DRINKERS OF QUINTESSENCES
The Darling Foundry, Montreal Quebec
FEBRUARY 22 - MAY 06, 2018
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, March 2018
This group exhibition fittingly entitled Drinkers of Quintessences, brings together the work of twelve artists who dive headlong into the idea of the void in the visual arts. Without any baroque posturing, these artists attempt to seize upon the notion of emptiness through the material while effortlessly transcending it, and theirs’ is a voice of unilateral critique of both a consumer culture run amok and an art industry in complicity, even as they may be said to rise above it. With lean means, and exemplary eloquence, the questions they pose have startling resonance.
Curated by the visionary founder and iconoclastic director of the Darling, Caroline Andrieux, the exhibition includes the work of twelve artists: Fortner Anderson, Steve Bates, Marie-Claire Blais, Olivia Boudreau, Claude Closky, Marie Cool Fabio Balducci, Alexandre David, Adriana Disman, Kitty Kraus, Stéphane La Rue, Kelly Mark and János Sugár.
The title is drawn from Charles Baudelaire’s “Loss of a Halo,” in which the poet recounts the experience of a civilian who encounters an artist on an urban boulevard.  The artist, praised as “the eater of ambrosia, the drinker of quintessences” has just lost his halo in the gutter. He soon accepts his loss as a godsend, allowing him to blend in with his fellow civilians so that he can realise his basest desires without being recognised. This parable about the morphing status of the artist in modernity is highly resonant in the context of Andrieux’s exhibition. Each of these artists takes a contrarian stance against the mainstream, questioning the irremediable wedding of artist and work, collapsing the iconic status of the artwork into a proverbial black hole, and valorizing the void as a vehicle towards something like transcendence. Their various critiques are trenchant and radiant, and perhaps unavoidable.
Mention should be made of some highlights here. Marie-Claire Blais, a gifted artist whose work encompasses drawing, painting and sculpture, presented Entrevoir le jour horizon7 (2014), a huge length of black burlap meticulously worked over so that the weft threads have been removed, leaving what is, in effect, an hypnotic image of the void as a mental and optical snare. Olivia Boudreau’s Le Mur (2010), a long shot of a bedsheet inexorably moving in the breeze like a subtly exhaled breath, is a phrase of pure duration. Claude Closky’s 1234 (2010), a sound work that slowly captures our attention with its clapping hands morphing into the sound of an inundation of rain, defies our expectations. Marie Cool Fabio Balducci’s video Untitled (2011) documents the simple act of immersing a white length of yarn in water and then removing it and this reads as an enigmatic repetitive act carried out across the surface of the void.
Alexandre David’s massive wooden site-specific platform Untitled (2018) serves no apparent purpose as proscenium stage. It is the ultimate in-situ architecture of the void. Adriana Disman’s two-hour performance Thresholding (2015) is happening April 5th, in which she apparently stood on a stool in the exhibition space for a long period, thus incarnating and confronting on a threshold the void that animates any artist’s workspace before creation begins. Fortner Anderson essayed a poetry recital with long pauses in Points of Departure (2015) and left behind a glazed vitrine full of various publications. Steve Bates’ mesmerising installation Run Out and On to Infinity (2018) juxtaposed video of grooves in a Gustave Dore woodcut with the rotating grooves of an LP on a turntable to exalting lysergic acid effect.
Kitty Kraus’s installation Untitled (2006) with its block of ice, in which a light bulb and a pint of black oil are suspended, slowly melting away, leaving a puddle in its wake that eventually will be only a stain like an X-ray imprint on the Foundry floor, is notably emblematic for all the work in the exhibition as an explicit and louche meditation on the void. Janos Sugar’s Fire in the Museum (2008/18), with its wood stove connected to a former chimney (now reactivated) of the Foundry, offered the prospect of warmth from a fire that will burn continuously for the duration of the exhibition, enabled by the efforts of visitors who must feed its hungry maw, before the inevitable final chapter of ash.
Kelly Mark’s The Kiss (2007) places two CRT monitors face-to-face so as to simulate a kiss, suggesting that the tidal flood of information that inundates us so repletely today takes the proverbial edge off the prospect of any meaningful romantic contact. Finally, the brilliant Montreal-based abstractionist Stephane La Rue offers in Ecarts de conduit (2016), a perceptually complex quadriptych in which white monochromes that enjoy a seeming family resemblance slowly reveal their radically different personae, like Necker cubes spontaneously reversing in the space of our perception, and place us somewhere in jeopardy between surface and support.
The exhibition hearkens back to a now-legendary exhibition also curated by Andrieux called Ultra Vide in 2002. Ultra Vide was the inaugural exhibition of the Darling Foundry. Its sequel Drinkers of Quintessences attempts to radically update the game plan of that earlier exhibition, with the addition of a dimension of criticality. But the intent is the same.
In this respect both this exhibition and its predecessor may take their inspiration from Baudelaire but also work from a thesis notably put forward in the late 1970s by Michael Thompson, whose Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value is perhaps their true inspirational text. 
Thompson’s highly influential treatise launched the whole discipline of waste studies. It still remains the most salient investigation on the culture of waste extant. Thompson asked: How do objects that have little discernible worth achieve value? Who is behind the creation of value? Who values the detritus? The exhibiting artists ask these questions, and go further still, questioning and upending the very status of authorship, the autonomy of the art object and the sanctity of the exhibition venue.
Firmly entrenched now in Montreal art folklore, Ultra Vide ostensibly drew its inspiration from Tao philosophy much as the present exhibition explicitly does from Baudelaire. But a similar alchemy is at stake in the transmutations that take place here, and in the shared artistic ache for transcendence from the object world to something like an absolute.
Kudos are due Caroline Andrieux for the remarkable tenacity, rigor, scope and tenor of her curatorial vision.
The exhibition will travel to Casino Luxembourg – Forum of Contemporary Art in January 2019.
1. Charles Baudelaire, “The Loss of a Halo” in Paris Spleen. Trans. Keith Waldrop. (Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 2009).
2. See Michael Thompson, Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).
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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.