When visual artist and filmmaker Caroline Monnet was growing up in Aylmer, Que., her parents flipped houses in the suburban and cottage-country town that is now part of Gatineau.
“I’d come home from school to put insulation in the walls in my room … We moved a lot,” she said, recalling childhood in a construction zone.
That doesn’t seem to have traumatized Monnet, now 37, based in Montreal and well-established in her multidisciplinary career. Today, she makes bold and colourful art using blue waterproofing membranes, pink Styrofoam insulation and multicoloured sandpapers. The results are visually engaging, funny even, as you begin to recognize the familiar industrial products, but they have an intensely serious purpose: In juxtaposing classic modernist abstraction with banal building materials on the one hand and the sacred geometries of Anishinaabe culture on the other, Monnet quietly refers to the housing crisis among First Nations where crowding, poor air quality and boil-water advisories threaten health and quality of life.
“I love working with these materials, not only for their texture and colour but also for what they mean symbolically,” she said. ”A home should be treated as a living body. If there is lingering mould it will affect your physical and mental health. If a home is healthy, then people living in it will be healthy.”
So, a work such as Pikogan (Shelter), a dome-shaped frame included in a large solo show of her work now at the Art Gallery of Burlington, is partly a reference to a traditional Anishinaabe shelter and partly a jungle gym, all made of polyethylene pipes, PVC conduits, copper, Velcro and steel. It is a fun structure, yet also hints at a sacred space beneath its open roof.
Her work strives to address the housing crisis, “but not in a dark way. It’s playful somehow. I don’t want to be dramatic; it’s about the promise of better living conditions. It has to be hopeful.”
Monnet, whose mother is Anishinaabe and whose father is from France, takes her inspiration from traditional Anishinaabe patterns and techniques, although she is careful to stress she is not reproducing them directly.
For example, she’s intrigued by birchbark biting. A more complex version of the child’s method of cutting a snowflake from a folded piece of paper, it’s a traditional art form that produces infinitesimally delicate repeating patterns by biting thin pieces of bark. But Monnet produces her own versions of such grille-like paper patterns using computer software and laser etching, rather than her mind’s eye and her teeth.
In the Burlington show, entitled Holding Up the Sky, she includes a series of small works, each one featuring its own rectangular grid of shapes and spaces perfectly cut from papers of deep red, Prussian blue or pale green. Look closely and you’ll realize the material is actually sandpaper as the grit catches the light. (Monnet sources some of these unusual colours from Europe, saying. “When I travel I make sure to visit the local hardware store.”)
She maps these geometries instinctively, using graphics software and never repeating a pattern: “The designs have become my own language. I can’t say they are traditional anymore; they have evolved over time.” She is also now experimenting with machine embroidery, stitching her patterns onto plastic sheeting or waterproofing membranes, and favouring the loud colours of the safety vest or the roadside pylon.
She traces the origins of her current art to a series of geometric drawings she made in 2014 that are included in this show. In this series, entitled Unlikely Process, she experimented on paper with a flat, six-sided template that can be folded into a three-dimensional cube, drawing a different pattern in each square. The cube is the perfect modernist shape, plain, stable, all right angles, all sides the same size, but also, for Monnet, a symbol of infinite possibilities.
In this show, the traditional dome of Pikogan is juxtaposed with The Room, a cube-shaped room of wood board, about the size of a very large packing crate, that the viewer can enter so as to admire its interior walls made from a lilac-coloured Styrofoam into which Monnet has cut her signature patterns. The result is an art of hybridization where settler meets indigeneity, modernism mixes with tradition and abstract forms are filled with potentially political references.
Interestingly, it is created by an artist who never went to art school but came into the visual arts through film and video art: Monnet studied sociology and communications at the University of Ottawa before transferring to the University of Granada in Spain and finishing up at the University of Winnipeg. On graduating, she began experimenting: “I made my first short film in 2009 and never looked back,” she said. “I found a tool to express myself, to gain self-confidence and to reclaim my culture.”
Holding Up the Sky, an exhibition of work by Caroline Monnet, continues at the Art Gallery of Burlington to April 23.