Oh, Old Port. How to describe you? We’ve all been to it, whether as wide-eyed new arrivals or as locals dutifully taking visitors on the obligatory tour of Montreal. Yet for most students, it remains on the periphery of our experience of the city – as if confined to its own little alternate universe. The fantastic architecture and cobble stone streets give the impression of a different era, which, when coupled with eccentric street performers and horses with dyed pink manes, creates a bizarre amalgam of elements that come together in a surreal Canadian version of Disneyland. Despite this otherworldly quality, the astounding number of art galleries crammed into Old Port’s narrow streets attest to the fact that the neighbourhood is an active hub of contemporary culture.
It would require an elaborate taxonomy to analyze this eclectic art scene. However, some major trends can be identified. One example is the proliferation of Canadiana. There are a number of galleries devoted to the display of First Nations art. At Galerie Image Boréal, for example, row upon row of small stone sculptures are accompanied by cards issued by the Canadian Government confirming their authenticity as First Nations. The gallery also contains a large polar bear skin rug, complete with growling head, with which tourists line up to have their photo taken.
This playing up of seemingly nationalistic qualities highlights the emphasis many of these galleries place on the local character of their artwork. A number of galleries demonstrate a penchant for large, colourful abstract canvases – those of Stéphanie Rivet at Galerie Émeraude stand out in particular. These pieces are strikingly reminiscent of the work of Jean-Paul Riopelle, whose distinct style is exemplary of the Quebecois automatist movement. When asked, gallery workers are eager to stress that the majority of their artists live and work in the Montreal area. This emphasis on the distinctly local character of the artworks undeniably caters to visitors to the city, for whom an object d’art serve as a souvenir.
This evident appeal to tourists is doubtlessly linked to the commercial nature of the majority of the art spaces in Old Port. Rather than presenting a specific exhibition with an overarching curatorial scheme, many of the galleries (Galerie d’Art le Bourget and Galerie le Luxart, for example) display a wide range of art works as objects of interior decor, favouring paintings that can be hung in a bedroom or kitchen, and small sculptures designed to sit on a mantlepiece. This commercial intention is also perceptible in the ambiance of the galleries, which is far removed from the hushed contemplative spaces of fine art museums. The background club beats and startlingly bright whitewashed walls that accompany artist Corno’s pop-arty portraits at Galerie AKA are reminiscent of shopping-mall shoe stores.
However, commercial concerns do not negate the possibility of exhibiting some truly great art. The move westward away from the throngs of tourists brings us to more refined commercial spaces, such as Galerie Le Royer, which is currently showing a breathtaking exhibition of metal works by Quebec artist Marie Josée Roy. The artist has carefully painted and etched angelic figures onto large panels of aluminum and copper, creating ethereal images reminiscent of religious icons. Still, the works are intended to hang in a living room, albeit an exceedingly tasteful one, belonging to someone with a spare $14,500 or so. Once again, the soft jazz playing in the background reminds visitors that this is a place of commerce, not contemplation.
And ,then, tucked away on the more secluded streets, there is the blessedly silent DHC/ART foundation. Marked only by small red sandwich boards, the gallery is easily overlooked, which perhaps adds to its clandestine character. DHC/ART’s status as a privately endowed foundation sets it apart from the majority of Montreal’s art galleries. Unlike the commercially oriented spaces that surround it, DHC/ART does not depend on selling their art works in order to remain afloat. Nor is DHC/ART concerned with government funding or corporate sponsorship, which can influence the programming of publicly funded art spaces and museums. DHC/ART is thus at liberty to make bold and eclectic curatorial choices, mounting esoteric shows that invite critical engagement and introspection. While DHC/ART only exhibits three shows a year, each one brings veritable superstars, such as Mark Quinn, Jenny Holzer, and Sophie Calle, from the international art scene to Montreal.
Currently on display in DHC/ART’s adjacent galleries are works by American painter John Currin and Belgian sculptor Berlinde de Bruyckere. Bruyckere’s ominous sculptural installations provide a startling confrontation with themes of humanity, animality, and cruelty. The monumental scale and the realism of her maimed taxidermy horses, or seemingly flayed human skins, render her work immediately unsettling. She also invokes antiquated museum practices, as she places her wax sculptures resembling tree trunks and warped humanoid forms into large wood and glasses cases, the doors of which are precariously left open, exposing the violence inherent in our attempts to arrest life and transform it into a specimen. Her sculptures are also incredibly tactile, creating an uncanny resemblance to human skin and hair that at once repulses and appeals to the viewers desire to touch.
Bruyckere’s nightmarish sculptures are counterbalanced by a selection of works by John Currin, whose works are notoriously grotesque, yet, humorous in their deprecating depiction of humanity. His warped, sexualized figures serve as an exploration of the perversities of contemporary bourgeois existence. Currin also employs clashing archetypes and art movements to create works that are marvellously subversive as they resist classification and defy common standards of high art. Each painting is like an illegible amalgam of folk art, children’s illustration, classical perspective, cartoons figures, and pornography. Both artists elude expectation and seek to challenge our comfortable perceptions of the world around us.
Thought provoking shows such as Currin and Bruyckere’s make DHC/ART the jewel in the crown of the Old Port art scene. However, one shouldn’t disregard the role that other small galleries that contribute to the art community. Despite its status as a historical district, Old Port is far more than a picturesque relic. The unusual balance between esoteric interest and mass appeal, between the gaudy and the refined, is completely unique. This multifarious art scene demonstrates that the Old Port is not just a museum piece, but still very much alive.