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Reviews: Christian Messier's Symphonie en brun Van Dyck | Louis Bouvier's La conjugaison des pensées complexes at Circa

The works that make up Christian Messier’s Symphonie en brun Van Dyck at Masion de la culture Janine-Sutto first showed at L'Œil de poisson in Québec City earlier in the year. Organized as a series of diptychs, it pairs his paintings with his musical compositions. Using a QR code, visitors can listen to the music paired with each painting on their phones. The paintings in oil and the music on synthesizer are intended to “share a common system that creates a tension between the characteristics that unite them and the properties that make them unique.”

Effectively, what Messier presents is a kind of visual album, both in the sense of a musical album and a loose album of prints. In a way, they can be experienced like this on his website.

The contrast feels a little like what was often displayed in the Italian exploitation films of the 70s, where a lush and haunting score (by Ennio Morricone or Riz Ortolani) was superimposed on scenes of torture, rape, and cannibalism, all usually beautifully filmed using very attractive performers that intensified the general eroticism, whether it was in sexploitation or horror. This sort of visual imagery has been percolating in Messier’s work for years (such as his Les idiots dans la clairière show at Laroche/Joncas). The effect is not dissonance or consonance but a reflexive probing that allows both to shift with the changes of tone. Messier’s complete “album” clocks in around what was standard exploitation film length in their heyday.

There is no clear order in which to view the images so, presumably they stand alone, denying the temptation to interpret them together as a kind of cohesive story. The brushwork softens the earthly forms while celestial details tend to pop more, save the detailing of vegetal life in one painting. This works in contrast to the “de-focused” figures and plays into the cinematic language he often employs (explicitly in La récolte). Figures, crudely rendered in a style of caricature and the grotesque have strangely boneless-looking bodies with masked faces.

The extended looking called for by the musical allotment of time invites the viewer to get close to the image and examine it from different angles. Verticality dominates the compositions, but it does not prevent one’s eyes from often wandering around the room and breaking the possibility of sustained fascination. The rendering of the images as images rather than a concentration on surfacing details also mitigates this and keeps the visual experience subdued where it might have been more effectively intensified.

There is a general sense of stunted animation where the music takes on the role of movement. Does Messier ask for a relation to the painted surface closer to that of a different medium, like sculpture, which would tie it back to his concern with synaesthesia? 

Over at Circa, meanwhile, Louis Bouvier’s sound sculptures integrated the two aspects quite seamlessly. In keeping with so much of the gallery’s general programming, there is an archaeological underpinning to La conjugaison des pensées complexes, something stressed in the accompanying text by Daniel Canty.

The show itself is evenly spaced around the primary room. Almost exclusively floor sculptures with a couple suspended on the wall, they leave plenty of room to move between, no doubt in part to be hospitable to the choreographed performances that accompany the work (Requiem with Virginie Reid and Anne Thériault).

When I attended, there was no performance, but there were several other people in the gallery who were very happy to interact with the sculptures. The works are effectively sculptural theremins, reacting to the physical presence of whoever comes in contact with them. This intimacy arouses various sounds that can be manipulated by altering your body’s relationship to the sculptures. Aural improvisation could range from long drones to hectic sonic cries.

There is a smoothness of the tones that nicely complements the softness of the sculpture’s colouring, their generally curvaceous qualities providing a pleasant visual counterpoint to the probing of the sound waves. Visually, it’s all in keeping with the kind of charming, faux-finished mixture of anachronistic “anthropological” accent details and modish yet playful mid-luxury furnishing style he’s been sticking with for years.

Bouvier’s work is accessible and enjoyable in an obvious and functional way. Messier’s doesn’t quite work most of the time and I’m inclined to think that has a lot to do with the way it has been presented in the space. It would have benefited greatly from greater isolation of the diptychs in something like dark booths, the way video work is shown to its betterment.