All the world’s a stage: de Montmollin’s Dreams, Delusions, and Other Traffic Circles

Gabrielle de Montmollin’s work exists on multiple levels of interpretation and appreciation. When I encountered the art she had in the latest incarnation of the Grimsby Public Art Gallery’s Biannual Exhibition, I laughed out loud. Another piece, in this series (Lizard Legs Mash-up) that I saw in the gallery / studio / living space in Welland (AIH Studios) she keeps with artist Tony Calzetta, was all sexydirtysilly, on first impression. But – as with Gold Bowl, Black Boots and Miss Pink and the Giraffes (from the GPAG show) – when I carried the images away in my mind and considered them later, they all became more disturbing, eerie and unsettling. All the works in the series Dreams, Delusions, and Other Traffic Circles are colourful and attractive, and although Montmollin is a prolific artist whose extensive history of images (exploring both aesthetic and politic concerns) can be seen at her site, this is the [doll’s] body of work that has garnered my attention, here.

Her words: “Dreams, Delusions, and Other Traffic Circles is a series of contemporary surrealist still lifes…[perhaps] more surrealist than they are still lifes. The photographs…are narratives of objects in ambiguous relationships, weird juxtapositions and disconcerting non sequiturs. The ‘wallpaper’ is the element that runs throughout. [It indicates] that everything happens on a set, it is theatre….There is no obvious or hidden relationship between the players on the set and the wallpaper. Max Ernst defined the structure of the surrealist painting as “A linking of two realities that by all appearances have nothing to link them, in a setting that by all appearances does not fit them.” I am not a painter but this is a good description of my photographs.”

This irreverence, this dramatic (perhaps of the theatre of the absurd) staging of scenes by Montmollin is an excellent repository for the viewer to construct stories, or invest their own experience. Tomato Wedding, for example, was the inspiration for an entertaining conversation between the artist, myself, and several others when the three person exhibition Now Here was on display in Welland. The wedding couple dolls face a surfeit of tomatoes (as someone who grew up half Italian, and have found that heritage – in a real sense, in an artificial sense – can be like being cornered by a bunch of tomatoes, like muggers in an alley, like a swarm of hegemony, this piece is (again) superficially funny but scratch that glossy veneer and its more disconcerting). Or maybe I was reminded of all the cherry tomatoes I’ve been picking these past few years, more for my parents than I.

Clementine Coven, with its tiny delicate high heels, or Ménage à trois, which is not what you’re thinking, at all (even through there’s a duck in this tableaux and I was thinking of Leda and Zeus. If that piques your interest, you can visit the AIH Studios in Welland, to see that to which I allude, for yourself).

At their feet has an amusing ‘pop your heads off your dolls’ referent, but knowing Montmollin’s work and having spoken to her on numerous occasions, about her art, my writing, and the larger art / social worlds we exist within (or against), I get a bit of Judith and Holofernes here, or maybe a bit of Salome and the Head of John the Baptist. In considering the repetition of the wallpaper, the scenes being “staged” in the same “space”, there’s not just a theatrical context to consider, but perhaps also how different ‘classics’ can be remounted in different ways (I think of a version of King Lear I saw staged as a British military drama, replete with uniforms, or how I’ve played Puck in a contemporary restaging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Titania, Hippolyta and Helena were all (simply fabulous, ahem) drag queens). We reinterpret stories to keep them alive, or to make them real, to ourselves and others.

There’s a sensibility here reminiscent of Barbara Gowdy‘s writings, especially the short stories in We So Seldom Look on Love: deathly (murderously, in at least one story) serious but also (in)appropriately ribald. Sadman, Muscleman and Flamenco à trois suggest horror, inanity and rom – com farce (with nudity, so perhaps more R than PG13, and that young fellow in the foreground does look like a very young Peter Sellers), respectively. Blessing of the zebras is frantically joyous, although you may find it takes a bit of effort to find the “blesser”, amidst the harem of zebras (that is the proper name for a group of said animals…which, considering Jesus’ relationship to supposed “fallen” women, illustrates the intersecting ideas at play in Montmollin’s Dreams, Delusions, and Other Traffic Circles. To return to a piece I mentioned at the beginning of this article: Lizard Legs Mash-up has a bawdy, perhaps Rabelaisian, quality. Perhaps its a fittingly twisted take on ‘Reptilian Theory’, popularized by that wingnut David Icke. Research at your own risk, ahem, and no offence to Montmollin by that association). Gabrielle’s words: “..my art is based on imagination; I am interested in telling stories, play and mystery.” As well, “[besides] personal imaginings she works to find visual expression for her feelings about social justice issues and politics.”

Her career / practice is extensive and I offer you here only the most recent glimpse of what she’s done: she “began her career in television and film before switching her interest to still photography. For many years she worked exclusively with black and white film photographing throwaway plastic toys and dolls arranged in constructed, fantasy settings. She developed darkroom manipulations using extreme bleaching and painting and drawing on paper negatives. Since realizing that digital photography did not provide her with the same creative possibilities she has been working with mixed media blending painting, drawing and montage elements with digital prints.” She’s exhibited in many solo and group exhibitions in Canada, the United States, Belgium, Italy, France and The Netherlands. The website for AIH Studios (also known as Art is Hell Studios) offers many examples of past works, and I encourage you to visit it, as well as their gallery space, in Welland.

About Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, Galleries West, FUSE, Hamilton Arts & Letters, BlackFlash, ArtSeen, ti<, Long Exposure and Magenta. Past curatorial projects include REGION (Contemporary Saskatchewan Painting) and Personal Geographies (an overview of The Photographers Gallery collection). Gazzola was Editorial Chair of BlackFlash Magazine (3 years), and was the visual arts critic for Planet S Magazine. He held the latter role for more than a decade, publishing reviews about Saskatoon visual arts and the larger community twice monthly. He's a frequent contributor to The SoundSTC and is the facilitator of the 5 x 2 Image Makers Conversations, through Rodman Hall Art Centre.
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