La Forêt s’en vient II
June 10-July 1 2017
Christian Messier’s exhibition, la Forêt s’en vient II, or The Forest is Coming II, is a presentation of an exhibition organized by Galerie Verticale that was held in the new lobby of Salle André-Mathieu in Laval, which is intended to “professionalize their visual arts presentation”. This series of works was removed amidst some controversy earlier this year due to several complaints from the public after visiting the hall for a Bruno Pelletier show. The organizers demanded that six paintings be removed, to which, after a lengthy period of debate, Messier responded that the entire show must be taken down, asserting by an all or nothing policy that they are a whole not to be divided. These works on view at Galerie Laroche Joncas were displayed as they were intended to be exhibited, uncensored. The theme of proposals from which his work was chosen for the show in Laval was “the strange, humour and the grotesque”, presumably a response to the frequent stand-up comedy shows performed at the hall. Ironically, comedy shows gain nearly all of their popularity through bawdy humour, taboo, and controversial topics, but apparently, some nudity in the hall on the way to the show was too much for some visitors to bear, or at least for the Pelletier crowd. The six paintings which were censored did not feature simple classical nudity, as some of Messier’s works in this series resemble, such as the canvas of figures cavorting in an elegant circle la Matisse’s dancers. Instead, it was the works which displayed any semblance of sexuality, through the groping of breasts, implied orgies or sexual activity that the ones which stimulated complaint.
This series of paintings centers on the notion of the forest as a wild place, far from an experience of a landscape viewed at a remove. It plays on notions of the forest as where things become strange, uncontrollable, and people behave differently. The forest has long been a metaphor for wildness, danger, and chaos from throughout literature and parable. From Lord of the Flies to Lord of the Rings and Little Red Riding Hood, we are warned of the dangers of straying off the path, going a little too crazy, having too much fun. Messier’s characters gleaned from internet images and screenshots from YouTube videos, explore what happens in just such cases in a way that is ambiguous and stimulates the imagination. Voodoo rituals, dancing parties, and exhibitionistic displays abound all in a mood of mystery, absurdity and release.
Messier is an artist who works in performance as well as painting; he has an artistic practice of twenty years and an active exhibition and performance history throughout Quebec and beyond. His works often deal with the body in states of extremity, both his own body and in the characters he paints. His performance art conjures up Samuel Beckett’s plays in a way, in their repetitive and seemingly pointless nature, and the strain they bring on the performer and the viewer through sympathy. He is often dressed in suits that seem too large for his frame, somehow adding poignancy to the trials he puts himself through. Messier performs acts of torment on his body, from beating his chest until exhaustion to dangerously riding a papier-mâché steed which he lit on fire, to shoving a whole raw onion in his mouth, causing tears to fall in the rain, to throwing himself as well as chairs across the room and so on. Watching, we are both mesmerized and filled with repulsion.
Why are artists so fascinated with the body? It is the medium for the expression of our existence, the essential material, the most raw. It is the thing we create with, when we can create with nothing else, we create ourselves. We create progeny, we make food, we excrete. The body is unavoidable, inescapable, except in death. It is a mirror for artistic production, one that we must eventually leave behind—both the mirror itself and whatever we manage to produce, even if all that is an aged and defunct form. Artists draw our attention to this, our constant companion, best friend, and ubiquitous jailer. They remind us of the nature of incorporation, and what we can never forget, our mortality, as much as we may try.
Through both his performances and his paintings, it is clear that Christian Messier is interested in what happens when the limits of the body are pushed to breaking point, to the point when emotion explodes, to the point that the physical vessel is in danger. His 2016 show at Clark Centre, I am the God of Hellfire, and I bring you…fire, dealt with dual themes of the experience of drugs and demonic possession, exploring a body taken over by a foreign agent. A spirit in a body is a takeover of flesh, and we all struggle with issues of incorporation, of inhabitation of our physical frame. Messier’s work, at its best, strongly conjures these issues. What happens when we lose control? Who are we then? Who are we in a primal state, at our most bestial? When we have been taken over by another force through drug use, demonic possession or raw emotion, are we more or less ourselves?
While I have not had the opportunity to view Messier’s oeuvre extensively in person, I saw his last show at Laroche Joncas, and although I found it admirable, la Forêt s’en vient II is a leap forward since his previous solo exhibition there. This show is conceptually and visually strong, with themes running through the works which take the viewer on a psychedelic and ritualistic journey along with him. And the ride has some interesting sights. It begins with a painting called Aurore Boréale, which features mischievous, lucid and brightly-coloured characters which could emerge from a David Lynch film, leering before a Northern Light sky, perhaps a hallucinogenic trip is beginning. This work has its own distinctive character, and that is dark, to be sure, but it is also playful and funny. In these works is clear that something naughty is going on, or about to, but you’re not sure what. And you feel sort of like a transgressive voyeur for even looking. In Paradise liebe, busty women cavort around a fire with a well-hung black man, while in Animal Lovers, a man proportioned like a Sumo wrestler gleefully smiles while either hanging onto his cascading rolls or groping for what is well-hidden beneath them while watching two figures engaging in ambiguously ritualistic or sensual activities. You get the sense that some suburbanites drank the wrong punch at the barbecue and the night just went awry. The bestial nature of humanity is revealed, but not explained. Messier seems to imply that is there, seething beneath the surface, waiting for the right circumstances to bring it out.
La bascule, meaning “rocker”, shows a lovely subtlety of blues, greens, and greys, the lines of the hair of the woman mimic the vertical strokes of the trees. Are they playing with the child, or is it like the story of King Solomon judging the two women who both claim the baby is theirs and declares that they must cut it in half? It could be a cheerful family playtime in the forest, but in the context of the darkness and timbre of the work, I think not. Jeu nudist, with a background of spikey trees in intense black and red, bears echoes of Gauguin and Doig’s work in the tropics, and of course Matisse in the circle of figures in motion, which here seem not so much to be dancing, as attempting to dance with some conflict, as young boys and older women tug and pull on each other. In Grandeur nature, a parade of pale figures with large shields and weapons look like a rag-tag group of children dressed as Roman soldiers or wearing masks who got lost or are up to some antics in the forest by the glow of a fading sunset. Épiphanie is an uplifting and enigmatic piece, a toile in charming purples and burnt violet-red tilted 90 degrees so a corner points to the floor and one the sky. It is without the element of the sinister that many of his works in this series have. The star-like drips and mist glow pleasantly, but not derivatively, conjure Doig again, and the circle of figures in the water and the full moon rising gives one a sense of magic and unity. The depths one can experience in the forest aren’t always dark, depraved and heavy, sometimes they are sublime.
It is important to be reminded that the ground we gain against censorship and for liberty must constantly be reinforced, fought for, and discussed. Is it valid that in a public place like the Salle André-Mathieu, the organizers of the exhibition caved to a public who demanded such works be removed, threatening to deny their future patronage? What does this imply besides a mess in terms of organization and communication? People who eagerly attend comedy performances where it is commonplace to seek laughs by raising the taboo and the offensive, can yet by offended by visual art depictions of light sexuality. Conversely, it is somehow comforting that the painted image is still that potent, that powerful still, in a culture where billboards, the internet, and magazines constantly inundate us with sexually-charged imagery. Our culture continues to be riddled with pettiness, prudery, and hypocrisy, and it is laudable for artists to hold up that mirror to their faces. The organizers of (co)motion apparently did not approve entirely of this exhibition, and it was mounted despite a few objections and the professionalism of Messier’s work, although it well fit the theme of the grotesque, humour and so on. It seems clear that the subject of the desired exhibition was meant to compliment the shows in the hall, but that this was not they had in mind. Sexuality is not funny to some, it is something to be ashamed of. It makes many uncomfortable, even when it is depicted with reference to art history and contemporary art, which most of the public would, of course, be largely unaware of. Does this denote an extensive lack of art education by the public? Why are some forms of entertainment permissible to tread on edgy ground while others are not? This conflict raised many interesting questions to the fore which are not easily answered. Ultimately, I believe this occurrence and consequent controversy was a benefit as it raises important questions and opens a discussion that will probably never be completely over. The progress we make in civil rights, freedom of expression, and sexual liberty are not permanently granted once gained, they are ground that must be guarded and maintained. This won’t happen besides with education, but how much art education can the public be expected to obtain? Art, and especially a knowledgeable appreciation of art history and contemporary art are things one has to consciously seek out and work on. The public, en masse, generally has always had poor taste and only favours what is quite safe, conventional and pretty, what has long been established to be acceptable. Art that pushes the envelope is always necessary to stir up reactionary feelings, and that is exactly what Messier himself asserts that he intends to do: Cette ridicule étrangeté chercherait à produire chez nous le malaise d’un excès de pudeur face à des comportements naïfs et inassimilables pour des esprits lucides et freinés par la gène comme les nôtres. It is my belief it was actually a good thing that this controversy occurred, as it pointed the ridiculousness of pervasive provincial attitudes and to the limitations of acceptance in our society and perhaps made many people think and feel, which is the goal of nearly every artist.
This is Lord of the Flies with adults, the wild undercurrent of humanity. Summer nights. Parties in the woods. Sacrifice. Ritual. Man as beast. The characters are dramatic and performative. Again, there is a distinct David Lynchian feel, the ordinary has turned menacing or horrific. There is a lot of shirt lifting, busty chest-exposing and grabbing, as if, with childlike glee, adults are discovering the pleasures of the human body again now that they are free in the forest. La forêt s’en vient II is a quite successful body of work in that it conveys a personal conception of reality, as well as an attunement to literature, contemporary culture and painting. This expressive, vivid yet mysterious style of painting well suits the subjects. As Marshal McLuhan said, the medium is the message. There is a distinct deepening and more interesting use of paint and subject since his last show at Galerie Laroche Joncas. The themes are considerably more consistent. Messier is at his very best when he is responding to contemporary turns in painting as well as to the history of expressionist painting and is working in series with an ambiguous but narrative cohesion and with the natural energy and force that comes through in his work. This comes across less successfully in works that are more cartoony, solidly distinct, brightly-coloured and excessively dripping. They are quite gripping, lovely and intriguing when they seem to emanate from a field of energetic brushstrokes, from a haze of emotion and experience, when they emerge out of darkness and have a dynamic conversation with Peter Doig and Francis Bacon.
We are reminded by this episode of censorship that people like to confine their sexual experiences to the privacy of their own homes, or the like. They are discomfited when faced with their own appetites when they, presumably innocently, seek socially acceptable entertainment. They do not wish to encounter the absurdity and poignancy of their own bestial natures out of context, however depraved they may be in private. Not only as an exhibition of paintings but as a performance and a provocation—not as a senseless shock but rather the sort that stimulates thought—these works by Christian Messier are a success presaging interesting work for the future as well.