Valérie Blass, Ghada Amer and Wangechi Mutu at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal


I’m not quite certain what to think. Nor how to think. Do I approach each show separately? Or do I group Valérie Blass, Ghada Amer and Wangechi Mutu all together and do just one review? If I was good, I think I would have preferred to have done separate reviews for each one. But since I’m not, I’m going to group them all together, just like the museum did.

First order of business; did you know that in between January 8, 2006 and November 5, 2008, 1,032 days, or about two months short of three years, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal did not have a single solo exhibition by a woman? I can’t help but thinking that this set of three solo shows by women was somehow organized to make up for that. But then again it has been over three years, maybe it just worked out that they happened to schedule three solo shows by women all at the same time by coincidence.

Second order of business; juxtaposing a Quebecois artist with limited international exposure up against two internationally known artists can and does have a way of biting you in the ass.

Third order of business; I don’t know if it is due to insecurity, incompetence or insomething else. But I would bet dollars to doughnuts with anyone who is interested, that I am the only person writing about art exhibits at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal who is also a member of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal’s foundation. As a consequence I was quite surprised to find out that I was not invited to neither the press conference nor the vernissage for the latest exhibit they mounted, La Question de l’abstraction. Insecurity, because I get the distinct impression that my series of humorous rhymes about the Triennale went over like a lead balloon. Incompetence, because if you can’t manage to invite the people who give you money without being asked there is something seriously wrong. I will wait with baited breath to see what happens at the end of May for the Zoo exhibit.

But all of that is neither here, nor there when it comes to talking about the art of Valérie Blass, Ghada Amer and Wangechi Mutu. More along the lines of background material, so that you know where my thoughts are coming from as I type this. To get the easy stuff out of the way first. I’ve never been much of a fan of Valérie Blass’ work and I had never heard of Ghada Amer and Wangechi Mutu before seeing their work at the museum. After seeing the shows I still wasn’t much of a fan of Valérie Blass’ work but I now was familiar with the work of Ghada Amer and Wangechi Mutu.

If I were to try and sum up each artist’s work in a line. I’d say that Ghada Amer sews images on to canvas. Wangechi Mutu scares the living bejeezus out of me. And Valérie Blass make three dimensional collages. For what it is worth, it is actually fairly easy to see the common line that links the work of all three artists. It’s spelled C-O-L-L-A-G-E. But you’d figure that the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal wouldn’t be as simplistic to group three artists just because they were women who combined things that they found into new assemblages, would you?

But anytime you juxtapose art, there’s bound to be some joker who tries to link everything, no matter how tenuous that link is. I guess I’m that joker, today. One way to avoid things like that in the future would be to have three separate openings for the three separate shows. Something like one every week or month probably would be sufficient to make each of the shows by the artists separate in the mind of the public. But then again, I could be wrong, and be the only person in the entire universe who was unable to think of the exhibits as being unlinked. Oh well.

So now I think it’s time to get down to brass tacks. So that no one gets their nose out of joint, I’m going to approach each artist’s section of the show separately, before trying to link them together in a more formal and structured manner (if I can) and I’m going to do them in alphabetical order by their first name. Everyone knows that a last name is a social residue left over from when society was not only patriarchal and patrilinear, but also run by jerks and assholes. I’m also not going to give any background on the artists. If you are at all interested in that, there are some mighty fine catalogues that the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal has published which in and around the multisyllabic words give you a good idea of where each of the artists came from. Or you can use Google.

Ghada Amer. The first time I saw Ms. Amer’s work, it looked extremely delicate, not quite lace-like, not quite like cotton candy on canvas, not quite like teased hair. But like the middle section of a Venn diagram of the three. From a distance, it wasn’t easy to tell what materials she was using and for the most part everything seemed pretty abstract.

The second time I saw Ms. Amer’s work, I realized that the first time I had been very wrong and must have obviously been smoking some crack that was stronger than I was used to, in order to have thought her work was delicate. There’s a quote going around the internet that’s being attributed to Betty White, but probably wasn’t said by her, nonetheless it makes a point. “Why do people say “grow some balls”? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding” Ms. Amer’s work is like that vagina, it’s been pounded. Pounded in order to be created, pounded in order to be looked at, and pounded in order to be understood.

Betty White on balls and vaginas.
Betty White on balls and vaginas.

Let’s start with the easiest first. In order to make her work, I believe that Ms. Amer has either got to be using some kind of super industrial sewing machine, or an awl that could also double as an ice pick. While the holes she punches in the canvases aren’t necessarily large in and of themselves, they are all over the place and way more than it would take to fill the Albert Hall. She then threads some thread (duh!) through the holes.

The reason you need to pound in order to look at her work – and in case you hadn’t figured it out I’m using the word “pound” as a synonym for “work hard” – is that there is an awful lot of threading going on in each individual piece.

Installation shot of Ghada Amer exhibit at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal.
Installation shot of Ghada Amer exhibit at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal.

And you have to work hard when looking at her work, because behind just about every bit of thread is a second set of images, mostly copied from mainstream culture. Giving all sorts of fodder for the Phd’s in the house to go wild over layering and contrast provided by the two very separate images, ideas and thoughts.

There’s also a large egg shaped object made out of some type of plastic called 100 words of love

Ghada Amer, 100 Words of Love, picture courtesy Art Hag
Ghada Amer, 100 Words of Love, picture courtesy Art Hag

Which basically takes this idea translates it into Arabic and makes it three dimensional. When I saw it for the second time I spent way too long going over it looking for a seam or a seal or something to indicate how it was joined together, but couldn’t find one. Personally, I think that while it’s a pretty enough object and a nice enough sentiment, something got lost in translation (sorry, I couldn’t help myself there).

Wangechi Mutu is apparently known mostly for her collages. But I would never have known it in a million years if I based it on my impressions on what she’s got up at the museum. And while I’m certain that there were some collages on the walls of the museum, somewhere, they got completely wiped from whatever little memory I had of the exhibit because there are five (or six, depending on what you call art) pieces there, that just completely and utterly blow anything and everything else out of the water, blow them out of the way, and blow my mind.

Unfortunately, I have no idea what the heck they are called, because I was left so slack jawed at them, that I completely forgot to take notes and incorrectly presumed that the museum would be responsible enough to make some reference to them in the catalogue. But nope, no such luck there. If all you were to do was to read the catalogue for Ms. Mutu’s show you’d get the idea that there was some completely different type of exhibit that happened. While I recognize that it is a document of and about the exhibit, it’s like an entirely separate universe.

The catalogue is all brightness and light, big on the feminist theories and post colonialism, using two-bit words like they’re going out of style. Whereas the exhibit itself is darkness and brooding, somewhat threatening (I told you it scared the living bejeezus out of me) very spooky and completely (sorry about the two-bit word) visceral. Kind of like having someone throw a bag over your head and then start beating you with a bag of oranges. Not quite, but close enough.

Most of the space for Ms. Mutu’s work has walls that are covered in brown felt, which makes for a very somber environment. Then after walking around I came across what I’m calling The Thrones.

Installation shot from Wangechi Mutu's exhibit at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal.
Installation shot from Wangechi Mutu's exhibit at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal.

Now that I’m looking at the picture closer, they don’t look half as intimidating as they do in real life. The feet are really pointy, and someone could easily lose an eye if they were careless. They towered over me not like a Goliath, but more like a very angry sasquatch, or Dr Honorious, or Dr. Maximus from the original Planet of the Apes films. I have no idea if they were supposed to make me feel weak, insignificant and beholden, but they did. And even weirder, was the fact that I found it really hard to look at them straight on.

Once I had those kind of emotions running around inside me, there really wasn’t any holding back. Over on the other side of the gallery were a bunch of wine bottles suspended upside down from string over some white plates. But the bottles themselves were full had some sort of contraption over their mouth that if I squinted slightly and used some free associative techniques could be considered to be like a miniature Hannibal Lecter mask.

They hid just enough, and enabled the wine to drip out very slowly. Slowly enough that I have made a note in my agenda to go back to see the show a third time just before it closes so that I can see just how much wine has been spilled.

Now it’s not like each bottle was lined up precisely over each plate, and in case you hadn’t realized it already, the wine was red. So without too too much of a stretch, if I’m already feeling weak, insignificant and beholden due to what I’m calling The Thrones, it wasn’t hard for what I’m calling The Bottles to get me feeling all vulnerable and guilty. What with the wine looking like blood, and the bottles being a replacement for some kind of lynching scene. I’m kind of annoyed with myself that I wasn’t able to get back to the museum before the show closed to see how much wine/blood was on the plates and the floor.

Then again, I could be very wrong and it all could be just some kind of elaborate physics experiment to measure the effects of gravity on colored water and openings a various diameters.

In between what I’m calling The Thrones and what I’m calling The Bottles was what I’m calling The Tinsel. And while it probably would be fairly easy to succumb to some kind of dark thoughts while experiencing it, it left me in wonder and awe, instead. Basically it’s a large cube like space that stretches down from the ceiling that has golden tinsel streamers as it’s walls. As a consequence, it is extremely easy to walk through the streamers and get inside the cube. Kind of like finding a place to stand behind the waterfall, or the latch to the hidden chamber.

On the flip side, it’s also real easy to assume that The Tinsel itself was some kind of wall or barrier. Especially since a lot of the other walls of the museum were covered in felt. And as a consequence not even think to wander into the inner sanctum – probably because of the lack of a creaking door.

There also was some awesome and amazing structure in front of the Moth Girls – the piece that the museum bought that probably was influential in enabling them to get the exhibit – that looked for the life of me like some sort of 150 year-old gnarled tree or something.

I’m not quite what to make of Moth Girls. It definitely is not half as terrifying or scary as what I’m calling The Bottles and what I’m calling The Thrones. Obviously requiring more contemplation than I was willing to give them (it’s tough to bring your pulse down when it’s going like a pneumatic drill) it also didn’t give off that “I found something!” sensation that what I’m calling The Tinsel did. And so while I’m certain that something significant can and will be made of it, I quite like the idea that it was made because Ms. Mutu’s apartment was infested with moths.

There were other pieces by Ms. Mutu in the show, and I’m kind of annoyed with myself that I can’t remember more about (or took a picture of) the piece with the naturalized animal, but the only memories I have of her collages are from the catalogue, and as I said that is a whole ‘nother thing.

Which brings us to Valérie Blass. I wish I could write something really witty cool and nice about her work. Sadly I can’t. And while I could write something witty, sarcastic and mean – which if done well would make for some entertaining reading – I really don’t have that in me either. Ms. Blass’ work not only leaves me “blah” it also makes me sad.

Installation shot of Valerie Blass' exhibit. Image courtesy of Valerie Blass and Facebook.
Installation shot of Valerie Blass' exhibit. Image courtesy of Valerie Blass and Facebook.

For the most part I believe down to the marrow of my bones that there are an awful lot of really amazing and super-duper artists here in Quebec (and by extension Canada). But recently the Google Art Project went global. And when it did, there was not a single Canadian Museum included (for comparison there were six in Australia, two in New Zealand, one in South Africa, and, and, and. Since the global launch the AGO has signed on – but still no Quebecois institution.

I can’t help but thinking that it has something to do with the fact that institutions like the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal are promoting and hyping artists like Ms. Blass. The contemporary equivalent of whomever did the copy of the Mona Lisa at the Prado. Significant and important, but only to a point, and not really doing anything original.

Gluing found objects together and then casting them in porcelain is all fine and dandy, and makes for some pretty shiny objects that you can look at while holding your chin and nodding your head slowly (I said I wasn’t going to write something witty, sarcastic and mean, sorry). Pretty and shiny objects, do not, by virtue of being pretty and shiny deserve to be exhibited in a museum.

Dans la pose très singulière qui est la mienne, by Valérie Blass. Image courtesy
Dans la pose très singulière qui est la mienne, by Valérie Blass. Image courtesy

I am 100% convinced that Ms. Blass’ technique is superlative. That her instincts are true, and that she makes really nice things. But if anyone out there can explain to me how Ms. Blass’ work affects them as emotionally as Ms. Amer’s or Ms. Mutu’s work did me, I’m all ears. While Ms. Blass’ pieces didn’t repulse me, they just left me feeling like I was walking through some high-end home furnishing store looking for something that would be perfect in the nook. (OK, I apologize, I obviously wanted to get mean and sarcastic – Ms. Blass, when you read this, it is not intended as a personal attack, it is intended as a way to keep any readers who are left at this point, entertained.)

Déjà donné, by Valérie Blass. Image courtesy
Déjà donné, by Valérie Blass. Image courtesy

When I see what I think are the equivalent of home furnishings in a major Canadian museum, I can kind of understand why Canadian (and by extension Quebecois) art doesn’t get the respect it deserves on an international level. Frustrating, yes. Annoying, yeah. But, if they don’t invite me to the press conferences after I write about the art they exhibit and the openings after I give them money to be a member, it’s obvious as the nose on my face that they and I don’t see things the same way. So what am I going to do?

This is almost up at 3,000 words now, I kind of get the impression that if there is still anyone reading this far in, they are a blood relation. So in order to tie everything up (I said I was going to try) and enable my family to get on with other things more important than reading what I write… It’s obvious that there is an extremely limited public who is interested in Quebecois art, and I betcha dollars to doughnuts, unfortunately, that it isn’t likely to change in the near future.


One thought on “Valérie Blass, Ghada Amer and Wangechi Mutu at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal”

Comments are closed.