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.

AIH Studios in Welland

One of the results of how the GTA’s rental market is out of control is the flight of those who can’t afford the exorbitant extortion of the “market.” This is unpleasant (look at the cities across Canada that have lost large swathes of their innovative citizens due to this) but also has an interesting side effect (perhaps temporarily): the decision by individuals and groups to leave costly spaces means they find new ones and apply their energies there. I saw this when Saskatoon’s rental costs ballooned while wages stagnated (or dropped), and many of the cultural movers / shakers scattered to fairer sites: dwell on the past, lose an eye, forget the past, lose both eyes, as Solzhenitsyn said.

In my conversation with artists Tony Calzetta and Gabrielle de Montmollin about their Art Is Hell Studios (AIH Studios) in Welland, this initial motivation of leaving an unaffordable space in the Danforth areas of Toronto – and one bluntly unhealthy and prohibitive to creativity – was cited. That’s unsurprising, but to come to Welland – a municipality that most of us even in Niagara don’t associate with cultural innovation (though having the cheapest commercial rental spaces in Southern Ontario) – was the basis of AIH Studio. When I visited the combined gallery / studio / living space, the idea of an “art haven” came up; not solely for the spacious studios Calzetta and de Montmollin have, or the front slim gallery space that, with its large window, offers any passerby a tantalizing visual invitation to enter. Frankly, the back area, perfect for a gathering of artists – formal or otherwise – seems worlds away from the front street side, which bears more earmarks of a region trying to negotiate “revitalization,” perhaps hoping to imitate what’s happened in downtown STC.

The AIH Studio used to be the Hope Center in downtown Welland: and they’re not the only ones in the area with studios, who are connecting with the local officials and other invested parties in trying to enliven the area. Malcolm Gear has a wonderful space in Welland (and beautiful works for sale) and also offers classes as diverse as the media he works in (more on his art and ideas here). Michael Bedard and Janny Fraser both have studio spaces in the area, and this might mean that Welland is looking at that positive space when the artists move in and begin to change an area, before it turns into gentrification and displacement. This is a conversation – an argument, a contestation of space – that many cities and municipalities are having: and it’s not just in a sphere of visual culture. A local activist, in response to a conversation about the Garden City Food Co Op, talked about forming a downtown citizens’ council, to ensure voices that don’t equate “citizen” with “consumer” are heard…. But that’s not the case with AIH Studios: my motivation for highlighting this space can be traced back to a visit to Welland last year and walking by it’s front window, and seeing a large piece by Tony Calzetta which brought vibrancy to the street. Seeing more of his work in Grimsby, at the GPAG, and our resultant conversations about place and art – and then seeing the exciting, sometimes visceral and often evocative lens based work of de Montmollin that share some ideas (absurdity, narrative) with Calzetta’s pieces, offering a play between the two artists in the AIH gallery space – pushed the idea of bringing attention to AIH Studios. As of this writing, they’ve been there a year and a half: bluntly, there’s a cynicism and air of defeatism still at play when mentioning Welland, but this doesn’t seem fair, or may just be a hangover, like how STC’s downtown still bears scars of its less than savoury historical baggage. But besides AIH, or Bedard’s space behind the Bank of Nova Scotia, there’s also been the Black Lantern Experience (garnering some coverage in the Tribune for an event they did in the Seaway Mall) that are more experimental and fluid. This is a site that has the history of the Welland Murals, or the Canoe Art Project, too; in that respect, AIH can be seen as another step in challenging that ennui.

But enough local history wrapped in social commentary: visit the space, right now, and you’ll see work by Calzetta and de Montmollin, and formally, they’re contrasting. Calzetta’s works are massive, working with line and colour in a manner that, when he says he sees his work as drawing, not painting, it makes sense. Line and colour are clean tools for his imagery and symbolism (in his youth he was – like many of us – influenced by animation and cartoons). The large nature of his works was a factor in seeking a more amenable studio; his pieces originate as small doodles, small sketches, and though he makes notations about translating them into larger pieces, instinct is a more directing factor. There is a coyness that contradicts the directness of his images: I see pop cultural influences like Bill Sienkiewicz, and Tony commented that Jeet Heer read his works as rife with Holocaust imagery. All of his works are dystopic to me, suggesting that “these fragments / I have shored / against my ruins” (Eliot’s The Waste Land). A touchstone of his development as an artist was his interaction with an exhibition of Philip Guston’s paintings, as a student: it wasn’t so much an instantaneous “lightbulb” moment as a more gradual, permeating one. Essentially that Guston, an abstract expressionist who began to explore more illustrative imagery (notably in his Klan series), demonstrated the universality of symbols, and how easily a viewer can create a story around the works. His use of colour is restrained, and there’s a theatrical quality to his work: like a panel in a graphic novel (here’s where cartooning manifests in his aesthetic, both in execution and in the scene it offers to us, to tell a story around). A work on display evokes Harlan Ellison’s disturbing Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever”: Calzetta slyly offered no definitive “meaning”, and de Montmollin said it reminded her more of a half fruit rendered abstractly. The piece is titled Bob Had A Good Ear For Visual Art; another on display is Burying Bones.

Montmollin’s works are very different: her process has encompassed black and white photography, both analog and digital lens work, often monochromatic but sometimes with tints and tones, and her most recent works are vividly full colour, with seductive vitality. If it seems my descriptor of Calzetta’s work was brief, my look at Montmollin’s wide practice will also be just a tease. Both Calzetta and de Montmollin have sites that are extensive in terms of images and statements. Visit these, as well as the physical space.

Her most striking works include her Crime Scene works and Carnevale at the Hotel of the Bridge of Sighs. The use of dolls and other objects as “actors” give the work a surreal quality and there’s a consideration to the images (as when she was using cut out “masks” to put on top of the dolls she used in various “scenes”, as Barbie is always smiling). Her past processes can appear erratic and instinctual (like Tony’s), as with images with extensive darkroom manipulations, painting and drawing on the photograph / contact print, reusing and repurposing parts of the process and intervening in the midst of it with other materials (we had an interesting conversation about the “remote” nature of some digital work versus the “hands on” nature of traditional film). There’s also an absurdity, a dark humour in Gabrielle’s images. They also have a cinematic quality: but more so in that you watch them, looking for that aspect that will trouble the seemingly normal nature of the whole (as with the two images that were on display in the window of AIH Studios when I visited), or that the works suggest a scene, a maquette for a larger story, and that we’re being given clues to a larger tale. Her words: “I am interested in telling stories, play and mystery.”

Both Calzetta and Montmollin are storytellers, in their art: Tony is looser, giving us rough components that we bring our own ideas to, whereas Gabrielle offers a bit more charged and loaded symbolism (her series Stephen Harper Hates Me has both a personal and very public level of engagement with viewers, even in the post Harper landscape…) AIH Studios is located at 179 East Main Street, in Welland: hours are by appointment, but you can contact them via their website (artishell.com). Like the GPAG, or Jordan Art Gallery or the new NAC artists studio space / shop on St. Paul in downtown STC, it suggests that this region doesn’t need an expensive construct (like the Art Gallery of Niagara fiasco) so much as a more acute awareness of the existing visual arts locales in the Niagara region.