21st Century Portraits of People from the 20th Century
Louis Boudreault's art presents the imagery of the 20th century, more specifically portraits of the famous and infamous. He does so in a presentational, very Pop, even conceptual manner. While the sources for his art are the imagery of a media-generated age, his art captures what Marshall McLuhan once referred to as the folklore of industrial man. Adopting an anthropological approach to analyzing imagery in the media, McLuhan ultimately uncovered the links between symbol and icon. What distinguishes our desire from reality is ultimately a matter of consumption of the image rather than discrimination or judgment about what the image represents as content within. And so, when Louis Boudreault presents his portrait images of personalities of the 20th century, it is not simply the image or collective assembling of an image that is significant. Instead it is the way an image is presented that becomes part of the total communication inherent to his art.
These multi-media artworks thus become places where renowned icons of the 20th century history exist in a relation that involves a potential construction or deconstruction of the image. Boudreault builds his visual biography with an intuitive assemblage technique that accompanies the drawn and painted image per se. And it is significant for us the viewers that each of these portraits hovers in that zone of ambiguity where relativism raises its presence in relation to our reading of the work of art. The distance can be measured, between the aesthetics of a portraitist such as Sir Joshua Reynolds whose steadfast endorsement of a hierarchy of aesthetics nevertheless states in his Discourses that,
"Invention is one of the great marks of genius; but if we consult experience, we shall find, that it is by being conversant with the inventions of others, that we learn to invent; as by reading the thoughts of others we learn to think."
Thus, aesthetics traditionally involved a forward-going continuity that embodied history. History relied on a continuum of art and artists in the Neoclassic and Romantic eras, and indeed, this spirit of history was transferred to Modernism. This said, the relativism of today's aesthetics endorses a reduction of context, and a pseudo-objectivity, as a metaphor for the actual process whereby images come into being, are manufactured. But Louis Boudreault's portraits are not simply art about anyone or everyone. These 20th century portraits are of famous or perhaps infamous people. They are personages collectively considered to have an historical significance. These subjects' contributions range from science, to the arts, to literature, to technology and they have entered into our collective imagination.
Packaging these personalities is a process, and that process involves the actual waythe images are put together, the way they are affixed, drawn, even compositionally set within the context of the tableaux. Often the portraits are floated on surfaces that are left open at the edges. The surface reveals a virtual and immediate layering, like an artistic geology of sometimes unseen, partially hidden or completely obscured elements. This approach is a significant part of the language of Louis Boudreault's artmaking practice. It is as if the imagery itself were a form of packaging, that itself is packaged with visual and vernacular content and this is what makes these works wholly contemporary. Somehow the content and the presentation are rendered equal as values. These artworks seize us precisely because they have gone through a process of transferal, of adaptation through media, from personality, to photo, to rendering and artistic interpretation, to presentation as an artwork.
Louis Boudreault has for some time, been immersed in notions of distance, of near and far, of times past and present, the gap between these is the point where we interpret and assume a value or a visual weight to an image. Vuillard played with visual conceptions of interior and exterior space with a similar enthusiasm. With his Shipping Boxes exhibited at the Galerie Les Modernes, Boudreault had fun by playing with the actual sources for artist's materials, more specifically the colours used to create masterpieces of Western painting during the Renaissance (1450-1590). They were often acquired from exotic and foreign sources, and the colour road paralleled the ancient Spice Road. The Spice Road went from India through Egypt and Bengal. In Europe at the same time, chemists were seeking to develop colour. And so while colour is a source for the painter (Leonardo da Vinci related their high price and the difficulty of obtaining colours only furthered the sense of mystery) each colour as an object that will come to represent as art also carries within it something of this sense of a journey, something more than what this or that colour will come to represent in a work of art. And so Boudreault's Shipping Boxes like Arman or Yves Klein's artworks, contain and compose with object elements (in this case blocks of color) that become the artwork, a very Duchampian gesture. Aligning color samplers within shipping boxes creates a sense of mystery, and suggests that these are elements that are exotic, came from afar, from a place one cannot actually see, about which one knows very little (like Raymond Roussel's "Impressions d'Afrique" perhaps). This is precisely what media imagery, whether on a video screen, a poster, or a moving vehicle, achieve for us in our era, a sense that we ourselves are foreign to the contexts we witness, absorb, consume….
And then there is the objectification of these color samples, a theatrical presentational quality that recalls Yves Klein's monochromes with their absence of a visible signature, and a quiet resonance, even objectivity. As early as 1954, Klein exhibited his monochrome paintings at the judo association where he taught in Paris subsequently publishing Yves: Peintures and Haguenault: Peintures in collaboration with Franco de Sarabia's engraving studio not far from Madrid. Claude Pascal's introduction to the 10 monochromatic prints in each edition (Haguenault was a pseudonym of Klein's) simply became three pages of black lines, and there were arbitrary measurements and the names of various cities around the world… Madrid, Tokyo, Nice, Paris. Playing on and with notions of reproduction and originality, Louis Boudreault's Shipping Boxes like these early productions by Yves Klein build a metaphysical atmosphere, but one that is equally objectified, immaterial. The ultimate gesture inherent to these presentations is that they bring us closer to understanding art surpasses any medium, and exposes the viewer to his or her own intuition, to their place as actors within the process of art that moves elliptically from a point of context that is the artwork's conception, to the putting together or assembling and creation of the artwork, to the journey (a kind of shipping that often involves boxes, crates, containers just as these color samples are contained, and indeed our own spirits by our bodies) from the studio to the exhibition venue, to the inevitable interpretation by viewers, curators, critics, the public at large, and perhaps a final identification with a place of origin that may be associated with identity, memory, the broader context of our lives…
For another exhibition at the Musée de la Mer, Boudreault likewise worked with imagery related to the indigenous fishing and drying industry on the Îles de la Madeleine and for this series of artworks depicted men digging out mussels and clams on the shoreline, fishermen with their nets, children playing along a shoreline in their straw hats, and actual trawler boats, he likewise included a series of containers that each had various forms of salt within them. Again we see the presentation and the packaging, the notion of transport, exchange, and that we are continuously involved in the import, the export, the consumption of materials. Materials from nature, and the relation to nature are a strong element in all of Louis Boudreault's works.
The cult of the image is now replacing the cult of the object. We cannot seize or capture entirely (in spirit) that which the images represent to us. There is a gulf between our desire for that which the image represents and what it actually is. This is where the inherent mystery rests. And so portraiture, as Louis Boudreault paints and builds it, brings us back to a form of Orientalism worthy ofHenri Matisse or the photographer Beato who brought back images of and for colonization. Indeed, the influence of Japonisme can be attributed in its early manifestations to the woodcuts used as packing materials for wrapping artifacts, antiques and pottery when shipped to Europe in the 19th century. The Impressionists and artists in general discovered the woodcut images when the wrapping paper was discarded and this in turn influencedPaul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and others…
Andy Warhol, the celebrity portraitist of the 20th century and an artist who captured an entire structure of celebrity, from the peripheral characters to the most celebrated, once commented on this by saying "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, there I am. There’s nothing behind it."2The same can be said of John Singer Sargent who considered himself a painter of surfaces. The surface of a portrait such as Sargent's Madame X was as much an amphitheater of society as a painting of Lake O'Hara might be an amphitheatre of nature. But portraiture is an age-old form of art, and the portrait fulfils a function within a society of patrons not only as a representation, but equally as an icon of value for that clientele. It can define the persona to the patron of what they desire or own, ascribing a value or wealth to this or that person. We see this in the paintings of Jan Vermeer, Hans Holbein, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, even Andy Warhol and John Singer Sargent…
Whether the sources are snapshots, a Polaroid, a poster image, a film still these paintings are time capsules that not only capture many layers of Pop history, but equally engage in the phenomena of presentation. These portrait works exist on a series of layers of paper, materials with evidence of an incomplete wrap along the edges of these tableaux…. We see Albert Einstein, Rosa Luxembourg, John Lennon, Edith Piaf, Alfred Hitchcock, Andy Warhol, Mao, Che Guevara, Salvador Dali Maria Callas, Marilyn Monroe, Pablo Picasso, the Wright brothers, Marlene Dietrich, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Mahatma Ghandi… a pantheon of personages, in their childhood long before they had achieved any recognition, at a point in their lives when personality is in the process of being formed… As Louis Boudreault has commented, the one noticeable element in the portraits of any of these fascinating, dynamic, historically significant personages that does not ever change from childhood to adulthood is that their eyes. The landscape of their faces, the shapes of their heads, the size of their heads in relation to their bodies may shift, alter, shrink or grow, but those eyes are the one constant. Two eyes that see the world. Two eyes. And the eyes we see these paintings remain constant, capturing a world, a visual world, and carrying this vision through to our mind.
In today's culture we have become like magpies with rapid eyes, who seek the moving image, the image per se, and that which shines. The stage expands in a virtual era. The portrait image in these paintings exists against a background that is openly constructed, built as a two-dimensional stage with its own material contrasts, juxtapositions, elements. These elements exist to heighten the historicity of the portrait image. This act of juxtaposition brings a more absolute historicity to these portraits, but equally makes us aware that we live in an era when history is rephrasing itself, is subject to multiple influences, and that cultural dissonance or confluence unconsciously affects the way we read contexts, even the authenticity of imagery.
Boudreault has a conceptual edge to his art, even when working with object installation, as was the case with the Shipping Boxes, but it is MacAvoy (1891-1977), a Paris-based painter who celebrated the society portrait in his art, who influenced Louis significantly in the direction his approach to art has taken. Boudreault came to know MacAvoy quite well during his years in France. It is what Boudreault calls the "taste for the personality" 3 that exists at the heart of portraiture that MacAvoy understood and communicated to the artist. MacAvoy painted such personages as Francois Mauriac, Marie Noel, Marc Chagall, Henry de Montherlant, Jean Cocteau, Johnny Halliday, General de Gaulle, the Empress of Iran, Louise de Valmorin, Ionesco and many others throughout his life. Societal life in global cities is a human zoo of sorts, with its particular contexts, both societal and aesthetic, as worthy of an aseptic criticism as an overall appreciation.
While portraiture is a media factory and a bonfire of the vanities for Andy Warhol, MacAvoy's portraits are like a template for the later Pop portraiture of Andy Warhol, but from an earlier generation on another continent that had writers like Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley or Jean Genet as opposed to Tom Wolfe or other such radical chic writers. What distinguishes Louis Boudreault's approach from the former MacAvoy or later Warhol portraitist is his grasp of the processes of assemblage, of installation, of contextual layerings with materials. He integrates these elements into his portraits in an anthropological way. In this sense, Boudreault, shares something very spirited with Mario Merz or Jannis Kounellis in his understanding of the contemporary context, the theatrical anonymity of the artwork and the awareness of its presentational point of attraction. The American painter Larry Rivers, for instance, would understand Boudreault's ambiguity of posture, of presentation even more than Andy Warhol, who loved the iconic register of colour and of images. The clues in Boudreault's art are less in the reading of elements than in the interplay between materials. It is a kind of visual writing with materials. The writing involves layers of experience that are the materials themselves. The portrait rests atop it all. Materials have particular relations to one another, as printed paper or fabric or found elements, and are a sub-text to the portrait. These compositional integrations are ahistorical and counters the basic historicity of each personality portrait image.
There is a very visual and dynamic interplay between the basic recognizable characters of each of these portraits of famous individuals, even if they are presented as young children, at a point of formation in their lives when personality is in the process of being formed, and the standardized scale and presentation of these works within the series. History exists within an ahistorical context, which itself may not have a hierarchy as it did in the era of Sir Joshua Reynolds, at least not visibly. The historical layerings, like the layers of materials in Boudreault paintings, exist as a series of phenomena, actions the artist has taken to build a mystery, to engender an aura or mystique that occur in parallel or tandem with the actual portrait image. The layerings can be obscured, hidden, buried beneath other layers, just as they are in history. The image, the portrait, thus exist as signs or symbols of convergence within a society whose contexts are abstract, conceived in a non-space, a mediatized bits and bytes, whether informational, ideational or purely visual. And this pure visuality… this is always a predominant element that rises through the layers, the sequences, the contexts, even past the image per se. We can read these paintings thus, as purely visual phenomena, created in a certain early 21st century period of questioning of historicity, where the signals and signs are understood, but the contexts are less readily associated with memory, with place or individual identity. Anomalous, integrated, they resonate with an essential visual experiential dimensionality that is about our understanding of the moment where we, as viewers, interact, exchange visions with the artist. The interface is these portraits themselves, recognizable to many of us, and a common currency to all humanity. It all occurs amid an endlessly shifting landscape of contexts, of images, of architectures of the soul, and we read ourselves within these vast, immeasurable contexts of historicity that Louis Boudreault's paintings are a tribute to.
Drawing, whether in ink, conté, pencil or watercolour, has a lively aspect, and interpretive character that reveals much about the particular moment in time, the sentiment of the artists as much as the personality, as witnessed by Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud or, in Canada, Fred Varley or Jean-Paul Lemieux. Eternity could be black or white, but the blank page offers an infinite range of possibilities to the artist. Boudreault constructs his portraits and the rendering is simply a part of the process of layering, which includes tissues, textiles, paper …The process is akin to Joseph Cornell’s surreal box assemblages, but here the material serves to further the notion that these portraits exist in a world of manufactured desires, and the exchange between image and material is a symbolic one.
The portrait becomes a commodity, exchanged within a hierarchy of contexts, materials, each layered within Boudreault's constructions. Boudreault's portrait constructions with their paper layers, materials, likewise exist in a tentative non-space where the process can move forward to construction or backwards toward deconstruction. These paintings have a relativity that personifies the essentially mercurial and elusive character of history. The value exists is the point of exchange between viewer and art. The reversibility principle known to conservators of art, exists at all levels in society. Surface and content are interchangeable in an almost Buddhist sense. And this is what Andy Warhol seized as well, for the two are one and the same thing at some level. The mystique is in the eyes of the beholder.
1. John Burnet F.R.S., TheDiscourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds illustrated by Explanatory Notes and Plates, London: James Carpenter, 1842, p. 96
2. Gretchen Berg, 'Nothing to Lose : An Interview with Andy Warhol, 1967, Andy Warhol : Film Factory, ed. Michael O'Pray(London : BFI Publishing, 1989), p. 56.
3. Louis Boudreault in conversation with John K. Grande, Montreal, Canada, May 2007.
John K. Grande