social media, for which Werner confesses a fascination.

“It’s Instagram, really,” Werner says. “I’m actively looking, and it’s a terrible addiction, and I have an addictive personality type, so I just feel it’s sort of ruining things a little bit. Although at the same time I’m so curious and interested in everything. I was never a big Facebook person. I’m not much of a talker. I don’t like to generate text for any kind of consumption. But images, that’s my life. So Instagram is just like an endless stream. And it’s hard to not look. And also, you feel responsible to participate. That’s a mechanism for sharing what you do, and everyone’s looking at it. If you’re not participating, you feel a little bit like people won’t know about your stuff.”

Nonetheless, Werner has achieved venerable artist status, the au courant Little Burgundy gallery Bradley Ertaskiran representing her work after a decade-long relationship with curator Megan Bradley of The Parisian Laundry. “2008 was my first show there,” recalls Werner. “It’s been 14 years, wow.” Bradley Ertaskiran actively tours Werner’s catalogue, along with all their artists, at influential international fairs like Art Basel in Miami and The Independent Art Fair in New York City.

As well, Werner now operates under the aegis of prestigious Los Angeles gallery Anat Ebgi, which will feature her solo exhibition, entitled, Call Me When You Start Wearing Red, in January. “There’s something so flexible-seeming about the medium of painting,” Werner marvels, “that it can still be functioning and still be practiced by so many artists. Such a simple medium, that’s incredible.”

Werner’s cut-up paintings seem to appeal so much to the senses — visually at first, but also, notably, to texture and tempo.

“I love all the senses,” Werner admits.

“I think about dance a lot, and choreography. Rhythm. Movement. Those things are certainly a part of what I think about when I try to create movement in an image, which is static. I was having this conversation with someone and he used this phrase, which I loved, which was ‘dialogue of withholding.’ The idea that you can’t actually solve these images because there’s this rupture. And there’s some kind of a disturbance in the formal elements, the colour, the rhythm, the movement through painting. I think that’s how it’s solved.”

To me, there is a glaring problem in Werner’s works: they seem to aestheticize a sort of violence. As with Hitchcock’s famous Psycho shower scene, which reduces Janet Leigh to death by a thousand cuts, there is a perverse pleasure in lingering over images of beautiful women in bits.

“My earlier work had more ugliness,” Werner explains, “a different kind of violence. I think these are still kind of violent in ways because of the split. In my earlier work, there was a more expressionist handling of that disruption where I would destroy the face more obviously. These kind of retain their photographic reference. But some of the earlier things, they were actually wiped out. I wasn’t trying to make something ugly, but I was trying to alter the reading, removing the face in different ways.”

To read these works solely as resistance to fashion’s unattainable ideals, or as a pleasurable destruction of traditional beauty conventions, is too one-dimensional. They are that, too. Yet Werner conceives of them as another mode to subvert fashion standing in culturally for desire writ large.

“In spite of the fact that the material I use is drawn from fashion, it’s not something that I grew up looking at,” Werner says.

“I consciously avoided looking at fashion magazines. I thought they were … not anti-feminist, but I resisted them as a feminist. I felt like it was a mistake in values. But now as I use that material, it was so fascinating when I did turn to look at it, having dismissed it and not looked at it for so long. There’s so much seduction in there. As a painter, shape and light and colour — all those things are the language I use. I don’t really think consciously about critiquing the material though in the process of subverting it, which is important to me. There is, I guess, an undercutting of the original toward another end, which is rather open-ended. Shifting the narrative away from Capitalist desire. Although there’s a whole ‘nother conversation about the system of art and art collecting and all that.”

We rest for a while on a painting called Folding Woman (2009), the first in which Werner explicitly began to accentuate the cut. “This was Nicole Kidman, actually,” Werner explains. “I subscribed to Vogue, and the magazine arrived and accidentally had folded exactly like this. So I just taped it on my studio wall and it sat there for years and I did nothing with it. And then one day I was like, ‘I don’t know what to paint, I’ll just paint that,’ and it kind of opened up all of this.”

Looking around at all the beheaded women with orphan limbs induces an almost carnivalesque atmosphere. I chose to solve the withholding of the cuts by interpreting them instead as folds, like the Fold-Ins the cartoonist Al Jaffee made famous on the back pages of Mad Magazine, which revealed a hidden message when the page was folded over.

“There’s no verbal or narrative solution,” Werner tells me. “There’s something about how the pieces come together that, in a sense, answers the problem that’s set up in the painting. In terms of a physical understanding and processing, I believe that if you respond to the images, it’s a physical response to something that’s happening that’s activated in the colour, and the tonalities, and the movement, and composition. Those things we somehow physically understand. Even if it’s not translatable into something that’s coherent in verbal terms. That’s why it’s not verbal. It’s another language.”

I ask if Werner sees painting as a language. “I do. I do, yeah,” she affirms.

“And I think of myself as a kind of formalist, an abstract painter. Even though they’re figurative, it’s very abstract in how I solve the problem. How the colours operate, it’s an abstract language.”◼︎

Call Me When You Start Wearing Red runs January 21st – February 25th, 2023, at Anat Ebgi Gallery.

All Dressed

Perfume, Genius

Ointment and perfume gladden the heart: so doth the sweetness of one’s friend through advice for the soul.  —Prov. 27-9

The cologne you always wear is totally without nuance! —Diane Chambers

Fellow doctor of journalism and famous drug abuser Hunter S. Thompson warned that once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The same is true of any kind of collection. There is potentially no end to acquiring and accumulating what one deems precious. For serious collectors—completists—there is always the very real danger that the collection will consume the consumer. I never managed to amass a serious drug collection. I just kept on ingesting them, and the collection consumed me, like some perverse Yakov Smirnoff routine.

Any alcoholic will tell you that happiness can’t be bought in bottles, that confidence doesn’t come in liquid form, that one is too many and a thousand is never enough. When I stopped drinking, I found all of these things to be true. I no longer wanted to go to the store and collect a bunch of bottles. I could walk with my head high because it no longer ached every morning. There would never be another one and thus no need for 999 more.

There is a slight hitch, however. I have discovered another sort of happiness that can indeed be bought in bottles, another kind of confidence that can be sprayed on and dabbed behind each earlobe, and which is equivalently habit-forming, to an arguably addictive degree. I am of course talking about the genius of perfume.

Since the millennium, perfumes had stagnated in the cultural consciousness, perhaps due to the overinflated ad campaigns by fashion behemoths like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. But over the past decade, perfume has once again become ultrahip amongst the ultrahip.

In 2014, the trendsetting Polish festival Unsound commissioned three of electronic music’s leading artists—Kode 9, Tim Hecker, and Ben Frost—to design corresponding Bass, Drone, and Noise-themed fragrances under the banner, Ephemera. More recently in a 2022 edition of the Perfectly Imperfect newsletter, an au courant periodic e-mailout from New York City, Adam Green of rock band The Moldy Peaches confessed his newfound love of discovering and stockpiling contemporary and vintage fragrances. “I began to see perfumes as snowglobes that carry information as a landscape,” said Green. “Collecting them became an adventure, walking around the city realizing every city block had stores with samples of these precious artworks.”

The haute perfume world has flourished recently in part because our senses have been so sequestered. Even after all that handwashing and grocery sanitizing, it still seems that not everyone uses Dial. Don’t you wish they did?

The pandemic gave us all the most intense fear-of-missing-out. But it also bestowed upon us the most intense fear of being trapped inside, and being caged within our own bodies. It can be repugnant to be human, to smell human. The archetypal enemy agent in the film The Matrix admits that the worst thing about civilization is the smell: “I can taste your stink,” he hisses at Morpheus, smearing sweat from his bald head. Body odour is equivalently central to the themes of class and privilege in Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 film, Parasite.

Still a more apropos storyline is the Canadian director Gary Burns’s 2000 film, Waydowntown, in which one of the characters becomes obsessed with scents. Waydowntown is a clever satire about a group of hyper-capitalist office drones living and working in Calgary’s city centre. They wager each other one month’s salary that they can survive without stepping outside of the city’s elaborate pedway network, thus confined indoors for a seemingly endless stretch, not unlike what we all just lived through, pandemic-wise. The lack of fresh air quickly suffocates one of the gang and she turns to obsessively sniffing perfume samples from fashion magazines. Perfume provides her sense of escape. Wait, wasn’t Escape the name of a perfume? And Obsession?

When the coronavirus public health protocols lifted and many of us more or less defiantly doffed our masks, we all started to smell one another again, and to recall that some of those smells are unpleasant. I, too, became more sensitive to other people’s natural and artificial odours, and self-conscious of how I smelled, wanting not to offend, not to smell like I just rolled out of a sleeping bag. When you go to the perfume counter to get perfume, they almost always give you a few free samples because … try some, buy some. And we do. We’re all searching each other for some glimmer of recognition, a whiff of understanding.

Department stores traditionally placed perfume counters right at the entrance to attract impulse purchases. Newer retail environments are tending to tuck them away. SSENSE’s scent section is on its top floor, like reaching the final level of a video game, and the newish Holt Ogilvy building, a more traditional house of worship for conspicuous consumption and extreme capitalist accumulation, keeps its perfume department in the basement. Up or down, there will be several salespeople ready in wait to sniff us up.

They are all very attractive and seductive and adroit at making one feel desperately inadequate lest they are also attractive and seductive. I seldom achieve any adequacy equilibrium and am usually convinced to buy something that I am quite certain should make me a more attractive, more seductive, more interesting, and ultimately a better person. Quite certain indeed.

Valmont; Maison Francis Kurkdjian; Tom Ford; Serge Lutens; Frederic Malle; Hermés; Bvlgari; La Perla. Some were pleasant, floral, sweet, melancholy. Others reeked and smelled rotten as they wore with time into the skin. One of them reminded me of my parents’ bathroom, a rich bouquet mixed with the crisp hint of aftershave; another was reminiscent of a soft leather baseball glove on a hot summer’s day. One smelled of chocolate, another of cherry brandy; one of hazelnut, another of musk. The more perfumes I tried, the more perfumes I loved, stacking them ever higher like smoked meat on a sandwich—like an all-dressed steamie.  

David Letterman was always a hero of mine, and many of the most beautiful women who appeared over the years as guests—actresses, models, Julia Roberts—remarked on Dave’s cologne. He would never reveal what brand he wore, only that it was a combination of two varieties. So I figured that three was better than two, and four was better than three. Layering scents fascinated me and made me feel less stifled in modern life and inside my own skin—skin that now smelled like a rotting flower garden with notes of leather and wet paper bag. I felt like my third nostril was opening.

I recalled a plotline from Batman, the version starring Jack Nicholson as the Joker and Michael Keaton as the superhero, in which Nicholson concocts a poison, activated by blending several cosmetics together, forcing Gotham City residents to refrain in fear from using personal hygiene products of any kind. Was I searching for conspiracies, worrying that some evil force might be harming my unborn children?

The truth is more damning than fiction, though, and the evil force is in fact the capitalistic profit motive in predictable opposition to human health. Many of the fragrances I had discovered—including BYREDO’s Black Saffron and Portrait of a Lady from Frederic Malle—contained the preservative BHA. BHA is banned for use in the EU, but not in the US and Canada, meaning that many cosmetics and some foods contain it to extend the product’s shelf life.

BHA may or may not cause endocrine disturbances that affect fertility, meaning that a spritz of Old Spice might enhance desire and diminish ability. It’s on David Suzuki’s Dirty Dozen watchlist of potentially harmful chemical additives, but Canadian regulators have okayed BHA with a caveat for future caution. If it’s not banned, and there is money to be made (these two variables often fit hand-in-glove) you can expect it to be ever-present. Even a scented candle from Maison Margiela contained BHA and a dire warning, “Potentially harmful to aquatic life.”

I’m not aquatic, though, I thought. I don’t plan on becoming aquatic. So unless the stuff is going to make me grow gills, there shouldn’t be a problem. I was obsessed. Every note was also a mood, entirely artificial and yet more experientially real than other sensory media. Perfume scents were different to me than, say, the tele-visuality of movies and TV re-enacting real life, or recordings sonically reproducing music. Every spray of the perfume bottle was in fact a bit of the perfume itself, the real thing, not a reproduction, not a replication, not a mediation, as if putting on Sgt. Peppers would magically spray The Beatles incarnate into the room. That sense of presence, that indexical connection to reality, I believe is central to perfume’s enduring cultural fascination: fashionable or not, scent is eternally here and now.

Throughout 2022, I descended routinely down into Holt’s underworld and ascended SSENSE’s Old Montreal edifice as if to heaven, where the scents are kept. Alternating waves of loathing, curiosity, indifference, and desire regularly sweep these rooms as a sparse smattering of patrons still shop in person, rearranging objects and their energies like sand on distant shores. I have come to know and like and even enjoy the company of the people who work in these environments, as evidence that capitalism more than ever organizes our social relations. When the arcades have collapsed and there are no more shops to wander, and no reason to, when the only article of adornment we can’t adequately appreciate online is perfume, there is all the more reason to venture into these spaces and attend to their stories. Like listening to an ageing relative, then becoming one.

We do what we are told by media and the culture industries: exchange money for objects, talismanic in nature, which communicate certain truths to ourselves and others. The truth of perfume is that it is either a shield or a weapon, defensive or offensive. It depends upon the wearer, the audience, and the situation. Do we wear it for ourselves or for other people? Why do we choose our own favourite scents and not someone else’s?

The word audience has as its Latin root audio, audire, to hear. What is the word for an audience for scent, the receiver of smells? Of the five senses, scent seems to me to be the most overlooked. Even our linguistic hyperbole—words like “overlooked”, for instance—favour sight. But smell is among the more transportive senses, carrying its receiver elsewhere in space, to another moment, reliving a memory in time, or off and away to another place.

The smell of lavender takes me back to verdant primaveral springtimes spent in my grandmother’s garden in the 1980s. Fresh tar returns me to the train crossing on Rue Saint-Ambroise in Saint-Henri in 2010—and further back, to the retaining wall constructed of oozing black railway ties holding up a sand dune near my place of birth in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1977. My mother’s perfume when I was a child—Opium, then Hermès—sometimes made me nauseas and panicky, the richness short-circuiting my equilibrium, overwhelming my olfactory sense. It was the pressure of beauty that I felt, the obligation of perfection.

Maison Margiela makes a line of perfumes that are inspired, literally, by memories, and attempt to recreate niche instants. Dubbed Replica, material language describes each perfume’s flavour—i.e. waxy wood, linen, soft skin. In highly specific and ironically distant fashion, each is assigned a location and date. Thus, Whispers in the Library seeks to replicate Oxford, 1997. Autumn Vibes is Montreal in 2018.

I remember Autumn in Montreal in 2018 and somehow the scent is remarkably familiar. Even the suggestion is enough to teleport the smeller away, awash in nostalgia for a place in time we don’t have to have experienced. It’s all very personal. And yet universal.◼︎