It's not often that an artist makes a flawless entrance into the art world, an emergence unmarred by clumsy false starts or ambivalent gestures.
Montreal photo artist Pascal Grandmaison, 29, is one of the favoured few, quietly gaining momentum over the past few years with a series of installations and photographs that project a startling clarity of purpose, and an elegant, cerebral refinement.
Currently, at Galerie René Blouin in Montreal, he is showing his most recent works, a continuation of his now nine-part portrait series titled Verre ( Glass).
These elegant photographs feature his subjects -- young men and women -- shot from the hips up and holding before them large sheets of glass, positioned parallel to the picture plane. Their eyes are cast down, they avoid our eyes, yet we can see them plainly. Are these people hiding behind glass (a barricade that perversely leaves them open to our scrutiny), or are they revealing themselves, like laboratory specimens? Their pose presents a conundrum.
When Grandmaison and I met at the gallery last week to look at these new works, he had to admit it had been a little hard to find the time to make them. Professionally, he is running at full throttle. In addition to his show at René Blouin, he is concurrently included in another group show at Montreal's Dazibao photography gallery alongside more senior art-world heavyweights Rodney Graham, Roni Horn, Kiki Smith and Geneviève Cadieux.
This week, his installation piece Solo goes on show at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal; the work has just been acquired for their permanent collection. Then, in May, he will be sharing the spotlight with German artist Barbara Probst in the inaugural show at Jessica Bradley Art & Projects. Also in Toronto, his series of large-scale photographs of beaten drum skins will be shown at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in June, while, in New York, he will be showing at Jack Shainman Gallery. Next, he's unveiling three of his installations at this summer's Prague Biennial, and there's planning to be done for his upcoming solo exhibition at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, set for May, 2006, where he hopes to exhibit 10 new works.
In addition to this, Grandmaison has just completed the conversion of an old Anglican church in the East End of Montreal, which he has renovated into a studio complex.
Montreal artists Raymonde April and Serge Murphy are among his tenants, as is his girlfriend Marie-Claire Blais, the maker of ethereal, abstract pencil drawings on paper. The renovation, he says, is an exercise that will pay off in the long run, but just now it is causing him short-term financial and logistical angst.
Hard, then, to find the mental serenity to make works that are so much about a state of repose, contemplation and deep mental absorption. Still, he seems to be managing. The Verre portraits, he says, are extensions of his 2003 video work Solo, which he exhibits as a projection onto a rectangular floor sculpture in a darkened room. In this work, Grandmaison's camera delicately explores the surface of several performing musicians, who appear lost in their solitary music-making. All we see are fragments of their bodies -- a temple, a finger, a pair of lips, an eye -- tactile, glancing glimpses that feel visceral and intimate. This is not a picture of performance as spectacle, but rather of the personal experience of the musician, considered from the inside out.
After Solo came a series of portrait photographs titled Waiting Photography. In these, a figure appears at the bottom of a great expanse of white, which Grandmaison describes as a "space for thinking."
"It's like the musicians in Solo," he says. "The more they play, the more they create a space for reflection," and he mimes an ever-expanding bubble of space in front of him, leavened with abstract thought and sensibility. These look like portraits, but they are equally about the space around the subjects, he says, the whiteness an envelope of pure subjectivity, infused with their thoughts.
With the Verre series, Grandmaison is again attempting to represent interior mental space, and he follows a very strict procedure to produce the results he wants. Posing his models, Grandmaison specifies only the downcast gaze of the eyes, and the positioning of the hand that holds the glass. The rest is the work of chance. "It's not like a dramatic scene," he says. What he wants instead is something calm and peaceful. In most of them, the sitters seem both to be looking at something intently and to be lost in thought, an ambivalence he seeks. He made the first of these for the façade of the Bonsecours Market in Montreal, where it was installed last year, suspended over the portico. Its female subject has about her the air of antiquity, seeming like an allegorical figure of liberty or justice. But she also looks like the scruffy girl behind you in line at the convenience store.
Usually, Grandmaison will take 60 or more shots to get one keeper. "At first people are a little bit frightened about the camera so they smile a lot," he says gently. "But I just keep taking the pictures until they start to get tired, and that starts to break down a little bit." Their expression, however, is something he never advises on. "If I begin to do that," he says, "it's just an acting game."
Still, he aims to deliver a very interior state. "You have to remember that the subject is holding a large and heavy plate of glass very close to their face," he says. "I think that changes things a lot between me and the subject." Through his lens, we can observe his sitters thrown back upon themselves.
For the viewer, this pane of glass carries another, poetic connotation. For photography lovers, the glass plate will call to mind the 19th-century glass-plate negatives of the medium's early days. Here, in Grandmaison's pictures, the glass plate seems to function as a metaphor for photography itself, a medium that can lift the image of the sitter, but not the sitter herself, from the flow of time.
Susan Sontag and others have written about the inherent morbidity of the photographic medium, which captures very precise moments in time, lost to us in the very instant that they are recorded. The clear, northern light that falls across the faces of this artist's subjects, their everyday, vulnerable and slightly dishevelled demeanours, their expressions tinged with loneliness or longing or inquiry -- all of these factors conspire to create a melancholy beauty that is precisely Grandmaison's own, as if his subjects pause to ponder the irony of their own timeless incarnation in a work of art. This is poignant stuff. How is it that someone so young has so much to say?
Pascal Grandmaison continues at Montreal's Galerie René Blouin until May 7 (514-393-9969).