Abstraction resonates so deeply in modern art because it illustrates our everyday incongruity: capital is incommensurate with value.
Time is not money, to contradict an old adage. Time and money are like the frames of an image that arbitrarily circumscribe certain realities, and zoom in or out as would a camera lens, depending upon interfering and vibrant impulses. Markets. Labour. Fashion. Nature. These variables give the abstract shape, rendering the air solid, freezing time.
The Montreal artist Claude-Philippe Benoit intuitively grasps abstraction — as a concept, and historically, as a tradition.
“Artists have the responsibility to be knowledgeable, to be informed,” Benoit tells me from across a table in the back room of a pop-up gallery set up in the Insurance Exchange Building on Saint-Jacques Street, strictly to showcase his newest work. “It’s a duty for me.”
For nearly four decades, Benoit has been recognized primarily as a photographer. His sequences of melancholy images — of disused movie theatres and depopulated urban landscapes — have exhibited internationally, across Europe and in America. But the publication of his life’s work as a monograph in 2016 spurred a return for Benoit to painting, the subject of this latest show.
“I felt a kinship with the Düsseldorf School of Photography,” Benoit explains. “But all along, I always kept an eye on what was happening in Abstract painting. And when I visited galleries, like in Chelsea and SoHo, I was always most attracted to exhibitions of Abstract painting. That’s where I had the most pleasure as a viewer. And it also became research material, keeping me updated with what was being done.”
After Kazimir Malevitch, the 20th century Ukrainian Avant-Garde artist, Benoit refers to his current oeuvre as “Les carrés noirs.” Extreme movements characterize these paintings, with deliberate and often repeated brush strokes producing chunky and textural images that Benoit squares, quite literally, on paper and canvas.
The resulting work is a maximal exercise in minimalism — or vice versa — extending each minute physical gesture into monumental proportion, and wringing out extreme meaning from the abstract.
“It was Expressionism 2.0,” Benoit quips. “I was working in a gestural kind of painting. It takes your whole body. In any kind of art media, you have to invest yourself.”
Growing up in the Gatineau region and settling in Montreal in 1990 to pursue a career as an artist, Benoit has dedicated his entire life to creative practice. “I took classes of painting outside of school with a friend of mine,” Benoit recalls, “doing still-life paintings for my mom. And I forget how, but at a young age, I came across a book about Surrealism. And I read that book, and I was like, ‘oh my God.’ I was really astounded. I realized how extensive art could be.”
Benoit later attended Algonquin College, in Cinema, but was constantly drawn to the persistence of the still image. “I realized that the kind of life, being a contributor in film, was not for me. Sixteen-hour days. Plus also realizing that the creative input in a film was not noticeable enough for me. So I started working more in photography. And I was very conscious at that time that I wanted something to be a starting point. I didn’t know what was going to come next. So cinema theatres was that.”
Benoit’s most famous series, entitled “L’envers de l’écran,” produced between 1982 and 1985, focusses upon the other side of cinema: behind the screen; the emptied-out theatre; the projection booth — those spaces normally occluded from film’s audiences. Benoit’s camera captured cinema’s eerie essence of ideology and myth with these images, and eventually granted him access to seats of power on another order.
“I was showing in New York,” Benoit recalls, “and while I was there, I somehow got permission to visit the U.N. Today, you understand, you would never get access. I was accompanied at the beginning by a security agent who was following me through. And I wanted to photograph these rooms empty of people, because I wanted it to be about these rooms, which for me were very coded, because we saw these rooms on the news. After half an hour or so, he went off and I was by myself. I could roam around, go from one room to another, open a door, ‘Oh, there’s a meeting here, sorry!’ Close the door. And I quickly realized that these places were about power.”
Those photographs formed the second chapter, “Ô-NU,” in his cycle, “Les Lieux Maîtres,” and led to another epiphany for Benoit about how to choose the subjects of his images. “If you want to photograph interiors, or landscapes, and there are people there,” notes Benoit, “there’s some kind of phenomenon that happens where, very quickly, it’s not about that interior, or that landscape. It could be one tiny person in the whole picture. But the viewer is drawn by that person.”
For his next series, “Société de Ville,” Benoit burrowed his lens into his favourite urban muse: Montreal.
“I used Montreal to photograph the urban landscape,” reveals Benoit, “but I didn’t want to photograph the iconic places, like Old Montreal, or the Olympic stadium. I only wanted to photograph as if it was discovered by someone, say, living in the woods all his life, and all of a sudden he comes out of the woods and discovers there’s a city. I wasn’t born in Montreal, but Montreal is certainly my home. It’s my home in my mind since I was a young boy. My parents brought me to Expo ’67, and I was amazed by the cityscape, and the autoroutes, and the Metro. I fell in love. And at that point, secretly, in my mind, I thought this is where I want to live. This is where I wanted to be.”
From runs of black-and-white photographs to enormous diptychs painted in cadenced waves, a curious theme emerges throughout Benoit’s works: capital, power, time, labour, leisure, language — these abstract concepts, like the image, elicit no intrinsic interpretation.
“I don’t think a lot about the meaning more than I want my work to have meaning,” Benoit emphasizes. “Because I can see a meaning in any of these photographs, but is that meaning going to come through for the viewer? That’s a pretty difficult task that mostly fails anyway. But to have meaning, that’s possible.”
The abstract vacuum of human form paradoxically unites Benoit’s photography and painting. Yet, he has no intention of choosing one practice over the other. “When my book was being produced, I got into painting to keep me busy, creatively. But then I liked what I saw. And voilà!”
Benoit motions to walls of framed canvases. “People started asking me, ‘Does this mean you’re not going to work in photography?’ No. Just because you start something doesn’t mean you have to abandon something. This show is a witness to that. The two of them can live together.”◼︎
Claude-Philippe Benoit Photographies et peintures continues at 276 rue Saint-Jacques through 28 October 2023.