Charcoal is a sensual medium that, at an elemental level, is wood transformed into carbon by pyrolysis; slow heating in a process of oxygen reduction. It is very much ‘of the earth’ and yet also evocative of life and death. Paradoxically, oxygen is poisonous but our cell mitochondria transform it into energy. Originally these were independent organisms that collaborated with our primordial organism to unify within our cells. Thus they retain a small amount of their own DNA. Plants were photosynthesizing and producing excess oxygen, creating an oppressive environment for anaerobic organisms.

Napoleon Brousseau dives into this sea of black, to emerge holding up treasures from a nether world. There are so many assumptions about consciousness and existence. Ironically, the presence of ‘alien’ mitochondria questions our concept of individuality. In truth, as a planet, we exist in endosymbiosis. The age of science imposes a reductive sensibility, ‘verifying’ according to a linear manner of hypotheses and experimentation, yet subversively, our minds lend credence to intuitive methods of divination. Scrying is the practice of ‘seeing into’ a substance or reflective surface, in the belief that ‘reality’ is multilayered and that we can interpret it. Nostradamus would be making his predictions using this technique, accessing the unconscious.

Brousseau tries to reduce his conscious decision making to allow for unconscious communication. These charcoal drawings are completed very quickly so as to avoid excessive linear elaboration. The Siberian Fir charcoal he uses yields a very dense, black tone. He deploys a number of mechanical techniques randomly to provide the platform that will evoke an image. Metal grids with varying patterns are placed under the paper and charcoal drawn over them leaving impressions. Laboriously he carves patterns like squares, rings or a portion of observed foliage onto sponge rollers. When used these impart carbon patterns onto the paper. Certain drawings have been vacuumed and he also uses oil paint in areas. Somewhere in the intersection of all these processes, an image emerges. He develops the looming narrative up to the point where he feels emotionally depleted, then stops.

Brousseau has a predilection for themes like the duality of male sexuality. His figures often sport both penises and vaginas, engaging in fantastical unions. Our culture, steeped in biblical notions of Eve being wrought from Adam’s rib, has averted its gaze. Male foetuses initially resemble female form and are hormonally transformed in a protracted journey with many stops along the way. Reality is far more complex than we comprehend.

Napoleon Brousseau, Late Terminal Capitalism

The Dreamer presents an ambiguous bust with Adam’s apple in a state of confinement. Barbed wire bandages circumscribe the head. Thick black bars encircle while the spaces between them push forward, inducing claustrophobia. The drawing feels like it was ‘fingered’ into existence. Crudity of execution reflects the desire to be informed or receive a message rather than imposing a set of graphic skills. The dream is inarticulate desire, emanating from a restricted mind; an apt reflection of our relationship to ‘reality’.

Late Terminal Capitalism features a huge black clenched fist towering up from the land. A head within the arm opens its jaws like a mythological Saturn devouring his children. It is a corporate personage as indicated by the white shirt collar and tie. Brousseau references the eco-political in The Wheelmaster. His random marks have called forth images of factories billowing smoke. The transparent silhouette of the Wheelmaster is poised to enter the earth’s vagina in an act of desecration rather than procreation. Terra (the earth) has to defeat the Wheelmaster in a computer game called Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep.

Protagonists with deer heads evoke animism as in Heart Gift and Goddess of the Ways. The drawing Rabbit Sadhu references the holy ascetics of India who live apart but here the trussed, childlike, rabbit figure is being lowered into a grave. The ‘message’ is clear. Tobacco Woman is suffused in smoke. It becomes her spirit or soul, moving through her body. The black charcoal invades every cell. Lines denoting bodily form bend to become indications of escaping gas, lighter than form. Tobacco has healing significance to Native American cultures and ‘smudging’ is the use of smoke to cleanse negative energies, provoking vision.

Napoleon Brousseau is an eccentric artist, brave and determined. The charcoal drawings are only one facet of his artistic production, which ranges from new media to painting. It’s great to see him inaugurating Toronto’s beautiful new Angell Gallery. 

Angell Gallery, Toronto
September 11 — October 10, 2015