Ghada Amer, Valérie Blass and Wangechi Muti are the three women artists featured in an exhibition billed as “Shock Wave at the MAC”, each addressing the question of identity, transformation, fragility, sexuality and domesticity. Concepts of beauty  iconic, sexy, historical, Photoshopped-perfect, and idealized  are present throughout. Their art requires a thoughtful perusal. Nothing is as it seems.

Wangechi Mutu’s huge installation Moth Girls, now owned by the MAC, forms the centerpiece of the exhibition. A strangely attractive piece covering three walls, it is made up of 246 figurines created with leather wings and female legs. It has a feeling of taxonomy – a collection pinned ‘‘like a patient etherized upon a table,’’ Prufrock’s love song, by T.S. Eliot. Could the work perhaps be read like John Fowles’ T he Collector; creatures of the night – both the moths and the ladies – held captive to be admired at will? The show’s powerful images relate an interplay between nature and humans. Born in Narobi, Kenya, the African Diaspora is part of her ethno-political approach. Her interest in anthropology is evident in her collages; cut-outs from pages of publications on fashion (where women’s images go beyond perfect), travel and ethnography. Then the pieces are re-assembled into collage-drawings of black women, as she speaks to, and of, female stereotypes. Although mutant – sometimes a mixture of animal and human – her strange pieces are exquisite; seductively elegant. Her socially committed art – lyrical and provocative – questions female identity and its depiction in today’s society.

The works of Valérie Blass are more than fascinating: they boggle the mind. The serene white cube rooms at the M.A.C. are full of her colorful Star Wars-style creations; classic Egyptian profiles morphing into otherworldly creatures and a man so worried, he is covered – nay, swallowed up – in massive swirls of black hair. However, his dainty high heels stay stiletto sharp (L’homme souci, 2009). Blass’ work might be summarized simply as hybrid illusions. Yet her art is anything but simple. ‘‘I love the idea of new forms.’’ In one piece, a wide-eyed lemur is happily hugging a shaggy-faced being with no arms. The pale primate is perfectly portrayed and recognizable from ‘our’ world, but the black life-size creature is from another planet. The viewer suspends disbelief and enjoys Blass’ brave new world. The artist works in all mediums. She has covered bodies with plaster (with the help of Mark Prent); worked an allusion in Styrofoam, slitting and painting it to resemble wood; used kitschy black flocking to cover a mass of cement, and created elegantly balanced installations with bits of old piping. The Valérie Blass section of the show is full of cool crossbreeds that have sprung fully formed from the artist’s creative imagination.

Ghada Amer’s work reflects the societies she has experienced. Born in Islamic Egypt, she studied in France and now works in New York. Perhaps one of the strongest cultural influences in this show is the symbolism of the veil: much of her work in this show is ‘veiled’ with embroidery thread. Riffing on Abstract Expressionism, an art style that is somewhat male-dominated, instead of paint the artist used thread, carefully placed and glued with a clear gel. From a distance, the pieces have an abstract surface pattern. Then one goes closer. Behind this curtain of yarn lie lascivious ladies. Their images are in iconic, pornography poses, wallpaper-repeated in all their Hustler-style glory, secreted behind the ‘veil’ of thin threads. Embroidery here is not only symbolic of domesticity, of hours spent in careful manual labor, but of complicity, as women often worked together. Complicity is apparent in the minutiae of Amer’s Botox-beautified babes as they enjoy pleasure together, behind the concealing, curling threads that sometimes resemble body hair, completing the image of sensuality. The open-mouthed, pneumatically perfect young lasses are created with tiny, petit-point stitches, whose ends, left extremely long, form the design on the work’s pictorial plane. The secret lies within. There the peek-a-boo sense of the boudoir can be glimpsed behind the calligraphic lines of the thread. One has to move closer, past the camouflage of the veil, to reach the Sapphic synergy within.

Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art
185 St. Catherine Street W., Montreal, QC
February 2 to April 22, 2012