Back in 2004 I saw a show by Henri Venne at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, I wasn’t impressed. I have a vague memory of large blue paintings of the sky, or something similar. Filed him away as a decent Quebecois artists whose work I wasn’t particularly fond of, kind of like Pierre Lalonde or Boom Desjardins. Someone kind of faceless in the crowd, who is required in order to have a crowd.
I don’t think I particularly noticed when he got a show at the Musee d’art de Joliette (and shouldn’t an artist with a career that’s going places first have a show in Joliette and then in Montreal? And not the other way around?) nor was I expecting to see his work when I went to Art Mûr – I had trucked up there ostensibly to see something else, more on that later. Anyhows, I was quite impressed.
One of the sensations I kind of remember from his show in 2004 was some kind of meditative spin on things, him trying to paint (I think they were paintings) the space in between dozing off and a full sleep. That kind of trance you can end up in if you repeat the same word, gesture or action over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over (ain’t copy/paste grand?!). As far as I can tell there are lots of people out there who believe that those trances are good. I’m not one of them, which is why I probably lumped him in the same space as Boom Desjardins.
This time however I was very impressed at the shininess of his current work. Where the work of his in my memory was kind of flat with a subtle texture (again, I think) from the brush. Which kind of aided to at least understand the Zen-like sensations I felt I was supposed to feel. These photographs are shiny to the point where if they were laid on the floor, you could almost dive right in. All of them are photographs roughly two feet by three feet that are mounted underneath a very thick piece of plexiglass.
I accidentally forgot my measuring tape in my other pants when I visited Art Mûr so I can’t tell you if it’s ¼” or ½” or something even thicker. But great gosh-a’mighty that plexiglass made them shiny as all get go. Now I kind of have this hate/hate relationship with shiny contemporary art. I tend to look at it as a extremely facile and simplistic method to make otherwise unremarkable art extremely sellable. Normally it’s done with multiple layers of varnish which requires some (not much) skill – as an aside it’s because of the varnishing that here in Quebec we call an art opening a Vernissage. Back in the good old days, once a painter finished some paintings for a an exhibition, he’d invite his friends over to help him varnish them so that they would be suitable for display. Since varnishing a painting is a fairly tedious job, he’d (back in the good old days 99% of your professional artists were men) have to bribe them with bottles of wine to keep them happy. As a consequence, these varnishing parties could get quite boisterous, and it was only a matter of time before a vernissage became synonymous with the opening of an exhibit. But I digress…
M. Venne’s work in this show is eight nearly monochromatic, nearly featureless, photographs (there are only seven pieces of art, because one of the pieces, I’ll Keep You There… So Long is a diptych). As simple as rain on a window, the most prevalent feature of these photographs is the color. They are for the most part gradients of primary color (gradiented primary color? Primary color gradients?) – there is one that is orange – and look pretty much like what I would imagine the world looks like if you were severely myopic.
Extremely simple in concept and form, it’s the sort of thing which makes me gnash my teeth. Instead of using new and improved tools to make new and improved art. M. Venne uses new and improved tools (in this case a fancy-ass digital camera, and fancy-ass digital printer, and a fancy-ass laminator) to make the same old, same old. While I probably should applaud him for being consistent with his art, I can’t help but feel a little bit cheated, because the picture itself is meaningless. Without a title and the title of the show itself all they are are shiny contemporary versions of medium sized colorfields. They aren’t breaking any new ground nor they aren’t earth-shattering, and while all art doesn’t have to be ground-breaking or earth-shattering, when you are using current technologies it helps, a lot. Because if your art isn’t ground-breaking and earth-shattering then it runs the risk of being mundane. Being mundane isn’t a good thing.
It’s the kind of work that I am used to seeing from artists at Galerie de Bellefeuille or Simon Blais. While I am not against the commercialization of art, there are certain times when it hits me that something “art-like” is much closer to being a commodity, and this is one of those times, right down to the fact that he does not bother to mention to size of the print run for each of the pictures.
Despite the bafflegab and gobbledy-gook in Art Mûr’s magazine about pensiveness, and reflection, to me M. Venne’s work is all about sellability. There are some times when shopping can cause a sensation of bliss, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. So I really shouldn’t be raining on anyone’s parade. Especially, since I think that M. Venne’s work is incredibly sellable. They’re priced appropriately, in that region that will make the buyer instantaneously recognize that the work is serious, while at the same time not being outrageous. Or if you prefer, about 57¢/cm2 a pop or $3.59/in2. (66¢/cm2 with taxes. If you’re buying Quebecois art, you can save some serious change by having it shipped either out of province or out of the country).
At that price, don’t forget that it probably would help immensely to bring both a swatch from your couch and a paint chip from your wall color so as to make sure that they match the picture.
Henri Venne: Somewhere in Between was exhibited at Art Mûr from April 26 until June 16, 2012