Whitehot Magazine

The Masks We All Must Wear: Some Notes on Luc Giard’s Transgressive Portraiture

Luc Giard 'Le diable et la lune' (2014) mixed media on paper (30'' x 34'')

Galerie Robert Poulin (Montreal)


“Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.

Stranger: Indeed?

Cassilda: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.

Stranger: I wear no mask.

Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!”

-- The King in Yellow, Act I, Scene 2.” [1] 

“Pain involves the violation or transgression of the border between inside and outside, and it is through this transgression that I feel the border in the first place.”

-- Sara Ahmed, “The Cultural Politics of Emotion” [2]

Luc Giard is a maverick portrait painter who is also one of Canada’s most notable underground comic book artists. In his hugely unorthodox portraiture, whether channelling the eloquent ghosts of Andrei Jawlensky or Frida Kahlo, Giard offers us startling glimpses into strange and exotic personae with almost Expressionistic flair, as well as a bracing measure of demonic fervour and finesse.

Giard’s portraits are unusually bold and intense. They are acutely confrontational and demonstrate a telling impatience with the constraints of representation. They are exclamatory eruptions of figural exotica. They seem quite restless and even nomadic in spirit-- ready to escape the constraints of the frame at a moment’s notice.

This artist thinks consequentially outside the box. His portraits burn with unsuppressed fury, with feverish intensity. We can sense the feral nature of Giard’s relationship with the support. The marking reaches deep black often, and we can feel the sheer force of the propulsion of the paint applied across the surface as dictated by the casual authority of the artist’s hand. Giard is articulating explosive emotional content usually kept under tight lockdown. 

Think of the aggressive demon in his Le Diable et la lune (2014). Here, the horned demon superimposed over or entrenched in a map of the former Soviet Union and other terrestrial locales is hungrily eyeing its offshore lunar tache like a tasty bonbon. The fast staccato marking is eminently suitable for the subject being painted. And yet this is more a figural abstract than a portrait per se. More recognizable figures demonstrate a daunting technical skill, and advertise the artist’s avatars, as he goes in for the kill of emotional seizure and catharsis. Masks overlay other masks, and this dimensional layering adds literal ‘flesh’ to the proceedings. 

This is the case with one of Giard’s acknowledged masterworks, his Portrait of Alberto Giacometti (1992), which is felt  counterpoint to the demonic faces. The sheer reflective mien and inward-turning expression of the famous sculptor graced the cover of Drawn and Quarterly magazine in 1992. 

Giard’s portrait of Giacometti’s mask-like face summons up the interior powers and hidden reflective depths of the artist, and has a sense of stratification in the multiplicity of pencil renderings, dense sheets of marks yielding a sense of a palimpsest slowly building up the ruminative with real distension into the present tense of seeing.

A Giard portrait is both intimate in scale and transgressive and specular in treatment and effect. The closest contemporary artist we can cite is Marlene Dumas who created, for the 1995 Venice Biennial, a series of eight works entitled Magdalene for the Dutch Pavilion. The figures in this series take as their subject the biblical character of Mary Magdalene, and are thoroughly transgressive in intention, making and mien.

Luc Giard 'Homage to Motherwell IV' (2015) mixed media on cardboard (14'' x 11'')

There is no question that Dumas’s Mary Magdalenes transgress stereotypical representations through the paint and beyond the paint. She, like Giard, is a genuine shape-shifter of a painting maven and freely distorts aspects of naturalism to further her critique. Dumas torques Naturalistic tropes and hypercathects them, so that they are true changelings and not mute, vitrified cyphers of the Real.

Dumas has said: “Art is not a mirror. Art is a translation of that which you do not know, but of what you want to convince others or rather, that which no one knows...” Presumably, Giard would agree. He himself is one agile shit disturber of an artist. Therefore, art itself is more conceptual anamorphosis than exacting reproduction of the contents of nature’s cornucopia. Truth here lies in the distortion, not in the orderly presentation of observed facts.

At every level in her work, Dumas transgresses both the inhering codes and conventional modes of representation through dovetailed elements of composition, format, size, colour, and painterly methods. Similarly, Giard actively fights against taxonomy, and his work defies all staid norms and existing stereotypes as he upends conventional verities of portraiture. His portraiture empties out any and all ideals that have been seen to constitute the so-called ‘good portrait’ through transgression. 

Or consider Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s ongoing series of Heads. [2] This is a photographic artist who actively transgresses portraiture by collapsing boundaries and inverting and suborning codes of representation. He shows us, as Giard does, that the arresting portrait always has some strain of transgression that innoculates it against the spectre of sameness and dead-end meaning.

Clearly, Giard has harnessed Surrealism’s anarchic force. But if he has an historic fellow traveller, it is probably the aforementioned expressionist painter Andrei Jawlensky (13 March 1864 – 15 March 1941) active in Germany early in the 20th century. [3] Consider works like the latter’s “Self-Portrait With Top Hat” (1904) with its cascade of lime-green dashes imported from a van Gogh absinthe dream and “Dark Blue Turban,” with its bewitching figure in a rose-red dress, and  “Andreas’ Garden — Carantec,” (1905) with its pinkish-orange accents verging on the abstract but never completely segregated from the external world. The extravagant chromatic amplitude in these works reminds us of Giard’s use of chroma as atmospheric spatial marker and activation regime. 

Giard’s violently expressive heads do recall those of Jawlensky and he seems to share his belief that art was a potent means of expressing spirituality. He is a genius at chromatic highlighting in which less is very definitely more, and always pointing towards the hidden content of the noumenal. The numinous is the interior wellspring of his art.

For Giard, the act of painting is the art of acting out, of expressing no--holds barred the raw and brutal complexion of contemporary life, with all its implicit violence and uncertainty. Along with the colours themselves, the linear element – the line drawing and contour defining protocols -- provokes emotion that is almost primal, inchoate, and always deeply lived. Often reminiscent of African tribal masks with simplified features and contours, aggressively self-present, works by Giard and his avatar Jawlensky hearken back to something sacred and primordial. They never slip into sameness, weak pastiche or quotidian ragtag repertoire.

Luc Giard 'Destroy' (2014) mixed media on carboard (14'' x 11'')

Like many of his other works animated with vibrant colours and dynamic brushwork and a strong linear presence, Giard’s works are never static. They are forever in flux. This is also the case with collages that would have impressed none other than Kurt Schwitters himself.

In his brilliant collage work, such as Marco VI (2015), the palimpsest is activated by black gestural brushstrokes that remind one of Franz Kline abstract works on newsprint or Chinese ch’an flung-ink painting. They seem preternaturally animated and anamorphic.

His solitary heads read as latter-day incarnations of Byzantine icons or ex-votos or Pende sickness masks, a sobering melange from somewhere beyond the beyond, transformed by a force of belief as deep, telling and true as the originals drawn upon.

Another point of commonality is the unavoidably art brut aspect of their respective bodies of work. Jawlensky often appropriated elements from folk art and put them to good use inside his own work. Chromatic vivacity in folk art saturates the picture plane and lends it a homogenous frontal surface studded with tasty excrescences. For Giard, as was the case with Jawlensky, art is, at base, magical — the raw essence of the sublime.

A compulsive bricklayer of an artist, Giard constructs his paintings as scaffold-like structures of meaning that might catch his viewers up as unwary participants in constitution, counterpoint -- and anarchistic reinvention. In his collages, he demonstrates an extraordinary sensitivity to the technics of juxtaposition and exigencies of the coming surface.

Luc Giard 'Homage to Hergé' (2014) mixed media on cardboard (14'' x 11'')

It’s important to note that while Giard has built an enviable reputation as a gifted voice in underground comics, he has long been   recognized as a rare sharpshooter of a figurative artist. 

Born in Saint-Hyacinthe in 1956, Giard has been diagnosed as bipolar. His bracing ingestions of lithium only accelerated his kidney failure. For the past several years, he has undergone dialysis three times a week at St Mary’s Hospital in Montreal. He is often haunted in the halls there by the ambulatory ghost of another of his reigning avatars, namely, Frida Kahlo. He has said: "She touches me. I do not know. I launched myself with her photos into a production of portraits of her, as I had done for others.”

From 1974 to 1976, Giard studied studio art at the Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in Montreal. His formative encounters with Father Marcel Lapointe led to his familiarity with wood engraving. In 1976, he entered the studio arts department of Concordia University where he became interested in etching and sculpture in steel, wood and plaster. Giard practiced in different media besides etching and sculpture, drawing, collage, painting and, yes, comics, and gained facility and street cred through a highly personal idiom that resists all of our most erstwhile attempts at taxonomy here.

From 1984, Giard pivoted away from sculpture to enter the world of comics. He created his first character, Tony, and started to garner attention as one of the most able and unconventional cartoonists around. In 1987, he founded the Ticoune editions, with which he published fanzines that followed the adventures of a Tintin Québécois in playful routines. In 1989, he published Tintin and his ti-guy in the editions of the Phylactère.

Since 1989 through today, his work as a comic artist has focused on the character of a bilingual  anti-hero preoccupied with existential questions. His protagonist Ticoune Ze Whiz Tornado has appeared in more than 30 unwholesome adventures to date.

From 1994 to 2004, Giard drew more than 1,000 drawings with a decidedly Asian inflection, influenced by the works of Utagawa Hiroshige. The result is the creation of a new and compelling character, Konoshiko.

Giard was the subject of a major publication by Jean-Marie Apostolides entitled Luc Giard et ses fantomes (Colosse, 2102). Recent books by Giard  include Pont du Havre [The Jacques Cartier Bridge], and Konoshiko Les Impressions Nouvelles in 2012. WM


1. Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow (New York: F. Tennyson Neely, 1895). This seminal collection of supernatural short stories revolves around the play that is the title. This play is cursed: Act 1 draws readers in. Anyone who reads Act 2 will go insane.

2. Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2nd edition (New York: Routledge, 2015

3. In 1999, noted photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia set up camera in Times Square, and took over 4,000 images of pedestrians who walked through his photographic lights. The resulting images of silhouettes with faces reflecting the inexorable shuffling through a crowd of thousands of people are mesmerizing.

4. Timea Andrea Lelik, “To Model or not to Model: Transgressive portraits of Mary Magdalene by Marlene Dumas” in Leiden University, Leiden, the Netherlands Journal of the LUCAS Graduate Conference May, 2015.

5. Jawlensky was a key member of the New Munich Artist's Association (Neue Künstlervereinigung München), Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group and later the Die Blaue Vier (The Blue Fo ur)   

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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