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"La mer ses ailes (The sea closes its wings)"
Marcel Barbeau, "La mer ses ailes (The sea closes its wings)," 2002, acrylic on canvas, 19.5 x 25.5 inches.
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"Clarte dense (Condensed brightness)"
Marcel Barbeau, "Clarte dense (Condensed brightness)," 2005, acrylic on canvas, 23.25 x 23.25 inches.
MARCEL BARBEAU, Vertiginous Limits
Elliott Louis Gallery, Vancouver
Apr 6 — 23, 2005
By Ann Rosenberg
Galleries occasionally present exhibitions with affinities to the educational aims of museum shows. Such an instance is Marcel Barbeau's Vertiginous Limits exhibition, mounted with the assistance of Barbeau's art-historian wife, Dr. Ninon Gauthier, for the Elliott Louis Gallery in Vancouver. This solo show is intended to bring West Coast attention to a body of work by a significant senior Canadian artist from Quebec who was one of the signatories to Paul-Emile Borduas's l948 Refus globalmanifesto.
In Fugato, the comprehensive illustrated monograph about Barbeau published in 1990, Dr. Gauthier writes that, during a brief 1958 visit to Vancouver, Barbeau spent time at the West End Gallery and met Takao Tanabe; however, he felt that British Columbia's Anglophone community gave him a cool reception. In the late 1970s, during a longer stay in Vancouver, he participated in performances with Anna Wyman's Dance Theatre, creating spontaneous large-scale paintings as accompaniments to the music and movements of the dancer's bodies. This kind of activity had brought him fame as early as 1972 when he was invited to perform at the Basel Art Fair — a period when theatre art works were highly popular in North America.
The most interesting aspect of Vertiginous Limits is the way in which a few background pieces have been selected to illuminate various aspects of Barbeau's long career. His presaging of the Refus global's philosophy of spontaneous, non-representational expression, for example, can be seen in the swirling, Pollack-like filigrees ofRosier feuilles of 1946. Samples of works created in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s that developed out of his automatic drawing and painting phase — the Geste No 10 and Geste PE 254 ink-on-paper works of 1957, the dribbled gouache portrait of Lisa of 1959, the Prauna gesture painting completed while the artist was participating in the 1972 Basel Art Fair — demonstrate why Barbeau is an exemplar of the Automatistes, a movement aptly named by a Quartier latin newspaper writer in 1947 who understood the Surrealist stance of his province's vanguard art.
Seven older works constitute the lead-in for approximately 20 more recent paintings that dominate the show. In the introductory group, produced principally between 1962 and 1990, there are several monochrome collages and paintings that display simple semi-geometric elements based on unusual shapes reminiscent of sails or leaves. The current works are part of Barbeau's on-going Anaconstruction series begun in 1995.
In the April/May 2006 issue of Preview, Mia Johnson describes Barbeau's Anaconstruction series as "hard edge paintings [that are] crisp and clean with playful shapes arranged on solid backgrounds. The careful alignment of the shapes creates three-dimensional effects and a precarious sense of balance with their slightly off-key hues and the precision of Japanese origami. His light-weight structures appear to float like a cluster of kites or collapse like a deck of cards."
At the April 4 opening of Vertiginous Limits, Dr. Gauthier demonstrated how each painting related to the others and flowed from the past into the present. She stated that, overall, Barbeau's automatism has not been a style but rather a philosophical approach, "a call for freedom, a call for mystery. For him movement has always been more important than matter, and the act of painting a method of creating akin to music and dance performance."
The climax of opening night was a Butoh performance by dancer and choreographer Jocelyne Montpetit, a long-standing Montreal friend of the Barbeaus who, like them, now also lives in Paris. To the droning sounds of a contemporary electronic music track, garbed in a paper costume and with the requisite white make-up, Montpetit paid honour to each artwork's fragility with a crumpled cradle of paper.