“We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.”  (André Berthiaume)

The original French title of Melsa Montagne’s latest exhibition, Indicible, can be translated in a number of ways: unspeakable, unutterable, ineffable, indescribable… and they all apply. She has chosen one of the most potent, and enigmatic, of subject matters for her new series – the human face. It can be a mirror, a reflection of beauty or horror, of ourselves. It can be a mask we hide behind, a mystery to decipher, a world to discover. And it is this aspect in particular that invests her works.

The title is intriguing in another way, considering the artist’s public engagement via her art. Since graduating from Collège Montmorency in Laval with a degree in Fine Arts in 1998, Montagne has participated in numerous group exhibitions in Quebec and Australia, and is the recipient of a number of important awards. Notably, in the fall of 2014, together with artist Nicolas Des Ormeaux, she won the Tribute to Frédéric Back contest thanks to her public piece The Proliferator, a monumental sculpture created on a large poplar in Montreal’s Park La Fontaine. Reaching further to the public, her posters illustrating an awareness campaign initiated by Le Bon Dieu Dans la Rue, a charitable organization offering services to homeless youth, have been appearing in bus shelters and the metro since 2015. Speaking out using the medium of art has been Montagne’s forté, so to think of her message as “unutterable” intrigues… Here, she is drawing the viewer into an intimate and emotionally-charged realm, attempting to unveil, release, the “unspeakable” that lurks behind the masks we all wear.

Attendre une autre journée, 2018. Acrylic on paper. 56 x 71 cm

A pantheon of faces awaits the viewer in the small, elegant Tommy Zen art gallery, silent spectators to our initial bewilderment. At times disturbing in their exposed vulnerability, wounded but defiant, they invite profound introspection. Their titles carry a hint, a subtle clue to the psychological drama behind the image, as in the striking portrait Attendre une autre journée (Wait another day). The face is androgynous, emerging from gestural smudges of paint, its gaze averted, anguished. And impossibly compelling.

That sideways glance appears in several of the works, including a touching childlike face in Ton regard qui stop la pluie (Your look that stops the rain), but here the emotional component is on par with the plastic rendition; dabs of colour obliterating some of the features in a painterly “intervention”, the artist’s poetic licence, as it were.

Montagne draws with her paintbrush, her imagery sketchy, allowing the works to tilt in several directions, without imposing pictorial boundaries. Almost shadowy, they follow the viewer around the gallery, looking out only on surface, their gaze focused eternally inward, as if in the throes of an inner struggle.

Série Allo 1

A series of smaller pieces creates a short storyboard on the theme of loneliness. Titled Allo (Hello) – with the words incorporated into the composition – it is a poignant message for our times. The personages are featureless, more like smudged figures in the process of becoming. For that to happen, for one to be “seen”, there needs to be the other, whose eyes will reflect, validate, our being.

Most intriguing are Montagne’s latest conceptual paintings-cum-collages, created from sewn on cut-outs, a direct reference to the peeling off, literally and figuratively, of the many layers that hide behind the features, a revealing aspect of the entire production. Almost three- dimensional, these works are truly fascinating and complex, emerging instinctively, and determinately, from the monochromatic portraits.

Ton regard qui stop la pluie, 2018 Acrylic and pastels on paper 48,25 x 61 cm

Melsa Montagne is the voice of a new generation of Quebec artists, challenging the norms while adhering to the demands of both her message, and her medium. Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying stands the test of time, and applies to art in every guise, including Montagne’s haunting, expressive paintings. At once tangible, and illusive, her message is one of humanity and communication, universal themes weaving through art immemorial.

Melsa Montagne, Indicible. Tommy Zen Gallery. May 10 to July 15, 2018