Whitehot Magazine

Pandemonium Raga: Guy Boutin’s Orchestral Tagging

Guy Boutin, Sky Boz, (1995) acrylic on wood (36'' x 40'')

Guy Boutin

Galerie Robert Poulin, Montreal


By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, January 2020

Guy Boutin’s fraught, figural and phantasmatic extravaganzas are mesmerizingly spot-on. His immediately recognizable broad-stroked compositions with their taches and liberal daubings embroider a feverish cosmos in which his fellow painters, other chthonic entities and malevolent strangers all run amok. If his compositions make a perfect argument for unfettered anarchy, there is a deep, obsessive patterning, a cohesive weaving, in them, like one of those Afghanistani war rugs in which grenades, rocket launchers and machine guns hide in plain sight.

It is never very long before we grow sensitive to the fact that that both foreground and background are held in a radical state of dynamic equilibrium. Boutin may be an ardent cobbler, but he is also brilliant at the joinery, and his compositions with their resonant signage seem cut from whole cloth.

For over thirty years the artist has focused on drawings as a sort of unpacked heraldry in which the human face predominates. His method of working is to work a brush with acrylic paint directly and spontaneously onto the paper support. The size of his work spans microcosm and macrocosm. He is comfortable working on a miniscule scale but also on a mural-sized one. 

Boutin slips into and under his surfaces with chameleon grace and alacrity, orienting himself within them like a long distance swimmer. They possess an intensely visual spontaneity that seduces the eye. Indeed, his varied works are visual documents of all the intense and even kinetic interior energy that went into their production, and the hectic, hallucinatory states of mind that inspired them.

Guy Boutin, Crack Boom Hue, (2005) acrylic on paper (40'' x 30'')

He works his surfaces with enormous vigour, but never recklessness, and spontaneity is key. It would have to be, given that his full immersion in the pictorial space is a given from the get go. Boutin activates his surfaces with the application of daubs of pure colour and by working right the way through his nerve endings. If his work has a hugely expressive edge and visual shock appeal, it is because he works off the edge of sensation itself, often teetering on the proverbial brink but never succumbing to the temptation to fall over that edge into fragmentation and outright squalor. 

In works like 125 (acrylic on board 142 x 108 cms, 1993) with its popping, red-veined cylindrical eyeballs and 148 (acrylic on board, 149 x 105 cms, 1993) with its fearsome anthropomorph and Noriko, a chromatically vivacious portrait of a woman’s head (acrylic on board, 83 x80 cms.), Boutin canvases the human and nonhuman alike with an immediacy that is almost visceral, and evokes a strange hybrid of Southern Outsider artist Mose Tolliver and Dutch Canadian savant Harold Klunder. Like Tolliver, Boutin sacrilizes the human figure, and often pushes his faces towards the threshold of abstraction as Klunder does.

Graphic abandon and fluidity in the handling of his pigment is the artist’s strong suit, and can evoke menace and fury and profane joy, in which, say, a toothsome Pac-man-like entity with a lurid green x on its forehead is posed above a larger black x. It seems like a strange annunciation of the apocalypse, a figural glyph for the Biblical End Times.

Boutin’s signature and incessant figural tagging seems incompossible with his melodic structuring of the surface plane. But this is not the case. The pandemonium in his work is not pure hurly burly but a real and mensurable carnal gestalt.  It has the appearance of anarchy but we have no doubt the artist is in replete control of the agenda. His work never descends, then, into automatic writing or lawless surreality but stands apart, whether above or below.

His tagging is orchestral in the sense that it is seems directed by an instrumental ensemble rather than one hand. In other words, it is driven by everything at the artist’s disposal, and fully informs every work he executes. The tagging is a sort of thorough seeding, a species of second sight.

Guy Boutin, Ma gang de tabarnak, (1993) acrylic on cardboard (43'' x 38'')

There is a fervent demonology in Boutin’s art that has an oneiric, vibratory quality felt in every single line. His faces often remind us of that of Regan MacNeil, the Pazuzu-possessed 12-year-old protagonist of Bill Friedkin’s cinematic masterpiece of supernatural horror, The Exorcist (1973). I have mentioned Harold Klunder, but in the artist’s portraits of feverish couplings there is also something that reminds us strongly of the work of the criminally insane and Cobra avatar Karel Appel.

For Boutin, painting is basically a mirror drawn taut over his own image but magnified in visions of pure excess. Hence, the refrain of an autobiographical consciousness that runs   throughout his corpus like a silken thread also connects, Ariadne-like, with atavistic upsurges from the unconscious. Heedless of all orthodoxies and false dichotomies, he embraces grunge as the best way to keep his finger on the present tense of the culture – and his hands dirty. If he gravitates toward cheap or found materials, such as used cardboard or the city’s bare walls, it is out of respect for the wayward and the abject and the marginalised; for him, these raw elements make the worthiest of surfaces to put paint to.

Critics have often associated Boutin with the universe of the 1980s. Like the makers of the Stranger Things TV series, he finds that vibe liberating rather than limiting. He is a child of those times, after all. But it is important to point out there is no self-serving nostalgia in his work. His birth in the alembic of the Montreal underground scene make him sensitive to the ethics of the raw and the uncooked and his gestures distilled a private want and public gravitas that are strikingly contemporary. 

Better to say that he is a true child of the inner city, sensitive to both its beats and beatitudes, often found in the gutter trap rather in any glitzy high-art boutique. Comics and graffiti nurtured him from an early point, and kindled in him a pictorial language that was more akin to tagging than to drawing per se, with the rhythmic snaking coloured lines and forms and chromatic splatter that are still redolent of his work today.

While several artistic influences can be identified in his work, especially in terms of colour and composition, we find that James Brown (born 1951), an American-born painter now active in Paris and Oaxaca (Mexico), is a kindred spirit and fellow traveller like Moses Tolliver, Klunder and Appel.

He emerged in the 1980s with rough hewn and painterly semi-figurative paintings that demonstrate affinities to Jean-Michel Basquiat and East Village painting. His influences were many and they ran the gamut from tribal art to Western modernism, middle and late.

Brown’s hectic pursuit of truth reached an epitome in “The Realm of Chaos and Light (Part 2)”, works of a certain felt intensity and gravitas closely in league with Boutin’s own artistic tendencies and trajectory. Also, like Brown, Boutin’s work is rigorously conceived and labor-intensive in its mien. His iconography is almost tribal and childlike in its simplicity and a sense of totemic iconicity always abides. This internal energy is a guarantor against stylistic sameness and vitrefaction.

He manages taches with rare abandon, and lays down a ground fraught with high chromatic incidents daubed on board or canvas. This hectic flurry of annotational markers are almost ephemeral in tenor but carefully woven into patterns that unite the original plane through interconnections with neighbouring marks, all of which accrete the coming surface and propel it towards completion.

Other influences we can cite here include Asian pop art, Japanese comics, German Expressionism, Joan Miro, Keith Haring, Luciano Castelli, the Di Rosa brothers, François Boisrond, André Butzer and Jonathan Meese. 

Guy Boutin, Buzz, (2005) acrylic on wood (20'' x 14'')

Boutin’s staggered tags accrete a sort of pandemonium raga. They may seem mutually opposed: the maniacal tagging and the melodious raga. A raga built out of so many skin tags? Improbable. Yet his tagged surfaces have a primal, holistic aura, wherein everything fits together seamlessly -- and with inordinate precision at the level of the work’s micro- structures. Everything tagged inheres and abides.

Boutin was born in Montreal, where he currently lives and works. Initially drawn to the world of comic books, as noted earlier, he made art as an independent and self-taught painter. He studied visual arts at UQAM between 1985 and 1990 and also discovered tagging and graffiti.

Boutin, like fellow Outsider Henriette Valium, was part of the alternative comics scene in the 1990s, and published the zine WAHCOMIX, which became something of a legend both locally and abroad. He also contributed to the zine Steak Haché, for which he received the prestigious Langue de Feu prize. He executed images for bands such as Overbass, Les Chiens, and morceaux_de_machine. He has frequently collaborated with poet Denis Vanier, and contributed to two literary publications edited by Jonathan Lamy.

Boutin’s hectic narratives engulf us effortlessly. They hold us in their sway. In fact, they swallow us whole and regurgitate us at will. Congenitally allergic to decoration for its own sake, this artist excavates from within the myriad sedimented layers of his own autobiographical consciousness a full array of luminous and wayward markers.

At base, this artist is a born storyteller, and his hatchling narratives offer endless divertissement to both seasoned fans and the   uninitiated. He gives voice to the uncertainty, trauma and the mysterium tremendum in terms of his own experience, and renders them universal and accessible. He is a genius at connecting all the dots, and they reach from the surface of his magniloquent constructions straight across to the heart of the observer. We are the tail end of his Ouroboros, if you will, the world serpent that consumes us whole.

Boutin’s invocation of the dragon of the alchemists is interesting, suggesting he is no stranger to the nature of the individuation process, expressed in the symbol of the Ouroboros eating its own tail. It is worth noting that the Ouroboros connotes infinity or wholeness. 

In the Ouroboros symbol resides one of the hidden truths of art: that it hinges upon the idea of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process. Certainly, the alchemists understood intuitively that the prima materia of the art was man himself. The Ouroboros is a consequential symbol for the conjunction and union of opposites, i.e. integration of the shadow self.

This 'feed-back'-like looped process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that it both immolates itself and brings itself back to life at one and the same time. It auto- fertilizes itself and gives birth to itself. Just like an artist in the midst of creation: the work of art is the worthiest homunculus. It symbolizes the One who is engendered in the meeting and union of opposites, and therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia made flesh that unquestionably stems from the heart of the   unconscious. [3]

The Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann develops it as a representation of the pre-ego "dawn state", depicting the undifferentiated matrix infancy experience of both humankind and the individual child. [4]

The German organic chemist August Kekulé's proposal for the structure of benzene (1872) is also strangely resonant here. Kekulé wrote of the eureka moment when he visualised the structure of benzene, after he experienced a schematic visitation of the Ouroboros. The taches in a Boutin drawing or painting are like the atoms circulating before his eyes, tortuously twining and twisting in anaconda-like motion. He said: “But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes.” [5]

The persona of the artist is ineluctably present as content and his subjects beholden to his own traumas, terrors and tacit intrapsychic palpitations. He narrates foundational stories as old as the world and as contemporary a today’s newspaper headlines. The mix is exhilarating, disconcerting, and even profane. This concerted, orchestral approach – to only connect, as the poet said -- produces taut, engaging and even riveting tableaus that secure empathy and excitation.

From the earliest beginnings of his demarche, Boutin’s commitment to drawing has been at fever’s pitch: explicit and sustained. It has also been very influential in the many graphic high or low extravaganzas of Quebecois visual culture. His staccato scattering of marks forms a lexicon unto itself, and one difficult to imitate. But it has proven a magnet for emulation. He wastes not a single mark. Everything, including what seems random or arbitrary upon first inspection, is painstakingly embedded in the most fluid of amorphous morasses.

Every mark, every stain or squiggle has its preordained place.  The overwhelming sense of spontaneity in no way obviates or overreaches the limits of control or the remarkably improvisational, fluid semblance of his mark-making. Boutin himself enjoys an almost mythical presence in the inner circles of the art world, where he is recognised as one wild ghost rider around the inside rim of the world well. WM 


1. Graffiti TAGS by Blue Horn, see https://www.tes.com/lessons/ZBWmnvRt9V4pUQ/graffiti-tags

2.  See Raga definition at https://indmusic1.blogspot.com/p/raga.html

3. Carl Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 14 para. 513

4. Neumann, Erich. (1995). The Origins and History of Consciousness. Bollington series XLII: Princeton University Press. Originally published in German in 1949.

5. Read, John (1957). From Alchemy to Chemistry. pp. 179–180


James D. Campbell

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.

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