This is your last weekend to see Contrarieties and Counterpoints, a nationally touring exhibition of recent work by Ottawa-based painter Melanie Authier, currently on view at the MSVU Art Gallery. There are nine paintings in the exhibition, three of which are made up of multiple canvases, plus many watercolours, primarily exhibited upstairs in the mezzanine gallery.
The overall effect is visually dynamic and engaging. Authier paints abstracts—thoughtful, rich compositions that keep the viewer on their toes, moving in and out, side to side, as we focus, or try to, on different elements of the work. This constant movement of the eye and body makes for a dynamic viewing experience, albeit one that may, in the face of multiple works, may make one wish for respite. That respite comes, in part, from the inclusion of watercolours in the exhibition, works of a smaller scale that one can perceive in one go, as it were. Looking at them is more about depth than about the constant swirl of motion suggested by the larger canvases.
This show doesn’t rely on fireworks or colourful pyrotechnics. Half of the works are primarily in grey tones, but the exhibition still has the feel of activity: a sense of velocity and movement that, like a murmuration of starlings, feels chaotic but follows a certain order that we don’t understand.
Authier’s paintings are self-referential, about the act and art of painting. At their core is not representation, but a focus on each gesture, the way each colour recedes or thrusts forward, the way that line breaks down or reinforces itself through the varying, illusory, depths of the surface.
The exhibition’s curator, Robert Enright, explains “The concentration and focus necessary to work within the world a painter is making, all the while being aware of, and responsive to, the world of painting already made, demands a high degree of rigour, careful consideration, and skill,” he says.
I agree with him, and in the case of Contrarieties and Counterpoints that concentration and focus is demanded of the viewer. Or more correctly, a high degree of intensity and focus of vision are rewarded.
Authier doesn’t shy away from the self-referentiality of her work, telling Enright in an interview that makes up part of the excellent catalogue that accompanies this exhibition, “…each painting is very much a conversation between myself and the evolution of what is happening on the surface of the canvas or paper.”
There can be a didacticism to such work, because it is based in an understanding between artist and audience that a certain level of knowledge about history, technique, and context is part of the price of admission. Authier relies on some of the traditional painter’s bag of tricks, particularly the creation of the illusion of depth, the push and full between background and foreground, that informs so much representational painting.
There are no pictures here, however, and the subjects, such as they are, are marks and colour relationships, the gestures of making, and the gestures of seeing. It’s fair to call Melanie Authier a “painter’s painter.” Her works are almost a masters class in contemporary thinking about painting, and they can, indeed, feel didactic in a group, as if the point is being made just a shade too emphatically. However, in front of each work the tone shifts, the threatened lecture becomes gentler, becomes instead a dance where the viewer is led by an expert.
It comes to down to how much you, as a viewer, want to invest. Even a cursory viewing will present you with visually compelling and engaging works, but the longer you look, the more you will see. As Authier says, “Each painting is a proposition that the viewer is invited to unpack and bring into a certain order. Different viewers will unpack and navigate the work differently.” How much the viewer is willing to participate determines the enjoyment of this exhibition. Far from expecting us to just watch, Authier is asking us to dance.