What a deliciously tricky question. But ask Robert Poulin and he will probably respond that one can like both. This Montreal gallery owner, and one time professional artist, has a penchant, or rather a passion for outsider art, low brow, Art Brut, call it what you like, it is not your usual fare. Socially-charged, but just as likely to be entertaining, it is an acquired taste, but once sampled, one that will linger for a long, exciting ride.

His latest group exhibition titled Marginaux et francs-tireurs is nothing less than a visual orgy, bringing together dozens of international artists whose styles are as diverse as they are audacious. Exhibited in a massive gallery space of Maison de la culture Frontenac, it presents over 100 artworks, creating a cacophony of images that assault and stimulate the senses.

Poulin’s only mandate was to show artists “outside the realm of contemporary art” and all one can say is: mission accomplished.

This is a parallel world of art, another realm, with the gallery as a portal to this fascinating, underground universe. From cartoon-like imagery through surreal narratives to highly complex compositions, the art on display is one of the best “salons des refusés” one can imagine.

It is impossible to wrap this enormous presentation into one neat package, it would burst at the seams. The creative energy present is overwhelming and unbridled. It is sexually charged, rebellious, at times tormented and macabre. That Poulin calls himself the «catalyst» of the exhibition rather than its curator is both amusing and apt. What he has engendered by throwing all these unapologetically individualistic artists together is a feat of both vision, and a touch of madness.

How else to describe the juxtaposing of powerfully expressive gestural paintings by Guy Boutin, Daniel Erban and Harry Corrigan with the stylized, complex compositions of Max Wyse, or those by Salvadoran artist Osvaldo Ramirez-Castillio whose narratives speak of political oppression in incongruously delicate style and palette? And at which point of the spectrum to place the captivating, complicated works on paper by Adrian Williams that resemble bizarre jigsaw puzzles or alien charts and labyrinths with encoded messages?

It is up to the viewer to meander, often ducking for many deliver a shock, among these works, allowing the instinct, rather than the intellect to lead the way for this is a visceral offering and not for the faint-hearted. John Todd with his mesmerizing collage-like compositions filled with skulls, serpents and Oriental masks is both compelling and a tad eerie, while Nathan Alexis Brown pulls no punches in his powerfully expressive, avant-garde compositions.

Among these highly stylized and technically accomplished painters are the works of a true representative of Art Brut and what is meant by an outsider artist. Nancy Ogilvie suffers from schizophrenia and has found a release and a panacea in art, producing dark, strangely organic paintings, their source almost impossible to comprehend, their appearance on canvas alchemic considering her lack of professional training.

Jim Sanders, too, is in a category of his own. His works are like pages from a travelling diary, the comical characters belonging to one family it seems, their goings on accompanied by written notations and symbols.

And then there is the giant painting by Ashley Johnson that towers over the rest not only because of its format—244 cm x 610 cm—but also its calibre and subject matter. Born in South Africa and now living and working in Toronto, he is an artist with a mission, and his art is his weapon. Deeply concerned with the environment, he paints works that touch upon both human and animal socio-environmental issues and many are difficult to ponder let alone behold. Human and animal hybrids appear, anthropomorphised beasts play out horrifying scenarios, and all of it painted with such exquisite attention to detail and colour as to confuse and beguile the viewer.

Fin is a perfect, magnificent example of this, visually captivating while conveying a disturbing subject matter, in this case the tragedy of oceanic life, smothered by human pollution, decimated by human cruelty and indifference.

These are far from marginal artists, the title of the exhibition just a witty jab at the establishment. Reflecting everything from European avant-garde and American counter-culture to Otto Dix, they are charting their own path, zigzagging over and away from the commercial fodder.

Marginaux is probably the best exhibition of the year so far, and itself a catalyst for discussion on what should be considered art in these unusual times.

Marginaux et francs-tireurs
Maison de la culture Frontenac, Montréal
October 18—November 19, 2017