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Pierre Dorion's solo show at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal is one of the standout Canadian exhibitions of 2012, surveying 20 years of the Montreal artist's meticulous consideration of painting and its possibilities. At the heart of it is the reconstruction of Dorion's landmark 1999 painting installation Chambres avec vues, which was mounted in the Les Dauphins sur le Parc apartments overlooking Parc Lafontaine in Montreal's east end. Installing a suite of canvases made specifically for the venue in one of the building's empty apartments, Dorion merged the disciplines of painting and site-specific installation, achieving a consummate demonstration of painting's capacity to enchant, intrigue and dissemble.

At the heart of Chambres avec vues was Dorion's untitled portrait of an unmade bed (which he positioned in the bedroom), a work of dynamic contrasts. Red is set against blue, hard against soft, flatness against three-dimensionality. But the painting suggests other dualities as well. The legacy of French Surrealism is braided into the DNA of Quebec art. André Breton came to Montreal to espouse his Surrealist ideas in the mid-forties, serving as a catalyst to Automatism's gestural abstraction; Dorion's rumpled sheets and pillows recall Surrealism's championing of desire, the unconscious, and inchoate thought. Above this tempest, however, a crisp red monochrome asserts the counterthrust of the Plasticiens, Montreal painters who flourished through the mid-fifties and sixties. Instead of understanding the artwork as a window onto the mystery of inner life (and the illusions of space), the Plasticiens affirmed the notion of the artwork as object. This painting holds both legacies in balance.

Dorion's canvas is also a space of reminiscence. The bed in question was never actually in that Montreal apartment, though this painting's placement there might have seemed to suggest otherwise. The red monochrome is a painting by Quebec Plasticien Claude Tousignant, but Dorion took the source photograph in a friend's apartment in New York.

This displacement is also true of other paintings in this suite. Dorion gives us a wintry view from a rooftop terrace in what could be Montreal, yet the source was a picture taken at the Palais de Justice in Brussels. ("It's the same grey that we have here in Montreal," Dorion says.) Another painting, capturing an upward glance at a ceiling strewn with lighting fixtures and decorations, was sourced in a brasserie in that same city. Dorion also immortalizes a wall phone that he discovered in a rundown pension in Genoa, adding an uncanny note of suspense to the ensemble.

A pervasive tone of melancholy binds these disparate memories, as does Dorion's cerebral, diffused treatment of light, and his distinctive colour palette – Pepto-Bismol pink, the green of a mint discovered in the back of a sofa, old-cat grey, chilled and salted North Atlantic blue – all of it harmonized by his distinctive, subtly emulsifying touch.

Finally, Dorion's bedroom painting is a study in absences: the absence of figuration in the red square, and the absence of a sleeping body. Dorion says the work recalls the famous 1991 billboard project by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the American artist and AIDS activist whose photograph of an empty unmade bed became emblematic of the losses of the AIDS crisis. Dorion, too, has lost cherished friends to AIDS, and this project overlooking Parc Lafontaine – one of the city's most-frequented gay cruising grounds – was an act of remembering. Yet here it seems Dorion was considering his own mortality, that fundamental condition of our humanity. "That was my head that made that," he says of the crushed pillows bathed in morning light. "I am the person missing in the painting."