Culture  Paved paradise

A pair of artists address identity and the city

An initial glimpse at David Holden’s latest exhibition produces a slightly unnerving echo of the already exhausted Surrealist genre. His work resembles a synthesis of De Chirico’s enigmatic deserted squares rendered in the artist’s characteristically skewed, receding perspective, and Magritte’s perplexing juxtapositions of ordinary objects and locations. Sure, this wouldn’t be the worst thing – Surrealism was quite the interesting movement. And who doesn’t appreciate the odd “tribute” act? Regardless, deeper examination reveals that Holden’s series presents something less dated and more inspired.

The majority of the paintings are set in Holden’s childhood neighbourhood in Montreal. Although the locations refer to Holden’s past, the paintings reflect recently experienced events and emotions. This gives the paintings an interesting temporal dynamic and play between past and present.

Leroux Park depicts a building surrounded by a paved lot. The childhood location is rendered with adult solemnity. The scene is draped in a grey haze, the sky is overcast and pavement occupies the entire foreground. A glimmer of bright colour from a mural painted on the building struggles to breach the painting’s grey emotional atmosphere. The mural, probably painted by children, seems to offer a glimpse back to childhood yet fails to solidify it. There is an absence of human presence, as in all the paintings of the series. However, we sense human presence through the perceiver – or painter – as it is his emotions we are presented with and take part in.

Another work, Gift Box, depicts the back of an arena and its parking lot. The scene is deserted, save a car half out of frame in the distance and an opened red and white gift box in the foreground. The inexplicable presentation of the banal object takes on the role of the painting’s subject and perplexes us in the process.

Like in many of his other paintings, the artist celebrates an object’s ability to transmit emotion. Here, the lone opened gift box evokes feelings of rejection and desertion as we wonder why it lies on the ground of the parking lot. No childhood joy or memory of sport is evident in the painting; rather, we sense the turmoil that comes with adult relationships.

All the paintings of the series are rendered in virtuosic photorealism. Yet, like many Surrealist works, there is a sense of unreality in the precision of depiction. This serves to convey a sense of lucid memory as well as that of immediate, present emotions. However, a disconnect between past and present is felt in the works. The memory does not seem to register. We are lost in the present experience of adulthood evoked throughout the series.

In space 2 of the gallery, Jean Francois Gratton presents a series of seven photographs of a photo booth – or photomaton – placed in different locations around the city. This same photo booth is physically placed in the centre of the gallery, surrounded by the photographs. The exhibit provides an interesting and thoughtful comment on some formal aspects of photography, as well as an interesting comment on technology and contemporary culture.

The photographs are beautiful. Each photo displays a skillful treatment and play of light and offers a broad palate of colour, framing the photo booth in the centre of each picture. Gratton glorifies the device with his sensitive eye, commenting on how our technological devices often take on fetishistic value.

With the device present in the gallery, Gratton provides an exposition of space. We are able to see the size of the photo booth and examine its relation to its surroundings within the pictures. It’s as if we can step into the spaces presented in the photographs by being immediately present to their subject.

The physically present photo booth adds an interactive element to the exhibit. The visitor is invited to play the role of voyeur and exhibitionist by stepping into the photo booth and having their picture taken in four poses.

Visitors are confronted with their own image staring back at them in their photos. Through this gesture, Gratton presents a manifestation of the superficial identities created through digital technologies. The dual role of the visitor through this interactive element provides an interesting comment on people’s desire in this digital age to be seen coupled with the excessive creation and recreation of their desired identities on the Internet. We are led to recognize an ambiguity between the public and private spheres.

In a final twist of conceptual ingenuity, Gratton has visitors place their portraits on the wall, transforming their initial acts of exhibitionism into an aesthetic element of the exhibit. Individuals are mashed into one collective identity on the wall of the exhibit through the unifying force of technological, contemporary culture.

David Holden’s exhibit and Jean Francois Gratton’s “Photomaton” show until November 22 at Galerie SAS at 372 Ste. Catherine O. space 416.