Joyce Yahouda Gallery
November 24, 2016-December 24, 2016
The title of Nika Fontaine’s solo exhibition at Joyce Yahouda Gallery was called Heimat. The word Heimat apparently cannot be translated exactly, however it loosely means “homeland” in German. I believe that Fontaine is using the word in its purest sense, not suggesting any kind of national pride. Through the title she suggests a spiritual homeland, in which the true home of the soul is not this plane, but another beyond, and her art explores this theme. The works in this show range from boxy glitter Rothkoesque canvases, to paintings which burst with movement and colour, to kitschy creations in velvet and tassels.
Nika Fontaine is a multidisciplinary artist who is first and foremost a painter, although she is also so diverse in her output as to range from making music, designing gloriously glam coffins and performing in drag. Fontaine’s paintings, in general and in this exhibition are primarily in glitter on canvas, but she has of late been returning to purely painted works, as can be seen on her Instagram. Montreal born, Berlin-based, Fontaine is a French-Canadian transgender woman, but does not consider herself to be a transgender artist, as her works explore other themes mostly spiritual in origin, dealing frequently with death, astral experiences and energy, but they are also largely concerned with style, aesthetics and fun. Fontaine recounts that she gained New Age influences from her mother and aunt, which have informed her work for many years now. There are elements of craft, of little girl art, of the ubiquitous glitter stickers of the 80s, of fabric and play and dress-up. However, these works carry a distinctly adult, evolved and a sometimes dark or sinister contemporary edge. Ever since losing her father at a young age, Nika Fontaine has had a fascination with death. Combined with her female relatives’ interest in spirituality, this clearly created a powerfully imaginative, spiritual and feminine environment to grow up in, one that nurtured her to become the artist she is today.
A painter of increasing international renown, Fontaine was a finalist in the RBC painting competition for 2016, as well as one the honorable mentions for the prize. It was one of her Schnell Schnell paintings—the series heavily featured in this solo exhibition—that garnered her this recognition. The most successful paintings in this show, in my opinion, are many of these Schnell Schnell paintings (“quickly quickly” in German) which Fontaine calls her Accelerators. The ones that resemble small, glittering Rothkos feel boxed in, static, almost trapped and claustrophobic, though still containing visual delights and harmony. Fontaine told me that those with greater movement were painted more recently, and they are the ones I found more profoundly moving and hypnotic. It is clear that Fontaine wishes the viewer to experience an acceleration of consciousness, energy and happiness while enjoying her work, and this is indeed a successful effect, depending on the openness of the viewer. It is possible to experience a distinct sense of mirroring in your own body and sense the feelings portrayed on the canvas through colour, the reflections of light upon the glitter and the sense of surging upward. There is a sense of movement of energy, of colourful play through a body, which could be an etheric body or an astral one. They have a very human feel, a sense of embodiment as well as freedom from such a state. The sense of being more than one is in the earthly sense. These paintings often have the shape of a body, of a face, sometimes of breasts or eyes. Their glittering energy seems to travel upward, like the flush of excitement or emotion, the rush of thought or the movement of kundalini through the chakras. They also seem to express desire and pleasure at the same time, which is a rare feat to accomplish so effectively in an abstract work. These Schnell Schnell paintings do seem to have a cross-over to her Astral Bodies series, which are about beings she encounters after putting herself into a trance, then painting. Boundaries are not as rigid as we imagine, especially in creative endeavours. The Accelerators also include paintings I would call space paintings, which seem to be directly inspired by the glittering night sky, and seem less about a body or being, and more about awe and freedom. I would love to see her abstract works, these space canvases in particular, painted quite large to increase their sense of overwhelming peace and wonder.
Nika Fontaine has said that her interest in kitsch materials comes mainly from aesthetic preference. She is not afraid to be decorative. This is an artist skilled in blending high and low-brow art; her use of materials such as velvet and tasseled curtains would send an artist less bold running in shame. There is a good sense of humour, both about the role of the artist and about herself, which successfully lightens the mood of work that many could find “woo-woo” or taking herself too seriously. They’re fun, light-hearted, pretty and just serious enough. The kitsch works are less interesting to me personally, but they add some humour and playfulness to a show that would otherwise be too ponderous for many. The most effective of these was the most ironic, a purple glowing glitter planet painted on the notorious black velvet, titled Zeta Pupis. Somehow the black seemed as black as Anish Kapoor’s vantablack. It is the black of the void, black as a black hole and deeply hypnotic. The center of the purple planet was lighter than the outer edge of the sphere, giving it a dimensional feel. The edge was trimmed in velvet, and even the most serious connoisseur could hardly mind, as the piece was so effectively mesmerizing. It also could be associated with a mandala, or an energy-being centred in a very peaceful place, hovering over the void.
Fontaine’s large, chaotic, representational glitter-sticker tableaux were among the most striking. They allowed long examination and enjoyment, and sparked many conversations amongst visitors. More figurative than her other works, they were very engaging, drawing the eye to riddle out the chaos to find in the glittery nebula of satana ye te boco: a devil’s mask with a long tongue protruding like Hindu images of the goddess Kali, electric green space-vomit emitted from a jar or urn, a long, rope-tongued floating serpent, a green and black scarab beetle, a black sign of clubs, flames one might see on a child’s toy race car and other less easily decipherable symbols. The most perplexing and intriguing of the less easily distinguished symbols was a somehow humanoid tuber portrayed in ochre glitter. It seemed root-like as well as intestinal, but its meaning was quite evasive. American Delight features a barber pole, another gut-tuber, a banana split, a viridian ET-like creature, an electric blue scorpion, musical notes, flames and a sword, among other lesser symbols and signs. The meaning seems less important than the primordial soup of imagery which comes from a frenetic imagination. These feel like dream-clutter or the jumble of images one encounters while attempting to still the mind in meditation.
While it feels a bit unfair to keep returning to Rothko as that influence is only one part of Nika Fontaine’s work, Rothko’s paintings, energetically devoid almost in their Zen emptiness, feel like a place or a mood, while hers feel much more human and joyful. Their presence, their boundaries, the thrust of their desire, their limitations and their expansive joy rises and ascends, and for me, they are at the core of the success of this exhibition. Her Heimat is the homeland of the heart.