SHE Photographs

SHE Photographs

Montréal Museum of Fine Arts

Montréal, QC

Until February 19, 2017

This welcome exhibition showcases the work of some fine contemporary photographic artists. While regrettably partial in its mien, it is a salutary effort to complement the museum’s current Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective “with varying feminine viewpoints,” as curator Diane Charbonneau says, that meaningfully engage gender, race and sexuality.

The photographers number around 30 and are mostly Canadian, with a few Americans included for good measure, who explore the full gamut of concerns and techniques: the portrait, nudes, still-life, landscape (both interior and exterior). Their work is, for the most part, entirely unafraid and resoundingly experimental. They all demonstrate the “heroism” of vision that Susan Sontag once spoke of. Indeed, each photographer in this show is a heroine of vision.  

There are many good things here. Kiki Smith’s haunting untitled self-portrait (1996), the atmospheric and sublime images of Angela Grauerholz such as Mozart Room (1993), Isabelle Hayeur’s seamlessly constituted Refuge (2002) and the remarkably evocative images of Laura Letinsky (Untitled No. 32 [2001]; Untitled No. 48 [2002]) all stake an unavoidable claim upon us. 

Some other standouts and showstoppers include presiding deity Genevieve Cadieux (concurrently exhibiting powerful new work at Galerie Rene Blouin), whose massive diptychs  (like Ruby, [1993]) are exultant meditations on such relationships as the couple, and open interrogative parentheses on a politics of the family with her usual brio and clarity. The huge scale of these works is integral to their cinematic effect. Their emotional resonance, however, has nothing to do with scale. The works of Cadieux, an unerring poet of intimacy and incisive cartographer of the human condition, is emblematic of the thematic arc of the whole exhibition and her Untitled (Hand), 1997,  is like its heraldic, defiant icon.

Andrea Szilasi’s remarkable Untitled (couple on couch), 2000, articulates an interior state of being that connects all the works in the show like a point of fulcrum. The image comes out of a work she executed for the exhibition Placards à Joliette in 2000, curated by Josée Fafard and Baptiste Grison. (They invited 20 artists to do an installation in a closet in one of the commercial spaces in downtown Joliette. Since her work is concerned with the human body, they gave her the local sex shop.) Szilasi chose context and counterpoint to winning effect: her portrait of an intimate encounter reads like a photographic rebel’s shout of love–a moral paradigm.

Barbara Steinman’s Study for the Installation “Day and Night”  (1989) dilates with acuity on the nature of a shared social reality, while Sarah Anne Johnson’s Nadine (2003), from her series Tree Planting, is a portrait as candid as can be.

Few contemporary photographers’ work has veered closer to the work of Sylvia Plath than that of British-born, Toronto-based artist Janieta Eyre, whose work The Sisters Sophie and Sarah (2001), from her Motherhood series is one of her finest theatrically-staged photographs. Such is the stark, hallucinatory clarity of her visual language that it stops us in our tracks at every juncture.

Nan Goldin’s Joana’s Back in the Doorway at the Châteauneuf-de-Gardagne, Avignon (2000) is an enthralling work by this influential maverick whose “diaristic” work was radical from the get-go, laden with emotional depth, context, and lingering aura. Justine Kurland’s The Pale Serpent (2003), a photo of a nude couple lying in the woods, is a potent expression of sexuality, and the proverbial flip side to the Szilasi image discussed above.   

Raymonde April’s wonderful and far-from picayune invocations of the quotidian (I spent days questioning everything; She came to hate that apartment; There was a strange glint in her eyes; and But who on earth could hurt me? [all works 1979]) tell us why she has lit such a slow-burning fire in the imagination of viewers and influenced so widely the growth and development of photography in Canada. 

While it is obviously impracticable to analyze all the works in the exhibition, it must be noted that strong contributions include those of the artists cited above and many others, including Jacynthe Carrier, Suzy Lake, Sorel Cohen, Spring Hurlbut, Shari Hatt,  Maryse Goudreau, Eliane Excoffier, Julie Moos, Carol Marino, Marnie Weber, Sylvie Readman, Catherine Opie, Holly King, Lorraine Gilbert and Clara Gutsche. The sheer number of Concordia University graduates speaks decisively of that school’s stellar role and continuing importance in incubating some of the best photographic talent in this country.

One obvious caveat here is the fact that while the show offers a “snapshot” of the “scene,” it is still only a  glimpse. The work of some notable Montréal-based photographic artists like Jessica Auer, Marisa Portolese, Lorna Bauer and Jessica Eaton are missing, as well as artists like Jasmine Bakalarz (schooled at Concordia, now based in Buenos Aires), Eve K. Tremblay (formerly of Montréal, and also schooled at Concordia, though now New York-based) and others. While the museum has been actively and laudably building its photography collection since 2000, the present exhibition is comprised mostly of gifts and loans and one hopes that, with time, the lacunae will be addressed, more acquisitions will be made and a more replete portrait will emerge.