The Art of Alchemy: Marc Garneau – Autour d’objets 1986/2019
September 28 - October 19, 2019
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, November 2019
Marc Garneau (not to be confused with the Canadian astronaut of the same name, although both aspire to higher space) is one of the most important painters that Quebec has produced after the respective reigns of Quebec’s Les Automatistes and Les Plasticiens. This exhibition at his gallery marked the welcome return of the artist to the fray.
In a selection of works spanning more than three decades of his career, Garneau demonstrates his range, experimentalism -- and the sheer nomadic semiotics of presence. Using collage elements, he painstakingly constructs paintings that enjoy considerable self-presence and shifting hierarchies of signs. His expansive toolkit includes cannibalized fragments of previously discarded paintings, torn up paper, machines parts and other industrial salvage, burnt wood that he incises and otherwise marks, and other found objects.
In the early 1980s, Garneau sought to dovetail figurative and abstract in his work. He was influenced in equal measure by both Borduas’s Automatiste movement and American Abstract Expressionism. Montreal-based Garneau spent his youth in Thetford Mines, Quebec (one of the largest asbestos producing regions in the world and the source of many locally-sourced minerals) and this would subsequently inflect and influence his work. A subterranean alembic, his studio betrays an unusual sensitivity to both the inorganic elements of the mineral and the organic gestures of the making.
Garneau is a classic hoarder – but in a good way! He collects and collates all manner of objects and materials with an eye to integrating them in future works. They are fodder for constituting the surface and support of any prospective work. How and why the painter employs this salvaged source material can be readily inferred from the work itself which celebrates a profound multiplicity of marks and materials. He has said: “All of this is the most intimate aspect of my art, a way of seeing the world as a transference of perpetual meaning. These objects that I find or find me: traveling objects, surviving objects, welcomed objects.”
An able alchemist, then, Garneau’s process of scavenging, salvaging and seamlessly unifying has always been shrouded in secrecy. However, in this show he drops his reserve a little, as we can see through perusing the works that he scavenges materials for and constructs hands-on in his studio. He frequently has recourse to the tools of the carpenter and metalworker alongside the paintbrush. He uses chisels on the wood to carve, gouge, and incise it with as much dexterity as he summons up with a paintbrush. He has also burned wood to lend it the gravitas and authenticity he seeks. In the past, he has strewn pieces of torn up canvas on his studio floor (a process that he notably shared with John Heward, the distinguished Montreal-based abstract painter who died recently). It should be pointed out that even more than their use in a given work, it is the ideas that emanate from objects found in situ on the studio floor that continue to reshape and invigorate his body of work.
Garneau’s palette has always been hooded, or subdued, reflecting the artist’s interest in the mineral kingdom, and not necessarily in the shiniest order, gold and silver notwithstanding. Without using lead, arsenic or antimony, he still distils colours that capture the optic in their enveloping shroud. Indeed, he has a way with achieving his chroma that was undreamt of by the Florentine craftsman Cennino Cennini (b. 1390).
In Symptome II (1986), the dark shape reads as a silhouette of a human head and the white line in Ogival (1986) also reads as an abstracted outline of a head – or a lasso that is used to corral everything in a state of tension within the plane. These are early examples of his assemblage- mindedness and constructive zeal. However, the former is a quintessential work and prophetic in its mien.
Arcane (1995), an altarpiece-like triptych, has enigmatic, biomorphic and sinister overtones. Shadowy black organic shapes seem to inhabit the triadic plane like entities arriving from the dark side of our existence. In Osmose (2013-14), another triptych formation, the shapes suggest organic decay as they emerge from the nightside with a full measure of soft-edged stealth and spectral gravity.
Garneau’s casual authority in transforming and bending nature to his will has always been his hallmark. In the works here, it has obviously been honed and sustained over long years with no lessening of the high level of formal invention that set his work apart from the outset. A maverick and a visionary by any other name, Garneau’s personal creative lexicon is his and his alone.
In a monograph published by Galerie Madeleine Lacerte in 1989, Au-dela du nommable: Reflexions sur les tableaux de Marc Garneau, I argued that the artist's work had already reached full maturity in the years 1985 to 1990. In the thirty years since, as we can clearly see from the selection exhibited here, he has gone from strength to strength without resorting to the formulaic or staid.
He says: “I work by contradiction. Always. What I think is one thing, and what I do is a continuation of the thought, not its application. I try to provoke something unexpected. That’s what gives me the energy to surprise myself.” No surprise to acknowledge that he is still surprising us, as well. 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.