20 10 2018 to 20 01 2019
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, November, 2018
This retrospective exhibition of artist Françoise Sullivan, Québec’s first multidisciplinary artist, is both succinct and scintillating. I had expected something more capacious, more expansive, but it is a very fine distillation of the artist’s creative lifetime. It reveals a phenomenally restless artist who at 95 years young is still at the height of her powers.
Fifty works, including paintings, sculptures, and a wealth of archival documentation, effortlessly command the walls here. But the exhibition begins and ends with her paintings. And perhaps that it is how it should be. For it demonstrates that painting has always been her first love and perhaps remains her best destiny.
Sullivan’s paintings of the early-to-mid-1940s demonstrate an unusually sophisticated and precocious chromatic expressive vocabulary. I’ve always been partial to them. One such painting Portrait de Madeleine Marois (1943) is compelling in its vibrancy and reminds one of the post-Fauve Matisse while remaining quintessentially her own in handling and tenor. Its profusion of multi-coloured chromatic lozenges on the dress or sweater dovetail with sundry other devices on her apparel and the backdrop space in an unlikely and even beguiling manner.
Sullivan’s enduring reputation as a radical and gifted dancer and choreographer, sculptor and conceptual artist is anchored in a number of artworks and documents exhibited here. But again it is the paintings that rule, and their sumptuous chromaticity seduces the viewer from the proverbial get-go.
Sullivan’s colour is markedly sensuous in presence, as though rubbed in rather than laid on. The surface reads as a sort of frottage more often than not. They do not evaporate as the gaze palpates the overall field, but build up a rich outer epidermal coat that is pollen-like in texture, and alternately friable and indurate. The experience of colour here is slow and langorous. Everything is not given in any one moment or assimilable in one fell swoop. The chroma seems embodied or, better, speaks first to our own embodiment, and it has a carnal, incarnate character that is uniquely this painter’s own.
Sullivan’s paint application seems uniform at first but is actually extremely varied and lively, as though applied in a flurry of daubs at the very microstructures of painting. The most minute feints and parries in the paint redeem the surface from the rigors of conceptualism. This allows for a generosity and suppleness in the perceived surface that one does not get from the roller.
I argued elsewhere that being an accomplished dancer stands her in good stead as a painter who leads with her body. There is a sense of cartographic centeredness and handedness at work here. The paint, the colour, seems infused with corporeal energy. Each painting is like a warm cradle of embodiment, a sanctuary for chromatic karma.
I should point out that Sullivan’s meeting with the painter Paul-Émile Borduas proved consequential not only in her own formation but led to the founding of a group that would have wide reverberations within Quebec society, the Automatiste group. It sought liberation and relief from the repressive political, religious and social climate of Quebec in the 1940s. Sullivan subscribed to Borduas’s own fiercely held belief in subjective freedom above all. Only a no-holds-barred exploration of the unconscious and spontaneity of expression could enable this. Along with Borduas and others, she was a signatory of the famous Refus global manifesto in 1948. (The present exhibition coincides with the 70th anniversary of its publication.) For many young painters, Sullivan remains an avatar of painting’s enduring promise.
As far as her own painting goes, here are a few highlights: In the early1980s, Sullivan embarked on an engrossing cycle of shaped canvases laden with earth hues. They came as a surprise to many and they were inspired by her deep love of Greece and antiquity. These collaged works are built up out of pieces torn apart, painted and reconstituted with the considerable dovetailing skills at her command. It’s worth noting that the circle is a geometric form cherished by Sullivan, as we see in her many tondos executed both within and outside this series. It certainly held promise for her as a vital symbol and celebration of femininity. This was reflected in and a motif for The Cretan Cycle series that came out of her sojourn through Greece in 1983 and 1984. A work like Cycle cretois II, #3 (1984) is a particularly fine example.
Many of us associate Sullivan with her use of drop dead gorgeous reds. Rouge #3, 5, 6, 2 (1997) is one such feast of red hues that seem to palpate with all the rhythmic beatings of a human heart. The aqueous blues of Ocean #16, Ocean#17and Ocean#23 (all 2005) engulf us. As the optic dives into their deep blue seas, it is we who are transformed. And Salonika (2006) and Vert #1 (2007) further demonstrate just how accomplished she is as a painter who frequently engages with monochrome.
At the beginning of the 2000s, Sullivan essayed an extended series of “Homages”. These paintings, dedicated to recently departed friends and family, count amongst her finest: Paterson Ewen, Charles Gagnon, Yves Gaucher and others. They are marked by some of her most exquisite anfractuous brush stroking. The artist refers to them as “almost monochromes” because they are never quite one solid hue.Homage à Paterson (2003), a vast bichromatic field dedicated to the deceased painter Paterson Ewen, her ex-husband and the father of her children, is one of the finest. This huge painting is something of an oceanic epiphany and a fitting punctuation for the exhibition.
It is exhibited alongside two paintings executed specifically for the exhibition, Les Damiers #4 and Les Damiers #5 (2018). It is no exaggeration to my part to suggest this last room has something of the magic of the Hilda af Klint’s Paintings for the Future exhibition on now at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Ably and sensitively curated by the MAC’s senior curator Mark Lanctot (who earlier curated the retrospective exhibition of the plasticien master Claude Tousignant), this exhibition is a moving celebration of the conceptual and painting worlds of one of Quebec’s most luminous creative spirits. 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.