By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, July 2018
“The face [is] a source from which all meaning appears.”
-- Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity 
The faces loom out at you as though from the depths of a fever dream of Otherness. They loom out -- but they look inwards. We are their imperfect mirrors. Like the heads of the Fang byeri, they seem to resonate with an almost palpable interiority. It is said that the Fang reliquary figures of the Gabonese shamanic carvers look out and over your shoulders, as though seeing into another world. Similarly, these clairvoyant visages speak to a spirit world quite beyond our ken.
Montreal artist Anick Langelier’s paintings are works of phantasmatic introspection. If the faces she depicts seem to dilate on the inner seams of fractured selfhood, they nevertheless catch and hold us in a firm, unrelenting empathic embrace. And we cannot look away. There is something truly harrowing in their regard. Even when anonymous faces in the crowd are presented proximate to instantly recognizable ones – Einstein, Poe, van Gogh – they come at us like racing thoughts, flash cards, surreal semaphores that lodge in our minds like agile fishhooks. They stake a real claim upon us. The unavoidable nature and the strength of that claim say much about the specific genius of this gifted artist.
The frisson that Langelier’s work induces in the viewer stems, I think, from many things but perhaps most importantly, the phenomenology of the human face. Specifically, Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas’s “face-to-face” encounter with the other person. He argues that the human face "orders and ordains" us. Langelier’s hunger for alterity is radiant and the implicit poetry of her figuration is clear. She wants to connect with a social world but her work always already acknowledges the fact that “The face scrambles every category” . Levinas claims that one may always be caught off guard and unsettled by an encounter with a face whether real or metaphorical. The faces that populate Langelier’s surreal pluralistic worlds, like some we encounter in real life, perennially confound us by virtue of their singularity, multiplicity and strange beauty.
Even when her work is most abstract it is as though faces are struggling to hatch through the thick coat surface via the sinuosity of her line; the work has an “in your face” quality that uproots certainty and instills doubt. The faces often appear in unholy congregations. They gather like fireflies in dancehalls that put the Red Room in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return to shame. You can viscerally feel the flames that singe and engulf her faces and figures in sheer Dantean excess. Over against this inferno, but not far off, are all the tortures of the martyred Christ, nailed to the Cross, painted in extremis. The wealth of religious imagery in her paintings suggests the intensity of a Catholic upbringing. It crops up again and again – but with no promising rumours of Redemption.
Langelier ‘s use of the face that suffers and observes echoes that of Levinas in the way she upsets our preconceptions of “portraiture” even while questioning the verities of our assumptions and expectations about the human face in the world of ordinary life. According to Levinas, the face represents a radical break with other givens in the world, breaching the wall that divides self and Other and the “illuminative horizon” of subjective perception.  Langelier’s heads often wear a corona of Outer Darkness rather than one of comforting sweetness and light. Their tarnished haloes import question marks and offer no easy answers. They are chthonic enunciations of an Unconscious in overdrive.
“The face resists possession, resists my powers,” Levinas writes, and this is true of its status in Langelier’s figuration as well.  Yet Langelier’s faces are themselves possessed -- and often by powers of darkness. They refuse to be tidily contained, easily comprehended or explained away. They enjoy the status of lure and goad, horizon and ground. The face here is the face of the unfathomable Abyss. Langelier brings us to the edge and we peer in. And it stares back at us.
In her earliest portraits, embellished with finger painting, her signature -- and singular -- elongation of the human face is at once surreal but strangely familiar, perhaps representing a portrait of our own most secret fears. The inward-peering eyes, the trembling and distorted raised hands, and the hallucinatory palette open a window on alterity, selfhood and their several deformations.
Anick’s painting regimen began in earnest and out of dire inner necessity at the age of 16. It was a survival move in her fight against schizophrenia and remains her first, best destiny. Her pantheon of angels, demons, historical figures, chimeras and changelings, wells up from somewhere deep within her, and achieves self-presence on the canvas ground.
Arthur Villeneuve has been cited as a worthy Quebecois precedent for Langelier’s project, but geographic considerations notwithstanding, it is Aloïse Corbaz (b. Lausanne, Switzerland in 1886) who is her true antecedent. She, like Langelier, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Her work frequently depicts beautiful women and she flagrantly employed vivacious colours across every millimetre of paper. Her deep drive to make marks and vanquish emptiness reminds us of Langelier’s coagulated fields. Another artist who is a telling precedent for Langelier is Janet Sobel (b. Ukraine in 1893) whose work was once described by Sidney Janis as “filled with unconscious surrealist phantasy”. 
Cleary, Langelier is a creative visionary whose work invokes the fragility of the finite and the problem of the other face. Her compulsion to paint is synonymous not only with her innate desire to survive but to reach for transcendence even while she embraces the untidy facts of human finitude. WM
1. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Duquesne University Press, 1969), p. 297
2. See Megan Craig, Levinas and James (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010), p. 45.
3. See Drew M. Dalton, “Phenomenology and the Infinite: Levinas, Husserl, and the Fragility of the Finite in Levinas Studies Volume 9, 2014, pp. 23-51.
4. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, p. 197.
5. See Sandra Zalman, “Janet Sobel: Primitive Modern and the Origins of Abstract Expressionism” inWoman’s Art Journal, Fall/Winter 2015.
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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.