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The Impulsive Traveler: Montreal’s adventurous art scene

By Michael Kaminer,

Here’s what I saw in one spring weekend of gallery-hopping: eerie shadow projections by Berlin’s Ceal Floyer. JFK and Princess Di in “false memories” by Vancouver animator Barry Doupe. Monochromatic squares by Austrian conceptual jokester Klaus Scherubel. And an introduction to the “solar anus” by Toronto provocateur Will Munro.

This wasn’t New York’s Chelsea or Berlin’s Mitte. I was in my home town of Montreal, a destination more closely associated with feel-good festivals, cobblestones and poutine than with cutting-edge art. But the city whose febrile music scene has produced such triumphant misfits as Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade and Chromeo has also birthed a gallery scene that’s just as fiercely idiosyncratic. And it’s emerging as one of the most exciting places in North America for boundary-busting art.

“It’s that old Quebec independence,” said Richard Rhodes, Toronto-based editor of Canadian Art magazine. “Mon­­­treal’s the most adventurous art scene in Canada.”

Jeanie Riddle, director of the mammoth Parisian Laundry gallery in downtown’s fast-gentrifying St.-Henri neighborhood, agreed. Thanks to generous government grants, “artists can actually live here, and they have a lot of freedom,” she said.

A onetime cookie factory and commercial washery spread over 15,000 square feet, Parisian Laundry was repurposed in 2005 to house a local magnate’s art collection; Riddle has upped its cred with a smart roster of emerging Canadian artists and New York stars such as Kalup Linzy. Adam Pendleton’s indie-rock video epic “BAND” and Tia Halliday’s warped glamour pinups will run through June 4; the annual in-house group show “Summertime in Paris” opens later in June. And the permanent collection includes such mind-bending works as a full-scale, insect-infested “ice-cream stand” by Quebec collective BGL. But the gallery’s three floors are worth visiting for the smashing 1933 industrial architecture alone.

A Parisian Laundry artist named David Armstrong Six was completing a serpentine sculpture in a borrowed studio at Old Montreal’s Darling Foundry, so Riddle and I dropped by. A converted 1909 metalworks, Darling Foundry includes two massive exhibition spaces and 15 studios spread over 37,000 square feet. Darling Foundry’s outsize scale and international scope make it a thrilling art venue; next month, French video-art star Pierrick Sorin will open “Une Vie Bien Remplie” (“A Full Life”) here the same week that Montreal sculptor Alexandre David unveils a giant installation at the Foundry’s imposing Ottawa Street entrance. Airy commissary Cluny Artbar, where artists talk shop over market salads and wine, occupies the Prince Street side.

A few blocks east, on a narrow Old Montreal street, I entered the discreetly marked glass doors of DHC/Art Foundation for Contemporary Art, which “aims to present some of the most compelling art of our time from around the world.” I saw a mesmerizing Jenny Holzer retrospective here last year; this time, I pondered haunting shadow projections of household objects by acclaimed Berlin-based conceptual artist Ceal Floyer. But DHC, whose immaculate white-walled gallery spaces occupy three floors of a century-old building, unjustly remains one of Montreal’s best-kept secrets. Privately funded, it never charges admission; on every visit, I’ve been the sole spectator.

From Old Montreal, I headed north to Little Italy, where Six had invited me to an opening at his own gallery, half of the second-floor loft he shares with partner Iliana Antonova. Christened Silver Flag Projects, it has become one of Montreal’s most talked-about new spaces, with high-octane single-artist shows in four-week bursts. “We want to keep it kind of punk-rock,” Six told me.

As artist Klaus Scherubel’s video documentary played in the background, he greeted visitors who tromped upstairs to view his monochromatic paintings. Could Silver Flag exist in New York, say, or Toronto? “Of course not,” said Antonova, passing Quebec Cendrillon goat cheese to visitors at her dining table. “That would mean full-time, regular jobs. And Montreal’s much looser about zoning.” Up next: the Canadian debut of Scottish-born, L.A.-based conceptual artist Euan MacDonald.

Back down on Boulevard St.-Laurent, in the Plateau neighborhood, I checked out another artist-run venue: La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse, which calls itself Canada’s original feminist gallery. I expected “kumbaya”; I got “Inside the Solar Temple of the Cosmic Leather Daddy,” a witty multimedia mash-up of “spiritual iconography of ancient Egypt [and] Queer leather subculture of the 1970s” by Toronto cultural activist Will Munro, who died last year at 35. On my way out, I ran into a leather-clad GB Jones, the legendary punk artist and frequent Munro collaborator. “In Toronto, everyone sticks to categories,” she told me. “Here, artists are musicians, musicians are artists, and they mix in amazing ways.” This summer, Mumbai video artist Tejan Shah will have her Canadian premiere here.

Like Powerhouse, the diminutive, artist-run Articule dedicates itself to “socially engaged art” more concerned with pushing buttons than pleasing patrons. I entered the lime-green Mile End storefront to stumble around a pitch-black room where Barry Doupe’s surreal cartoon “Whose Toes” flickered on the wall. “There’s not much of a market in Montreal, so there’s lots of space for experimentation,” said programming coordinator Julie Tremble, sitting in a cheerfully cluttered office behind Articule’s 900-square-foot exhibit space. “Even commercial galleries do things that look like they won’t sell.”

The weekend’s last stop, though, upended some of what I’d heard and seen. Through the unmarked back door of a gargantuan Plateau garment-factory building, down a warren of fluorescent-lit corridors, I found Atelier Punkt. Hungarian-born founder Melinda Pap calls it Montreal’s only “avant-garde, multidisciplinary gallery” and the only one dedicated to Quebec design.

Canada’s grant programs, said Pap, have “poisoned artists. They are very, very lazy here.” Instead, Punkt showcases what she calls “completely conceptual, honest art” like the 13 limited-edition ’zines meticulously arranged across a pristine exhibit space. The magenta-haired Pap supports Punkt’s artists by selling their wares in a back office; you will never find another souvenir like the black ceramic copies of 1970s Quebec license plates by Pascale Girardin ($45) or delicate embroidery that replicates old-school Montreal fast-food place mats ($20) by design studio (and Punkt neighbors) RITA.

It’s a sign of the scene’s vitality that one weekend barely felt like enough; for every gallery I discovered, friends would recommend one more intriguing space that hadn’t crossed my radar. So, Red Bird Studios, Battat Contemporary, Atelier Clark, Dare-Dare, Occurrence, Oboro, Armatta: You’re on the list for my next visit. Along with the nervy newcomers sure to have opened their doors by then.

Kaminer is a New York-based freelance writer.

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