A Conversation with Brendan de Montigny
Covid-19 has rapidly transformed our lives over the last several months. The way individuals and businesses are able to interact has turned upside down, both locally and internationally. Some topics discussed in this interview have been redacted due to these unprecedented times, and editor’s notes and new questions have been inserted where appropriate.
Wallack’s takes pride in the support it provides to the community during the pandemic and beyond. During this time, we have created new ways to supply artists with the tools they need to pursue their creative process. We continue to put the spotlight on local artists by sharing work through our social media channels and by conducting interviews like this.
Yuli: Can you talk a little bit about your artistic practice? What type of work do you create?
Brendan: I'm focused mainly on a mark-making practice - that would be the best way to put it. Drawing. Painting. Bringing the two together to tell visual stories that create a fuller narrative. I have a love for comic books, science fiction, and pulp, mostly from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I'm interested in questioning technology ... Right now, I'm focused on that - questioning Technological Utopianism, and what drives us in our relationship toward technology and the pitfalls within that. Our reliance on technology, and again, sort of teasing that out to bring up conversations about political struggles, class struggles, or power structures that are oppressive due to the technology that's being put in place. Climate change is another big one. I'm doing a lot of research right now, looking at flora and fauna from the local area and trying to weave that in as well.
Yuli: And you mentioned you are working in a pretty small studio space right now. So, you're working on a smaller scale, producing mock-ups for future endeavors?
Brendan: Yeah. I have a background in print and I love full-size print paper, the 30 by 22. I used to love punk and hardcore shows. I was never buying the t-shirts; I was always buying the prints. That's actually how I got into art. I was at SAW video and Nick Shaw, who used to run Invisible Cinema, a repertoire VHS and rental place, was playing in his band called Buried Inside, told me “You should come to this show. There's this collective from Montreal that has some cool band prints, and you're always buying posters. You should totally come.” That was Seripop. I asked them, Where do you guys go to school? And they said they just dropped out of Concordia. So, I was like... Well, I'm going to Concordia! [laughs]. And that was it. I dropped out of liberal arts and went into visual arts at the college I was at, then moved to Montreal after.
Yuli: Is that when you first started doing visual arts?
Brendan: No, I was always dabbling in it. I was the art kid in high school.
Yuli: What made you choose liberal arts in the beginning?
Brendan: I had a wonderful English professor who was an old hippie, and she said that I would be miserable as an artist and I would be less miserable as an English teacher [...] I think liberal arts was interesting and that sort of criticality still informs my practice. Actually, all my high school friends have become academics in their own right, mostly finishing off doctoral degrees in philosophy. But I liked the idea of going into visual arts because often in humanities you're locked into the 8 by 11 paper. You have to struggle for years as an academic before you start getting published, whereas a visual practice just came naturally. I liked it because immediately there was a sense of community.
Yuli: Do you think that visual communication is more accessible than written communication in that way? Because obviously a lot of your work is very informed by research.
Brendan: I think that there's still a lot of systematic problems towards accessibility, with both lines of communication. I was privileged and lucky enough that I had a support network right from the beginning, with family and friends being like Yes, you should do this. I've always wanted to bring people together and create networks in that way. That's what led me to open up the gallery, PDA Project to support the local community in whatever way I possibly could.
Yuli: Your work is community-driven.
Brendan: Yeah, exactly. Someone recently asked me if it is difficult doing all of this community/cultural work. In Canada Council's eyes, I'm a curator and a cultural connector but I haven't applied for the artist's section yet [laughs]. This person asked if that's a strange juxtaposition... I guess they saw being an artist as an insular practice, but I do all this other stuff. And I said, it's kind of one and the same. The work that I'm doing in the visual artists involves overarching themes of betterment and cultural connecting.
Yuli: Interesting. How many years did you live in Montreal?
Brendan: I was there for four years, for my degree, and stayed for 3 years after that. I majored in painting and drawing. I really liked it. The college degree in Cegep was quite technical, you know, learning volume and perspective. It was very western in its pedagogical approach. Concordia was a little bit different - more conceptual and idea-driven. I was balking at that unlearning process. Stupidly so. In some ways that's just being young and trying to figure things out. I wanted something more technical so I decided to minor in print. I wanted that technical process and to learn how to go from A to B to C to D -- that structure. That tacked on another year.
Yuli: I did one print screening class at Concordia and enjoyed it -- it forced me to go backward and say, let's think about this more in the sense of material and layering and how the image is being put together, as opposed to just concept. It got me thinking differently.
Brendan: Yes, exactly. Silk-screening in its process informs the foundations of my drawing [...] Concordia was great, the professors were extremely supportive and made an impact. Eliza Griffiths, who's a painter originally from Ottawa and one of the original founders of the Enriched Bread Artists, was extremely influential. Stephanie Russ pushed me to continue in the arts. As well as Francois Morelli. Mainly due to his influence, a portion of my practice is also performative, I'm not sure if you saw that on my website [Walkabout in Ruins]
Yuli: I did, I was looking at it earlier today and I sent a link to a photographer friend of mine, who I work with on a zine in Ottawa. I was really into it and he liked the project as well.
Brendan: An Ottawa artist I did my MFA with, Christopher Payne and I love getting into the heart of meta-modernism and the tropes of late modernism. We collaborated on this piece. During my master's degree, I delved deep into Robert's Smithson's work. He did a piece in the 60s/70s called the Walk around the Passaic New Jersey. [Walkabout in Ruins] was sort of our homage to it. That was our riff of that work.
Yuli: Did you exhibit that project somehow?
Brendan: It was published in an Art Journal based out of Savannah, Georgia called Drain Magazine. I've never ever thought of it as an exhibition piece, it's more web art.
Yuli: Yeah, I'm into it. I and a few other artist friends in Ottawa love wandering the city, taking photos of banal stuff, and seeing how the city evolves over time in terms of construction and whatnot ... Your project reminded me of that. Watching that evolution - the tearing down of the old buildings and the building of condos. We find it interesting.
Brendan: I like it when artists, specifically within painting and drawing, can do banality well. It's something that I've always strived for.
Yuli: Backtracking to your time in Montreal, what made you move back to Ottawa after attending Concordia?
Brendan: When I graduated, I wanted to understand the commercial side of the art world, as opposed to academia. I started working at a gallery in the Old Port and then moved to Galerie de Bellefeuille, where I was the registrar. That was an interesting point in time when I was understanding a larger context of how art is sold & moved and the way people talk about it in that context. I applied to a few master’s programs and I got into Ottawa with a full scholarship; they offer the best scholarship in the country, close to 40 thousand for two years. I figured, why not? I liked the MFA at the University of Ottawa. It's an amazing program.
Yuli: Were you happy coming back or were you dreading it?
Brendan: I was kicking and screaming, for sure. I was twenty-six, and I was leaving a full network of friends. I didn't really know anybody in Ottawa anymore. But that was just silly because the one thing that I got from the MFA more than anything was a community. There's this misconception about Ottawa as a sleepy city nestled between two Goliaths, Montreal and Toronto . I think every scene has its positives and its areas that it can work on. I think a lot of it has little to do with the actual artists or the art community itself, though. It's more about sort of the financial burdens of whatever area is going through -- the economic situation of the cities. Toronto has an extremely high price of living. It's fast-paced and because of that people are under pressure just to survive. And so, you know, it's a bit of a different style. Montreal is very much a university town and has a wonderfully rich Quebecois faction of art. I think Ottawa is having a different conversation. There are fewer commercial galleries here, so because of that, there is much more of an established artist-run culture, which is incredible. For example, the work that Tam-Ca and Jason are doing at Galerie SAW Gallery ... AXENÉO7 in Gatineau is one of the most beautiful artist-run centers in all of Quebec.
Yuli: AXENÉO7 is a gorgeous gallery.
Brendan: Oh yeah. I see that Ottawa-Gatineau is coming up in an interesting way. I think that we're continually improving. Look what's happened at the OAG, for example. There are a lot more eyes focused on the city as well. Even with the MFA program, if you look at when the RBC had their painting prize, continually there were people nominated or finalists within that [..] Stanzie Tooth, Colin Dorward, Gavin Lynch, David Kaarsemaker. It's a very strong painting program, and that that's just one part of the community. I like what Studio 66 is doing -- Carrie is an excellent dealer. What Matias and Anthony are doing at Cinqhole is extremely important, trailblazed by Bruno and Sothea. There are many people that are an important part of the community.
Yuli: I had a show at Cinqhole with a few artists last year; we were their first show last summer. We were so excited about the space opening. I feel like in Montreal there are a lot of places like that -- small DIY spaces. I love that they're doing multiple shows every week at Cinqhole. It's a central location which is great.
Brendan: They really are focusing on excellent local talent and are inviting in amazing artists from abroad too. In 2014, I tried to model PDA Projects as sort of a blend of that. It was a DIY community space but it was also very much a commercial gallery that was showing top heavy-hitters of upcoming emerging artists.
Yuli: Can you talk about PDA Projects a little bit?
Brendan: It was a contemporary, commercial art gallery founded by myself and Meredith Snider, a local contemporary artist. She ran the educational workshops and left the gallery after a year to pursue her artistic practice... For three out of the four years, the roster was 50/50, male- female-identified. I put on exhibitions every four to six weeks. There were about 30 exhibitions in 2015. That year I also founded the Coalesce Performance Festival where I partnered up with three public space galleries, so SAW, AXENE07, and Carleton University Art Gallery. It was a three-day performance art festival with 30 artists from all across the country. Hell of a lot of fun. People were like, what is going on?! Because when you see a gaggle of 20 to 30 people outside along the canal throwing someone off the locks that looks like Huckleberry Finn … [laughs] we had a lot of fun. Anyway, I had a checklist of things that I wanted to do with the PDA Projects and sort of hit them all, so I wanted to move on and work on other projects. I closed the gallery down in 2018 [...] When I opened up the gallery, I tried hard to scrub that identity of "Brendan as the artist" because many more traditional dealers were like, so what are you? Or are you an art dealer or an artist? “You can't be both in Canada”. And at that time I bought into that... and now I don’t see it that way. Being a creative can mean things to each person.
Yuli: So you weren't doing your own work at that time, you took a few years off?
Brendan: I took four years off.
Yuli: Was that a struggle, to take that time off? Or were you happy to be working on PDA?
Brendan: Yeah, I loved it. It didn't bother me to not be working on my personal art practice that way because I also saw something performative with PDA. There is a lot of creativity that comes with being an ‘art dealer.
Yuli: It's great that you can find a balance. I find I struggle with creating my own stuff and then being involved in more community projects. I start to miss my individual creativity, I guess.
Brendan: Yeah, there is something that artists do in the studio that is sort of like ... releasing those serotonin receptors [laughs] There is this personal drive to want to make that's linked to the ego in a large capacity. It always weirded me out when my own artwork was up on the walls for openings. I didn't like being the center of attention in that way. It gives me anxiety because I'm putting all of myself onto the wall, or what I'm thinking onto the wall, and I want you to read it and critique it and validate it. That gets even more bizarre when we bring in the economics and capitalism of it all, which can be toxic. You see that within Instagram. The politics of Instagram in its User Experience (UX) design is based on the desire to create a loop of constantly scrolling. Again, I would go even further and say if you look at various social media, like Instagram, there are politics within Silicon Valley that are founded within the idea of being a libertarian. It’s the idea that big companies are the ones that can actually be altruistic philosopher-kings and run the world. Yet, it's also based on them trying to make money. But how do you make money out of users? You tell them "You can also be an entrepreneur." And so, all the artists are trying to be entrepreneurs. Instead of being in the studio and thinking critically, they're trying to follow the likes and trying to look at what's in vogue, rather than just living their "true self" if you will.
Yuli: Do you think you can get away with not engaging in social media? You have social media, right?
Brendan: Yes, I do. I'm saying this kind of like Polonius from Hamlet. It's an interesting thought. It’s about playing the game.
Yuli: I think it's important to talk about it and be aware of it.
Brendan: Right. For instance, when I saw the call for Karsh-Masson, I thought, maybe I can apply by myself ... But then I thought, Nah, I want to do a group show [laughs]. I want to work with artists that I had on my bucket list when I had the gallery. Their research aligned with my interests as a practicing artist; Sci-fi, questioning reality, climate change, and technology. That's why I called up Claire Scherzinger, Colin Canary, and Tyler Armstrong. We brainstormed some ideas, then applied as a group together and we got that show [Note: Set for November 2020]. PDA still influences how I think about exhibitions -- sure, I'm directing the gallery, but I'm nothing without the artists. I prefer group shows because they open up the exchange for dialogue from many perspectives. It's about communicating, working together, negotiating, and building each other up.
Yuli: Yeah. I also feel less anxious about social media and Instagram when I feel like the root of what I'm working on is about community. I just inherently feel better. I think to myself, the point of this is working with other people and seeing other people be successful.
Brendan: I would always get a much bigger high at a good opening. When people come and have a good time. And maybe there were a couple of pieces sold, so the artist feels validated in the way that we're talking about their work. And you know, I feel validated too, because I'm actually playing the game of being a commercial capitalist art dealer [laughs]. Everybody leaves feeling good. Being in the studio by yourself can be a bit of struggle sometimes. There's not much of a sounding board.
Yuli: Definitely. I know you talked about your upcoming show at Karsh-Masson Gallery, but you also mentioned that you're going to be moving into a new studio space soon. What works are you focused on currently?
Brendan: I was initially planning on going into full production mode starting in April. But with pandemic I am now adjusting based on timing and projected scheduling. I'm currently finalizing the research and development of possible works that I'm going to exhibit, which will most likely be larger scale panel drawings/paintings as well as an installation. I'm looking at a lot of late modernist forms like geodesic domes and brutalist architecture. And again, probably revisiting one of my favorite pastimes, which is visiting wrecker sites where cars go to die … the graveyards of cars.
Yuli: Interesting. Are there a lot around here?
Brendan: Yes. Near Stittsville there are some large ones. I like going there to document, especially around summertime, how the flora has entangled with the vehicles. Seeing that juxtaposition and the way that the transportation vessels become vessels for life after the fact.
Yuli: I look forward to seeing that. And the installation?
Brendan: Currently, the installation plan is sculptural and an expanded exploded view coming to life. Like my drawing in 3D.
Yuli: Do you know what materials you'll be using?
Brendan: Geodesic domes, real car parts, plants. It's still early days. I guess the best way to put it is a teaser ... I would like to expand what my drawings are, both in color, form, and line work, into a three-dimensional installation that you can engage with.
Yuli: Do you like the idea of people interacting with your work?
Brendan: I think it depends on the medium and the message. As a viewer, I like when there is that slippage and that middle point when interactions with the art starts to happen and end. I'm thinking of Bill Viola's exhibition at DHC a couple of years ago. I spent hours there. He's a video artist, and this exhibition worked a lot with water, layering, and projecting.
Yuli: I'm going to ask a few rapid-fire questions: In your opinion, when is an artwork successful?
Brendan: I would say that an artwork is successful when it is shared with the community and it creates conversations for the betterment of that culture that is progressive.
Yuli: Do you have any favorite artists?
Brendan: I really like Jake and Dinos Chapman, Carolee Schneeman, Tricia Middleton, Tammi Campbell, Dayna Danger, and Neo Rauch. I think a good question is which local artists I'm excited about these days. Barry Ace is doing some interesting work. Gillian King. I'm so happy that she's had so much success. Her exhibitions this last year have just been incredible.
Yuli: What is the biggest challenge you face with your work?
Brendan: Balancing the conceptual and critical while not being overly didactic.
Yuli: And last question, what advice would you give to your fellow artists, and also for those who are just starting out?
Brendan: I would definitely say for both: communicate, reach out, be supportive of each other. For emerging artists, look at what your community is doing locally and what's being thought about critically. Figure out what you like and what your message is. Apply to artist-run centres and create a game plan. When I was an art dealer, I would try to sit down with every artist and ask: What's your five-year game plan? Let's get there. If you want to do an MFA, great. Let's look at your work. And then, what are you reading? What are some recommendations that you're hearing from other artists that you're working with? It's about having conversations and unpacking, unlearning, and being open to relearning. That's what I think is important for contemporary emerging artists: getting involved and putting yourself out there.
Brendan’s favourite Wallack’s products:
In early March of this year, Yuli Sato sat down with Brendan de Montigny in his Gatineau home to chat about creativity in Ottawa-Gatineau (and beyond), Brendan’s artistic practice, as well as the on-going challenges artists face while navigating a technologically-driven world.
Interview and images have been provided by Yuli Sato for Wallack's.
You can also see Yuli's instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/yulisato/