"The Best Art In The World"
“Daniel Erban/Guy Bailey”
Galerie Robert Poulin
February 10-April 30
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, Feb. 2019
Daniel Erban possessed a rare genius for articulating the dark side of the human personality. He invoked the Shadow self wilfully and with real abandon in his visual art, shaking his viewers out of any comforting order of complacency, setting the nerves on edge. He rarely held back, never once compromised his nightmarish, demon-fraught vision. What seems slapdash or at times comical in his work is, in fact, deeply considered. What seems like a specifically feral genus of art brut is rather his impassive take on the stone cold – and, let’s face it, largely -- unpalatable truth about the condition of being in the world.
Erban was an Israel-born, Montreal practising self-taught artist who died at the height of his powers in 2017. He was a long time and highly thought of math teacher by day. At night, he was an artistic Mr. Hyde, whose depicted horrors are our horrors, I mean, the ones that haunt us at the very periphery of dreams and nightmares. His images of pure horror well up from some deep well, inchoate and unsettling, like premonitory dreams of the end of a cycle. His imagery is hugely cathartic. His body of work has a family resemblance to that of Viennese Actionism. That movement was a transgressive and violent movement of the 1960s to develop "performance art" with a singularly destructive ethos. Its principal participants were Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler.
In addition to Actionism, it often seems as though Erban borrowed his guiding premise from analytical psychologist C.G. Jung’s writings on the Shadow aspect of the self. The shadow as Jung construed it is simply the dark side of the human personality understood as present and real.  And what is most dark is decipherable but only indirectly and through projection. I have no doubt that Erban went through interminable self-analysis where he saw his own infernal Shadow in the mirror, as it were, and opened a portal on the Uncanny and the unassimilable as a practising artist. Inside his own work, the dark carnival, the Shadow show, is fully populated with witches and warlocks, serial killers and other human detritus. The black cast shadow manifests there – the feral black graphite line drawn like a noose around the neck of the most wayward images -- as an archetype, too. The devil's images and features abound in this work with loopy intensity. The dark angels of the shadow realm rule the roost here.
Erban was a visionary artist for whom risk taking was bred in the bone. Whatever the imagery required, whatever the consequences might be, Erban acted out of fidelity to his art. That work pays homage to the vision of Maurice Blanchot, the eminent French writer and theorist, who held that:
“The work of art is linked to a risk; it is the affirmation of an extreme experience. But what is this risk? What is the nature of the bond that unites the work to risk? Art—as images, as words, and as rhythms—indicates the menacing proximity of a vague and vacant outside, a neutral existence, nil and limitless; art points to a sordid absence, a suffocating condensation where being ceaselessly perpetuates itself as nothingness.” 
Think of Erban’s nightside as an endeavour fraught with risk. It must have entailed considerable sacrifice on his part of which we know nothing. His is a fully realised, harrowing world in which the deeper, neglected aspects of the personality continually permeate the individual’s conscious intentions and pervert his or her contextual life world. It is almost as though Erban is projecting the Shadow onto his viewers, hence the threatening and visceral tenor of the work, so that we in effect morph into his own monstrous Other.
Erban reminds us that the body understood as carnal embodiment has it own exigencies and its own particularities, after all, and is prone to disease and alteration, always en route towards frailty, the irrefragable, infirmity – and, of course, the event of its own finitude. Those rivulets – that black pooled line -- in his work look blood red even when at their darkest moment of eclipse, reminding us of the words of Hannibal Lector in the film Red Dragon: “Have you ever seen blood in the moonlight, Will? It appears quite black.”
Daniel Erban's work was a call -- and not a plea -- for empathy. It remains morally responsible work in a morally irresponsible and bankrupt world – and one now explicitly on the brink. His bold, graphic depictions of severing, hanging, vomiting, and obliterating brutality are unavoidably understood as the ineluctable condition of being here – of being, that is, in a world -- and his work is never less than Socratically honest.
I am not often a fan of artists who seem to reify their own signatures – and it is largely front and centre here, after all --- but his signature is an exception. It is integral to his work as linear integument or capillary and calls to mind Thomas Ligotti’s famous phrase “We may hide from horror only in the heart of horror.” 
Yes, this is the mantra we hear spoken again and again once inside Erban’s work: “We may hide from horror only in the heart of horror.” If that work seems suffused with violence and dynamism, supernatural horror and the “uncanny,” it is a tribute to his indomitable nature, his refusal to compromise, to stand down. His is truly a portrait of existential darkness.
Also in this two-person show are works by Montreal painter Guy Bailey, a fellow traveller. They segue well with Erban’s demonic figural excesses. A graduate of the Montreal School of Fine Arts in 1967, he exhibited his naive paintings at the Musée du Québec in 1973. Later, in the 1980s, he evacuated his previous style and began painting the raw and visceral works of great expressive power for which is best known.
Bailey is a real scavenger, a journeyman painter who often employs unusual materials, a highly declarative palette and congested field structures in pursuit of something like the truth of an autobiographical consciousness run amok. In his unique pictorial language, he often integrates text elements along with stick figures and sundry expletives. Where there is integration of textual fragments and exclamations in Bailey’s work, they seem native to the deep fabric, and are never perceived as the gratuitous or annoying “add-on” enunciations or afterthoughts they so often can be. This is unusual, as text is a difficult nut to crack for even the best painters.
Bailey’s works are dark fantasias. They are feverishly wrought and are often characterized by a rapid, spontaneous rendering of form, drawing on unconscious sources, with its author’s own autobiographical consciousness as fundament. He seems unconcerned about whether he is painting abstracts or figurative paintings. In this, he enjoys a certain kinship with abex savant De Kooning who was never particularly attentive to the distinction between abstraction and figuration, once remarking, “After a while all kinds of painting become just painting for you—abstract or otherwise.”  Bailey’s gestural feints are accompanied by crudely rendered anatomical elements, often of body parts, schematized faces, phantasmatic exoskeletons and, of course, the ubiquitous genitalia.
The emphatic surface texture in his work is co-given with an abiding impression of speed, immediacy – and stealth. All manner of furtive and wayward signs enter into the fluid mix. These are integral to the tiered textural and imagistic packing. Or better call it a palimpsest at its most anfractuous, sumptuous and true. The free paint handling, even with its sense of immediacy, marries well with the festoons of marking like graffiti images roughly sketched out on concrete walls in the inner city.
Bailey’s is an art without anecdote or embroidery and is very instinctive and inflammatory in its mien. The tribalistic and totemic gestures strewn across his gloriously glutted surfaces read like a higher order of tattooing. Indeed, Bailey owns all the scratches, shouts, and tears that pervade his work and offers them up as a useful translation and summary of louche beingness in the world. WM
1. C. G. Jung, “Aion: Phenomenology of the Self” published in The Portable Jung, edited by Joseph Campbell, Penguin Books, 1976), p. 145.
2. Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).
3. Thomas Ligotti, “The Medusa” in Noctuary (New York: Carroll & Graff, 1994).
4. “Willem the Walloper,” in Time 57 (April 30, 1951), p. 63.
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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.