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Nicolas Party at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.Richmond Lam/Handout

When he was a teenager, the Swiss artist Nicolas Party delighted in high-stakes graffiti, climbing fences and dodging security guards to spray paint on bridges and trains. More recently, he has left his mark all over the walls of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) – by invitation, of course.

“Graffiti is mostly about performing,” he said in a recent interview from New York, where he now lives. “Of course, the style was something obviously, but the main thing was like: ‘Oh, how many trains did you do this year?’” He maintained that spontaneity in this Montreal show. “I did the sketches the night before. … I learned to appreciate this moment of improvisation and having this kind of relationship with the performance of it.”

Party is internationally celebrated for his cheerfully coloured, graphic landscapes, still-lifes and portraits, depicting pastel rocks that seem almost animate, purple pears that cuddle like animals and androgynous humans who gaze blankly at the viewer. For exhibitions, he typically installs these accessible, yet unsettling works, on brightly patterned murals that he paints himself with minimal preparation.

In Montreal, in his boldest museum effort to date, he has taken over the grand staircase and vast galleries of the MMFA’s old wing, not only painting the walls but even reinstalling select works from the permanent collection in his own bold settings. The museum’s prized Otto Dix, that red-toned 1925 painting Portrait of the Lawyer Hugo Simons, now hangs against a backdrop of pale blue stalagmites and stalactites, while a gruesome 17th-century Flemish still-life of butchered game is displayed against a seemingly anodyne wallpaper of globular peaches in blues, pinks and oranges. Party’s show takes its title – L’heure mauve or Mauve Twilight – from a painting by Quebec artist Ozias Leduc, which is also included. There’s a cheekiness to the project that harkens back to Party’s youth.

Artist Nicolas Party has taken over the grand staircase and vast galleries of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts with his brightly coloured murals. Jean-François Brière/Montreal Museum of Fine Art

“It was extremely exciting,” he said of his introduction to graffiti-making by older kids who managed to sneak inside the hollow interior of a highway bridge. “I think I got addicted to that feeling, doing something illegal and having the thrill of it. But also doing something illegal that has very little repercussion – at least in my head.” Nobody got hurt but at the end of his graffiti career he did get charged and heavily fined, carrying a large debt into his art school years in Lausanne and Glasgow.

Yet for all the elements of rebellious performance still at play in Party’s murals, there is also a deep reverence for art history. He means no disrespect towards the historical works he has rehung, which also include pieces by such revered Canadian artists as Tom Thomson and Lawren Harris. On the contrary, he simply wants to place them in a new context.

“Their inner power is still completely the same,” he said, comparing the juxtaposition to the use of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in the 1979 Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now. “The piece is still Wagner but you read the Wagner in a very different way because of the helicopter and connection to the war. Suddenly you make a bridge or a connection with two different times.”

At the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Portrait of the Lawyer Hugo Simons by Otto Dix is hung on a mural of a cave by Nicolas Party. Jean-François Brière/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Party is well versed in his cultural references and his work immediately brings historic comparisons to mind – from post-impressionism to pop art. He cites as a key influence the Swiss artist Félix Vallotton, a fellow native of Lausanne who was active with the Nabis painters in Paris. Vallotton was known for his landscapes and interiors rendered in a flat, graphic style including a series of woodcuts devoted to domestic scenes of sexual tension. Also, Party admires the way in which Georgia O’Keeffe could represent a skull or a flower without allowing the still-life to become purely symbolic.

Meanwhile, the rotund classicism of his work is sometimes compared to that of Pablo Picasso. It’s a connection that has been made partly because Party attributes his use of pastel sticks rather than paint to an encounter with Picasso’s 1921 pastel Woman’s Head, a post-cubist work that gives the face both solidity and softness. Historically, pastel has been considered a secondary medium, associated strongly with female artists who were seen to lack the technically ability – or perhaps genuinely lacked the studio space – to mix oils. But the medium is particularly suited to portraiture. Party cites the 18th-century Rococo artist Rosalba Carriera as another key influence, for her ability to render soft, yet precise portraits in pastel.

Party’s portraits, however, do not depict individuals, rather they are generic representations of human figures, often androgynous, sometimes mythic. The Montreal show includes portraits of fantastical female figures surrounded by snakes or mushrooms as well as a room full of mustard-coloured sculptures, blank-eyed busts with green hair or headless bodies.

The brightness of Party’s palette and the way he limits himself to a few traditional representational genres, such as the still life and the portrait, has led some to question the work’s ambition: It can be criticized as bourgeois in subject and nostalgic in style. His unsettling classicism, with its animated nature and its human automatons, recalls the naive style of the post-impressionist painter Le Douanier Rousseau and the early 20th-century surrealists, René Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico.

Nicolas Party installs Frans Snyders' Still Life with Game against a backdrop of peaches at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Jean-François Brière/Montreal Museum of Fine Art

Yet if the work, in which contemporary technology never appears, would seem to looks backward, Party points out that his portraits reflect the digital imagery of this era: Today, we see faces through the filter on the iPhone, which flattens and smooths physiognomy. Meanwhile, his sculptures are created using robotics.

“At the end of the day I work with a computer, with my phone,” he said. “The work is embedded in that; this aesthetic did not exist 60 years ago. It’s very embedded in the time.”

There is also, potentially, a subtle environmental message in the way Party animates nature, especially in the Montreal show where he juxtaposes his own work with Canadian landscapes and The Woodcutter, a 1910 painting by the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler showing a man swinging his axe. Talking about historical context, Party points out how differently we interpret the woodsman today: To Hodler’s generation of Swiss, before planes and highway engineering tamed the Alps, he was a heroic figure, conquering a threatening landscape. Today, we see him as a plunderer.

It’s the way the work survives to be reinterpreted by each generation that really appeals to Party.

“An ambition of a lot of artists is to create something that is open enough that maybe it can live through time – a kind of immortality or an endurance anyway.”

Long after a museum has repainted its walls or a power wash has scrubbed off graffiti, Party looks to make art that will survive.

L’heure mauve by Nicolas Party continues at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until Oct. 16.

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