Galerie de L’UQAM, Montreal, Canada
Oct. 24 — Dec. 9, 2017
BY JAMES D. CAMPBELL, DEC. 2017
This exhibition of recent acrylics on canvas and works on paper by noted abstractionist Melanie Authier, the fifth stop on her national touring solo tour, is a convincing demonstration of her improvisatory licks, chromatic persona -- and risk-taking persuasion.
While seemingly indebted to the legacy of Modernist Abstraction, these works in fact betray a decidedly contemporary conceptual and improvisatory bent. Authier poses problems for herself that she solves in unexpected ways in flurries of furious painterly feints and parries that drive her paintings to elegant and unlikely conclusions.
The jazz soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy once said: “Risk is at the heart of jazz. Every note we play is a risk.” This is a sentiment that Authier embraces in each and very painting exhibited here. Every brushstroke, every structural manoeuvre, is, for her, a consummate risk. In fact, this painter is a risk-taker sans pareil, and the marvel to behold here is that the risks she takes she meets with brio. They invariably pay off.
This is the case with Altar (triptych, 2014), comprised of three panels of differing scales in largely grisaille tones that show the compositional ambidexterity characteristic of her work, in which the risky decision to collide hard-edged elements resembling panes of shattered glass with amorphous and sensuously wrought gestural areas, is carried off with brio. They invoke close-up images of alien topographies, less Mojave desert-like than aerial views of the moons of Jupiter or a purview of the rings of Saturn.
Authier’s painting licks wear a seemingly effortless contrapuntal halo. Her restless improvisations invigorate Altar as well as paintings like the resplendent Double Dutch (2017) and False Phantom (2015) with its airy palimpsest of painterly marks. The latter with its declarative brushstroke “X” also memorably invokes the work of the great Quebec abstractionist Paul-Emile Borduas.
Authier’s work is deeply process oriented and her episodic abstracts demonstrate a casual authority of the hand that is inbred, rare and telling. The wealth of decisions that she makes in real time as she progressively modifies a painting’s infrastructure and chromatic persona are invariably right on target and the formal beauty that comes from working this task framework explodes on the canvas surface like a cascading cadenza.
Authier sets herself difficult challenges structurally right down to the very microstructures of her paintings and works with counterpoint stratagems (as in music where melodic lines that sound wholly distinctive and even at odds achieve harmony when played simultaneously), to resolve them. Counterpoint is an internal truth of her paintings that invests their peacock-like chromatic inflections with a restless spirit and flux. Their extravagant insides never resolve into complacent stasis but show off an almost tantric vivacity.
She often integrates strange landscape-like vignettes that are seamlessly interwoven in the fabric of her abstract fields and then ignites them chromatically with rare panache much like the improvised cadenza at the end of jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ “Three Little Words”.
It is fitting that this survey of Authier’s recent work is being shown in a research institution like the Université du Québec à Montréal, particularly given this city’s seedbed status in the history and development of abstract painting in Canada and the artist’s own studies in painting here.
A further word about colour in these paintings: Authier’s palette is uniquely her own and has a near-hallucinatory clarity. The luminosity of that palette is noteworthy in both her dark paintings executed in greys and blacks like the aforementioned triptych Altar (2014) and Assembly of Deliriums (quadriptych, 2015), and Revenant (diptych, 2015) or in the subtle chromatic range of her lighter paintings like Beneath the Spin Light (2016) and the haunting yellows that seem to radiate above and beneath the surface in L.A. Flex (2015).
Notably, the darker paintings have all the power to haunt. They are all the proof one needs to see that sweetness and light do not rule her painted world; and that a deeper equilibrium, a dark undertow, unsettling and bracing yet still wholly sensuous in its mien, is also present. Authier also showed a selection of exquisitely rendered recent watercolour and inks on paper that explored related territory.
Like the aforementioned sax master Lacy, Authier can without overstatement be called an improviser's improviser. Radically experimental in tenor and technique and never given to stale or formulaic phraseologies, she reinvents the old standards, breathing vibrant new life into them, making them her own. Refreshing for its refusal to trade on the stale, mimetic vocabulary of an earlier abstraction, her work sets itself apart from the get go. Think of abstraction with fugitive landscape references built-in as a kind of running narrative in which you will lose your bearings as she loosens your moorings to the Real, bringing on cascading epiphanies.
This exhibition, ably and sensitively curated by Robert Enright, shows us why Melanie Authier has vaulted lightning quick to the front ranks of advanced contemporary painters in this country. WM
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.