999 Words

Engine of Survival: notes on Nicolas Grenier’s future visions

The future was undoubtedly Leonard Cohen’s purview.

Montreal’s perpetual poet laureate seemed to possess an uncanny ability to diagnose and prognosticate what was to come. His 1992 song entitled “The Future,” from the album of the same name, is a blunt indictment of the tortuous human path Cohen foresaw. “Things are going to slide,” he growls ominously in the chorus; “slide in all directions.” The filmmaker Oliver Stone used this song to superb effect in his 1993 film, Natural Born Killers, a sendup of serial-killer celebrities and the American media’s creed, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Stone’s satire of murder and media was an attempt to hold up a funhouse mirror to the geopolitics and popular culture of the not-too-distant day, as if to say, behold what you shall become. There was a sense at that time that over-the-top satire would be enough, that the public would inevitably decode this cinematic harbinger, this prolonged Saturday Night Live skit, anticipate the dangerous future toward which we were tumbling, and change course. But that didn’t happen. The film instead encouraged the sardonic acceptance of death and destruction as tabloid entertainment. And Cohen was right: the future was murder.

Nicolas Grenier’s outstanding new works of sculpture, drawing, and painting, now on exhibition at Bradley Ertaskiran, echo Cohen’s dire futuristic warnings. Charcoal drawings on paper depict chessboard scenes of toppled deities; abstract op-art paintings pop out into three-dimensional space; two prominent statues placed on pedestals in the gallery’s center fuse famous figures: the Statue of Liberty melds with Vladimir Lenin, and Siddhartha with Jesus Christ in extremis. Surely, some form of Cohen-esque poetry is at work in conventional artistic traditions being deployed in the service of subverting cultural conventions.

There is an undercurrent throughout Grenier’s oeuvre that all bets are off. The old yardsticks of human civilization are being uprooted and the twin columns of ideology and religion — those once-permanent measures of human progress — are irrevocably transitioning into hybrid, mutant forms. They are unrecognizable, and yet still indispensable. A fundamental theme of the show, entitled Esquisses d’un inventaire, is the sense that the winds of change themselves have changed. An alternate title for this collection could have been the Cohen lyric: “The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and it’s overturned the order of the soul.”

Although they are technically excellent, even nearing perfection, Grenier’s illusionistic paintings, in particular, hint at a devolutionary impulse in operation in the historical record. Seemingly clean lines upon closer inspection reveal the jagged imperfections of the painting process — and of the media themselves. The canvas’s flat surfaces are enlisted to do more than simply represent images; the two-dimensional plane does triple duty here, transcending its function as a purveyor of paint and jumping valence into the realm of performance. What the paintings mean is a matter of interpretation. What they do is not.

It is noteworthy that Azza El Siddique’s enormous and slowly corroding two-headed cobra is on display in the gallery’s basement bunker space, as if symbolically manipulating the inner workings of the underworld just beneath Grenier’s superficial interface. In its repose, the snake evokes a majestic ferocity, poised just as easily to kill its prey or turn on itself. The opposite of Ouroboros, the fabled serpent devouring its own tail, this creature of revisionist mythology has no tail to devour, and no orifice from which to expel its own venomousness. It is pure appetite, the world serpent now eating for two.

Throughout the twentieth century, and every century before it, there was a broad cultural assumption that the future would be an improvement upon the past, that each generation would be better than its ancestors, that technology would aid humanity, and that the word ‘progress’ possessed some intrinsic, universal consequence. In the twenty-first century, we are witnessing the first iteration of a new, millennial generation in which progress is synonymous with stagnation and retrogression, in which technologies reflect human failures, and in which the monolithic future has shattered into shards of potential futurity.

This new-normal, doomed-future mentality is a result of what the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher described as “consciousness deflation” or: the systematic and deliberate destruction of individual and collective social agency. The ability to imagine better futures has been replaced with the inability to imagine such things, and with the assumption that time is but a slow march towards oblivion. Of course, capitalists are among the first to advance this assumption, because nothing is as profitable as despair. Keeping large populations of people in ignorance, with some hint of remembrance for a time when the future seemed bright, is a tenet of Control.

One of the biggest challenges of foretelling the future is effectively communicating a prophetic vision. And one of the biggest curses of the psychic mind is not having an answer. How to tell the others? Nostradamus predicted the future in cryptic metaphors. Leonard Cohen wrote poetry and recorded them as songs. Oliver Stone set them to ironic, brutal images. And Nicolas Grenier paints, draws, and sculpts complex concepts simultaneously into aesthetically pleasing and thought-provoking works of art. Creation, not destruction, will save our future. And the best modes of communication are also the oldest.

Although Leonard Cohen is championed by today’s wokest, he was hardly of that ilk, decrying the rise of drug use, frivolous sex, and abortion, and pointing to a perversion of more traditional morals as the culprit for humanity’s imminent descent. Yet, there is a crack in Cohen’s crusty façade, and that is how the optimism gets in. If we are to survive as a species, Cohen suggests, we need to love without conditions, without borders, and without prejudice. There is no roadmap for that future. It is unprecedented. It is literally off-the-grid. That is what I see Grenier’s works signalling as well: where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

Verily, the only path to the future is back.◼︎

Esquisses d’un inventaire continues at Bradley Ertaskiran through 22 April 2023.

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Worldwide Pants

Week-end, Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, Cinémathèque Québécoise, 7 January 2023

I know that this film is supposed to be funny. I know that it’s radical chic, retro now, and forever cool. I also know that it contains complicated tracking shots that make it a significant technical achievement. I get that it’s satire. But what has come to pass is not far off. It seems the ultimate goal of global conflict is essentially a weekend away.

Discuss these and other matters of Godardian concern (en français) at the Cinémathèque’s Roundtable, “Godard aujourd’hui?” 8 February 2023, 17:00h, free admission.

Zoë Mc Pherson, On Fire, Pitch Blender (SFX)

Music more than other artforms orders time. Of course, everything including every form of art exists in time, just like every fish swims in water. Film unfolds in time. Photographs capture it. Dance moves through it. Even paintings, once dry, slow time down to a complete standstill, when we’re standing still in front of them. But music orders and regulates, assembles and reassembles the time we exist in while it is playing, whether the music has a time signature or not, whether it has rhythm or not. Musicians, too, structure time, especially techno musicians.

Time is a strange thing. It appears to move both forward and cyclically at once. Seasons forever turn from one to another. Yet a sense of newness always accompanies them. Just like fashion.

I noted that Zoë Mc Pherson in their press shots for Pitch Blender wear a pair of black techy-looking Diesel trousers circa about 1997. I noted them because I had the same trousers. They were pretty high-grade back in the day. In Canada, a pair of Diesel jeans cost a little over $100; those pants were at least $250. I had to save up. They might have been issued on the cusp of Diesel introducing their short-lived StyleLab line, possibly prototypes for a higher-end, more limited, and more design-oriented kind of collection.

Delighted by Mc Pherson’s pants in the photographs, I emailed an old friend who works in fashion and, acerbically, she wrote back, “Y2K nostalgia is real.” I remember thinking at the time, back in the ‘90s, that those pants with all their snaps and pockets would suit living in some sort of post-apocalyptic world — a compartment for everything necessary for survival.

Sure enough, here we are, in survival-mode. Still, I’m glad that Mc Pherson dug out those particular trousers because it recharged my street cred and rejuvenated my classic wardrobe. Although I don’t have them anymore. They must have at some point disintegrated, along with the future. But I did naturally have the matching jacket in quite good condition and I’ve rescued it from the back of the closet and have been turning heads with it all winter. One more time.

Pitch Blender is released 3 February via SFX.

Julia Dault, Never Odd Or Even, Bradley Ertaskiran, 19 January 2023 – 25 February 2023

The longest palindrome I know is, Go Hang A Salami / I Am A Lasagna Hog. The actor Michael Anderson who portrayed The Man From Another Place on the original Twin Peaks series shared this wonderful palindrome in an interview contained on the extras for season one’s first DVD release. Fans of Twin Peaks sent Anderson palindromes after his backwards-talking character repeated the phrase “Wow Bob Wow” on the show.

Never Odd Or Even is a palindrome as well, which I never would have guessed had the press release for Julia Dault’s solo show, now on at Bradley Ertaskiran and despite the construction worth the visit, explained it. The works aren’t explicitly palindromic to me, but what you can do is start on one side of the gallery and move around to the other side, and then reverse course and rotate backward in the opposite direction, and voilà. A palindrome in action.

Julia Dault Never Odd Or Even continues through 25 February at Bradley Ertaskiran.

Contretemps, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, Soft Power (Safety Records)

Machines are hard and I admire them for that and at times I think that we should become more like them. Like Eddie’s unfurling, drunken diatribe in hurlyburly, either the play or the movie, we should aspire to become things — colder, harder, like rocks, or machines, to ensure our longevity. Machines may get old and break down, but machines do not go soft.

I can attest from personal experience that being soft has never empowered me to do anything, not least the things I want to do, especially those things for which being hard is prerequisite.

Soft Power is released 3 February via Safety Records.

Andy Warhol, Screen Tests, MAC, 17 November 2022 – 10 April 2023

Last February in Houston I went to a screening of a selection of Andy Warhol’s films on 16mm at Rice Cinema. It was my first film in a theatre after the pandemic, and I was excited to see real celluloid snap through a projector once again. But I could not have chosen more challenging material to rekindle a love of movies.

Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. He didn’t just suggest it; it was His divine order. And Jesus knew that if He didn’t command it, nobody would do it. Nobody does it anyway. But that doesn’t make it any less of a command.

It’s easy to love our family and our friends. It’s easy to love our pets. It’s encouraged to love celebrities and public figures whom we’ve never met and don’t care to love us back. But enemies are difficult to love. It’s practically impossible.

I think Andy Warhol made his Screen Tests to build empathy in viewers, to teach us to love, to force us to stare into a stranger’s face (some famous, some not) until it dissolves into abstraction, until the reel runs out and we’re left with nothing but a banana and a beam of light.◼︎

Andy Warhol as seen by Nelson Henricks screens at the Cinémathèque Québécoise January 26 – 28, 2023.

Cover image: Zoë Mc Pherson photographed by Lucie Rox.

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.

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Autumn Serenade

Janet Werner, STICKY PICTURES, Bradley Ertaskiran, October 15th 2022

Tucked in the back room of Bradley Ertaskiran — the old Parisian Laundry, and one of the finer gallery spaces in the city — was the book launch for Janet Werner’s formidable new publication, Sticky Pictures. People talked and drank wine and had their books autographed by the artist in attendance and pretended not to look at one another.

I adore the frequent subjects of Werner’s paintings — girls. And I revel in the pleasure of adoring them through Werner’s painterly gaze rather than my own sharp male one.

A joke about Andy Warhol’s desire not only to be a part of the art scene but to be seen being a part of the art scene was that he would even attend the opening of a drawer. I am such a space cadet for art in this city that I go to the launch of a book.

Il Trovatore, Opera de Montreal, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, September 13th, 2022

An open letter to my dear ex-wife of 43 years, the lovely Ms. Marlene Ssøørreennsseenn:

Dear Marlene;

It is with heavy heart that we must equivalently admit after trying to make things work despite having been divorced for over four decades that our 12-day marriage was a mistake. Had we children they might have given us grandchildren by now, but alas we were only wedded for a little less than two weeks in the late 1970s, and starting a family didn’t come up in conversation, as women’s liberation at that time socially forbade any unsolicited babytalk.

Suffice to say that we did not bring out the best in each other, what with the fourteen-year legal battle in the mid-‘80s over the fortunes from the fortune cookies following our second and final dinner date at Wings, which as you will apprehend is long since closed due to health violations.

With this Wing fortune, I thee forfeit the last scrap of our love affair, leaving you the better luck, both figuratively and literally. Should the numbers on the verso ever win a lottery, I trust your solicitor to contact me forthwith with my fair share, as determined by concurrent legal precedent for post-nuptial fortune cookie winnings.

In closing, please forward any and all future correspondence to:
L. Oserfield

Heartbreak Hotel, room no. 237 (haunted)

Backxwash, with with LaFHomme, Morgan-Paige and Jodie Jodie Roger, October 28th 2022, Le Monastère

There is no doubt that Backxwash is the hottest hip hop artist in Canada. The crystalline concentration that comes with sobriety shines on HIS HAPPINESS SHALL COME FIRST EVEN THOUGH WE ARE SUFFERING. This year’s Halloween weekend album launch was a triumph of both style and substance, fashionable and profoundly meaningful, profane and sacred.

Backxwash is the antithesis of mainstream rappers who self-aggrandize and court controversy, or make patent pitches for luxury products that their listeners can ill afford. A constant and self-reflexive state of awareness permeates the recording and was ever-present in its live performance, too. Refreshing is not the word because the album is akin to gargling with activated charcoal, but whatever the descriptor, it’s deeply cleansing.

Boris: His Life in Music, Orchestre Classique de Montreal, October 18th, 2022, Salle Pierre-Mercure

The loss of Boris Brott to Montreal’s classical music community is immeasurable. Still, the show must go on, and the Orchestre Classique de Montreal paid appropriate tribute to the verve of a man who lived for that orchestra. The OCM began its 83rd season by lovingly presenting some of Brott’s all-time favourite musical works.

Before the performance, a photographic montage of Brott cycled onscreen, images of the maestro with celebrities and dignitaries, clowning around, full of wit, wisdom, and life. What a life lived, and what a legacy Brott left behind, carrying dutifully on in the tradition of his musical family before him who dedicated their days to tuning the world.

Brott’s death seems all the more tragic considering its accidental nature, and after his miraculous recovery from the nastiest strain of covid at the beginning of the pandemic. However, as the saying goes, the man who dies in an accident understands the nature of destiny.

This Is Not A Scarf, Soha Zandi, Somaye Farhan & Elahe Moonesi, Place des Arts, October 30th 2022

In protest of the shocking human rights abuses taking place in Iran right now, a group of artists created an inspired imaginative response that took place on the steps of Place des Arts, without any fanfare or official permission from the usual authorities. They showed up with a pile of scarves and stood there waiting for passersby to tie them on in any fashion they saw fit. The result was a sincerely moving performance, which was a performance by virtue, but produced a spontaneous moment.

I was temporarily enlisted to stand guard next to a pile of camera equipment on the busy Saint-Catherine Street sidewalk when an elderly gentleman approached me inquiring, in French at first — a Quebecois accent from another time and place — what was going on. He appeared to be about sixty-five, tall, lean and cleanshaven, with an enviable headful of smartly styled salt-and-pepper hair. He had on a fitted black leather jacket and hanging around his neck was a comparatively outdated digital camera, an old Sony with a top-mounted viewfinder.

I apologized that my French was not as good as my English, but he was well-spoken in both languages and when I told him this was a performance art piece for Iranian freedom he looked at me for a moment, his face becoming very grave, and said, “I think this is the end of the world. But I won’t be here to see it. I’m eighty.” I was surprised by his candour and tried to nod knowingly as he took leave to photograph the happening.

Returning, he mused, “A lot of people in Quebec complain, but we are lucky to live here.” I knew what he meant. Peace activism begins and ends with peaceful activism, acting peacefully.◼︎