So do you know what a retable is? As a good Jew and a card carrying squarehead and bloke, I had no freaking clue what so ever. But after seeing the exhibit by Claude Tousignant at Art Mûr and then looking the words up on Wikipedia, Google and a couple of other places just to make sure, it all made sense. I could kind of muddle through “périphériques.” Ditch the accents, modify the “ques” to an “als” and even the most stubborn monolingual Francophobe can get an idea of what Claude Tousignant meant, but the second part of the title is a little bit more obscure, Especially if you were born after the Quiet Revolution. Although to be honest, the paintings look to me, more along the lines of Devices and Altarpieces and not quite Periphials and Retables, slightly less precise terms leave a lot more room for interpretation of the art.
If you weren’t aware, Claude Tousignant is one of the heavy hitters of contemporary Quebecois art. He is, along with Françoise Sullivan, Armand Vaillancourt, Fernand Leduc, Jacques Hurtubise and Marcel Barbeau kind of like the really, really old guard. Still working away and making things (although I am not certain if M. Leduc is still making things, and I wonder why M. Barbeau hasn’t received a prix Borduas yet, but I digress…). The people who signed manifestos and who actually caused change here. Although I have never met him, I imagine he is a very nice person. Or at least one of his daughters is. I got to know Isa Tousignant via her sweetie and the local across the street from Zeke’s Gallery where a bunch of us would have a glass or two of beer after work.
One of the things that caught my eye, was how Art Mûr did not print any prices on the wall tags. Normally, when something like that happens, it is the super-secret-art-world-insider-code for “too rich for your type.” But in this case I am not so certain, because upstairs they were exhibiting a sculpture with a price tag of $160,000 clearly marked. And despite how many times I buy a 6/49 ticket, $160K is too rich for my type. Maybe M. Tousignant is not only a very nice guy, but a private one as well, and isn’t quite comfortable with something potentially as crass as cash money. I don’t think I have ever seen a painting of his go up for auction, and if my memory is correct the prints of his that I’ve seen have gone for something like a couple of thousand dollars. So it is quite possible that the Périphériques and Retables weren’t outrageously expensive, merely a lot of money. If anybody knows what the prices were don’t hesitate to pipe up.
But enough about the background, what about the paintings themselves? They are variations on a theme. The two Retables are each three canvases attached side to side to side, with the middle canvas being slightly higher than the ones on the sides. Number One uses canvases 4′ 2″ square, Number Two has two canvases of 5′ square and one of 5′ 2″ square. For lack of a Pantone chart, Number One consists of a white, a blue and an red canvas, while Number Two’s canvases are green, purple and orange. I presume that the date and M. Tousignant’s signature is on the back. Overall they are quite stately and imposing. I preferred Number Two, although that might just be because it was the first one I saw and has a much more significant placement within the gallery. Now I could go completely off on abstract painting, post-painterly abstraction, color fields and minimalism, but I won’t. I’m fairly certain that if you want to, you can find someone or someplace that will expound upon them to your heart’s content.
Obviously made to be hung in the front of a church, I’m not entirely certain what denomination of Catholicism would be appropriate. Despite the fact that I refuse to use a flash, it’s still possible to tell from the crappy pictures I took that Number Two is the three secondary colors. The closest I can get to figuring out the color theory behind Number One is that M. Tousignant took the Russian flag and turned it on its side. The Périphériques are where the fun kicks in. There are four of them exhibited, but as the largest number in the titles is thirteen (they are all part of a series, which I presume is numbered consecutively), there are at least nine others kicking around someplace. All marked as “variable dimensions,” that incredibly useful phrase to hide (or ignore) all sorts of details. Each consists of a collection of smallish square canvases painted one color. These canvases are then arrayed on the wall in a way that on first glance looks like some sort of cubic solar system or a three dimensional still from one of those trippy-dippy animated films that the NFB made in the sixties.
With the Périphériques, the big deal is how M. Tousignant uses the wall as part of the installation. His instructions for installing them are shown in the inside front page of the magazine that Art Mûr publishes, and I was very surprised to see that the dimensions are in inches (and in certain cases sixteenths of an inch) nor does it appear that there is any theory behind how they are hung. It’d be kind of neat to see what M. Tousignant could do if he got rid of the canvases and started painting directly on the wall. Not quite Sol Lewitt, but kind of. I’m certain that if I studied each one close enough, I could possibly knock together some kind of color/size theory on how they were created. But I instead, decided just to try and get a sense of what M. Tousignant was getting at. Trying to get into his frame of mind by proxy if you will. Where the Retables come across as heavy and domineering, like one of those chords on an organ, the Périphériques are much more recorder like, similar to one of those renaissance songs with the typos and the musicians in all sorts of puffy clothing.
It’s extremely heartening to see an artist of M. Tousignant’s caliber exhibiting in a gallery such as Art Mûr, it obviously speaks highly of Rhéal Olivier Lanthier and François St-Jacques, the two guys who run it. The one slight negative thing I would have to say, is just I wish that they were capable of getting M. Tousignant’s work noticed on an international level. There is not a single museum outside of Canada listed on his CV in the Art Mûr magazine. Which is a glaring hole, but to be expected with how Quebecois Art is viewed (or not viewed) in the rest of the world.
If I had any theories about Contemporary Abstract Art made in Quebec, this would be the place to state them. But I don’t, I just kind of look at it, wonder why it doesn’t get better recognition in the rest of the world and then go look at it some more, M. Tousignant’s work to my mind, is on a par, if not better than any other living artist in the world today (including such folks as Gerhard Richter, Peter Doig and David Hockney) if Art Mûr is in fact charging millions of dollars for M. Tousignant’s work, then I am completely and utterly astonished and will gladly take back everything I have ever said about Contemporary Quebecois Art not getting the fiscal respect (and all other types of respect that go along with it) that it deserves. Baring that, M. Tousigant’s work makes me hope that I can make as effective, entertaining, interesting and kick-ass work when I am 80 years-old.