It is simply impossible not to quote Jean Dubuffet when speaking of Anick Langelier’s paintings, for they are true examples of the Art Brut genre he formulated.

A predecessor of contemporary “outsider” art, it referred to work done by the disenfranchised, the mentally ill, those imprisoned, on the fringes of society. With no formal training, these artists made art that shattered all convention, and in the process, revealed its true calling. For what is art if not a form of language, a vehicle for our innermost expression, our innermost demons. Dubuffet (1901-1985) had wonderful advice for these unconventional creators, and that was to remain irreverent, and uninhibited.

Get drunk on art, he would say: “There is no art without intoxication. But I mean a mad intoxication! Let reason teeter! Delirium!”

ExoVanGo, 2010. Acrylic on canvas. 61 x 76 cm

It is all there in the frenetic artwork of Langelier, who has battled mental illness all her life, finding the only solace in painting, painting like a woman possessed, painting like mad. She draws endless inspiration from art books that she devours, immersing herself on a daily basis in others’ imagery in search of a panacea, a release from the nightmare that imprisons her mind.

This is her materia prima, the primeval substance of her production, which she moulds, like clay, into entirely new visual configurations, while unnervingly retaining some distinctive aspect of the original’s “physiognomy”. It is no surprise that she riffs constantly and predominantly on Vincent van Gogh, and artist known for his psychological struggle throughout his life and career. Whether it’s ravens that tormented his compositions, which in Langelier’s version resemble rapacious shadows creeping out of the walls, or his swirling, dizzying skies that spring myriad eyes in her paintings.

That same “mad genius” hides in her works that seem to continuously evolve, and although there is no proof that people who live with mental illness are innately more creative than non- mentally ill people, there is no denying the underlying impulse. Langelier is driven by her demons, they dictate her work, and perhaps to a large degree her life, for the symbiosis between the two is just as impossible to ignore.

Her visual lexicon is overwhelming and complex. From surreal ochre fields populated by stick figures, to dense compositions and striking portraits, the scope of her production is dizzying and spell-binding. Faces morph and undulate, horns spring up from heads, and flames dance and dance in an endless, macabre pageant.

Cauchemar aux corbeaux, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. 102 x 76 cm

Diagnosed with a borderline personality, and in and out of mental institutions, Langelier is terrifying prolific, to the point of obsession, producing over 400 paintings in 20 years. For while it may not be true that psychiatric problems have nothing to do with creativity, it is almost certain that people with mental illnesses use artistic expression as a coping mechanism.

Barely in her 30s, she paints to live, literally, fearing without that release, the madness would simply swallow her. It still does, but on canvas, where at times there is no room to breathe, not a space left in the thick tangle of shapes and colours.

This evisceration often produces simply stunning works, both in terms of visual expression and artistic rendition. Her series of portraits based on van Gogh, with a huge dollop of Francis Bacon, are particularly accomplished. In ExoVanGo, the artist’s face is instantly recognizable, yet it is in a completely new configuration and colour scheme, with a cage-like structure imposed on the composition.

Cauchemar aux corbeaux (Nightmare with crows) is another impossible to categorize painting; while imbued with numerous references to other works of art, it is Langelier at her best, or worst, as in the throes of night terrors.

While inspired by other artists, she creates art that is frighteningly personal, and absolutely compelling, as in the heart-breaking La tentation (The temptation) with a fractured, crazed personage torn between the Biblical Good and Evil.

Anick Langelier and her stunning images are part of a group exhibition at Galerie Robert Poulin, which specializes in Art Brut and outsider art. It showcases works by European and Canadian artists, and in the words of the gallery owner:

“If Jean Dubuffet brought together the work of marginal creators, mystics and very often the mentally ill under the term of art brut, we prefer the term of singular art to define the work of the artists who create indifferent to the norms or the judgment of others.”

Singuliers Pluriels II. Galerie Robert Poulin, May 23 to July 14, 2018