Dan Brault: Peinture générale…ou Presque

Dan Brault
Peinture générale…ou Presque
September 10 – October 8, 2016

Dan Brault’s new exhibition of work, Peinture générale…ou Presque, at Galerie Laroche Joncas has the chaotic ambience he has become known and appreciated for. These acrylic and oil paintings operate along the tension-line between mechanical and handmade, the expressive and the slickly stylized. Brault plays on the outsider art aesthetic, and is obviously influenced by street art, digital technologies and pop art.

It is often said that Dan Brault’s work is playful and positive. In fact, Brault said to La Presse[i]:

“Il y a une part de naïveté dans mon travail. On y trouve mes réflexions sur la vie, sur ce que c’est que d’être un citoyen responsable et la raison qui justifie de créer une image de plus dans le monde, aujourd’hui.”

Deeper and sometimes darker concerns can be detected therein with longer viewing and a wry commentary on the nature of our society.

To be sure there is a certain joy in the sheer visual abundance, in the free association, in the jazz-like riffs, in the effusion of colour and form. Viewing them is a somewhat frustrating experience however, it is like dealing with a particularly infuriating puzzle. Sometimes the attempt to riddle out the references in these works, to struggle to parse meaning from symbols yields little. Yet, telling a story doesn’t really seem to be the point here. The works entertain on one level to be sure, especially visually, but they also reveal what seems to be a sophisticated commentary on the nature of looking and naming, and the history of art from the early 20th century to present day.

In 2014, Brault was selected to be one of the one hundred artists featured in the book 100 Painters of Tomorrow, by Kurt Beers, of Beers London. Beers was originally a Canadian gallery but has now been operating out of England for several years, and it has obtained an esteemed reputation there. This has contributed to Brault’s rise in success, but it is clear that his work has a deserved place in Quebec painting and in the scheme of contemporary art, particularly in the popular genre of faux outsider art. Brault’s work openly betrays the influence of his former professor, David Elliot, in the use of painted collage and cheerfully chaotic mood. Other influences can be spied in Basquiat-style childlike doodles and there are numerous neo-expressionist elements to be found in these paintings as well.

Ultimately, trying to parse meaning out of the chaos of symbols feels like a fruitless task in this mad carnival. They feel as if they are about the joy and the torment of existence, the explosive nature of the youthful mind when one is just starting to pick out meaning and symbol and shape. It could be a depiction of the mind of a child starting to recognize signs, when perception begins to fall away from unbiased pure awareness and becomes a mind that judges, separates and names, and in fact becomes obsessed with doing so.

We encounter a plethora of elements borrowed and collaged especially from lowbrow sources such as design, pop art, street art and so on. References to digital culture and the nature of new and old media abound, as well as marks which declare the presence and absence of the artist’s hand, and Brault is known to work with a stencil-maker to create many of the machine-made features.  The constant references to the dichotomy between mechanized making and the handmade signature of the artist, which bears the direct trace of humanity in the remnants of the brushstroke, raises questions about what is true art, and what is valued and what is not.

These works also call up ideas tendered by deconstructionism, of the relationship between the signified and the signifier. To my mind, the works bear a certain relationship to Derrida’s compelling notion that words and signs can never fully express what is meant, only talk around the thing with other words and signs. These paintings seem to express the impossibility and absurdity of true communication, the futility of establishing meaning or order in a chaotic, overwhelming, visually overstimulating and commercially over-saturated society.

We are overwhelmed by the surfeit of choices we have today, yet in some ways we also seem to have less and less choices and freedoms. Our paths narrow, the divide between rich and poor widens. In a world where we are told by the media that we can have it all, we end up with little, mired in acquisitiveness and consumer culture. Where everything is disposable, nothing is valued over anything else. And that is what these works seem to embody, collaged chaos, they celebrate the random and the anti-aesthetic to some degree, and not much concerned with traditional means of expression, composition, or beauty. It sometimes feels like an ironic critique of consumer culture while itself being part of it, and this one of the persistent paradoxes of the business of art.  Ultimately, however, the work doesn’t seem to pass judgment, in fact, it seems to elevate stencilled designs used in the tackiest advertisements and the cheapest decals for home décor to the same level as iconic images of influential artists like Phillip Guston.

To give a sense of the work, let us look at the characteristic larger piece Watchtower which is dominated by a raven on a stump with a thought bubble and a spider inside, a cloud emitting a lightning symbol and a pixelated digital flame. The canvas also features band-aids, a worm shaped like a cigar, a Guston-style eye, a digital/painterly hybrid cloud of smoke, some elements of nature, and a small pile of olives which make me think of eggs because of the bird. In the centre there is a large stencilled flower which glows like a sun.

In Heatwave we are inundated by a cactus, a hand making an OK gesture, clouds, a cupcake, a snail, a not-dead (according to Laroche) bluebird thinking of a Tetris-like symbol, an oak leaf, a potted plant, wallpaper, another Guston eye, coin slots, and what is perhaps a pixelated campfire. Swoops of orange-hot Photoshop-like lines likely represent hot air. There is a blue background, blue sky, the blue water of summer and what seem to be two large painterly blueberries at centre. A cactus reminds us of desert climes. The repetition of the Guston eye makes me think of the nature of seeing and perception.

Perhaps a synesthesiac homage to music Blazing Raw Vibes! also conveys the sensation of heat, digitally rendered and emanating from the large red and orange amorphous shape that is marked like a player piano reel on crack. Video-game faces are rendered in an expressive style while a gramophone spits out candy music. Snakes, band-aids and the ubiquitous Tetris symbol squabble in the picture plane. What appears to be a bullet hangs centrally in suspension like the sword of Damocles.

Lingering in Time’s House features a skull penetrated by a fishhook which suspended over a black and white patterned surface like a kitchen or bathroom linoleum floor. Traditionally still lives, appropriately called in French nature morte are assembled with fruit and various objects, classically often depicting reminders of mortality. This one features bottles dripping with wax or paint and a coffee mug, all loosely painted, and an apple and the skull aren’t far away. Random objects such as stencilled binoculars—another reference to the nature of looking—a pumpernickel bagel, a barber pole, a loosely painted bowling ball and a cartoon Flintstone’s club also hover around the picture plane.

While both Laroche and Brault maintain that the paintings have individual and personal meaning, and I’m sure that is true, that was not my overall impression. I believe that the meaning present is irrelevant and superficial, and that it is intentionally so. The paintings are more about the subject of meaning itself, or the lack thereof. They deal with how meaning is constructed and deconstructed, how we strive to communicate and how we fail to do so. They are about how pictures are made, how images make up our culture and fill our awareness, for better or for worse, from the highbrow to the lowbrow. These works are also about the methodology by which images are formed within our minds, how labels and names are given and sorted. They also deal with how what is considered acceptable visually and artistically is in a constant state of flux, how we use images commercially, and the effect that has on the state of art as a whole.

[i] Éric Clément, La Presse, January 3, 2015

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