Metro tracks art underground

Karen Herland

Alena Buis (left) and Dina Vescio coordinated the energies of their graduate Art History class to produce an exhibit, symposium, and series of events celebrating the work of Paul-Émile Borduas and the Automatistes.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

For Loren Lerner’s current crop of art history graduate students, Paul-Émile Borduas’s legacy was almost as abstract as his art just a few months ago.

“There are 13 of us, and only three of us are from here,” Alena Buis said. All that changed when they were told that Borduas, his Refus Global and the Automatiste movement would be the subject of their term project.

What followed was intense research, brainstorming and planning, resulting in Métro Borduas, an exhibit, symposium and related events which will run until Dec. 19.

The students divided into groups and developed four different proposals; the best of the possibilities became Métro Borduas. “The show is broken up into metro stops tracking the development of non-figurative art and the spaces important to the Automatistes,” said Tatiana Mellema. The theme fits in with the current 40th anniversary of the metro system and “contextualizes the social and political atmosphere of the ’50s and ’60s.”

As the concept developed, the theme made increasing sense. “The metro works metaphorically as reference to an underground art movement around Montreal as well as a cultural mapping,” Dina Vescio said.

The students were asked to address Borduas’s legacy because the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art houses the Borduas documentation centre. The collection was donated by François-Marc Gagnon, chair and director of the Institute, who won a Governor-General’s Award in 1978 for his critical work on Borduas.

“He was an incredibly generous mentor. His anecdotes were important in shaping the events for the show,” Mellema said.

The students were impressed with the scope of Borduas’s impact. “He broke down barriers and tried to stop academic rigidity and a tradition of figurative art within Catholic narratives,” Jacqui Sischy said.

It’s a break that Alena Buis said is perfect for Concordia, “where the Fine Arts department is known for liberal ideas and new teaching methods.”
The students see a direct link between the art and the everyday. In fact, the exhibit will feature two petitions, one asking that the Lionel-Groulx metro station be renamed after Borduas, the other that Champ-de-Mars take the name of Marcelle Ferron, who designed the abstract stained glass that decorates its exterior. The change would also make that station the only one on the network named for a woman.

For Sischy, this would be a minimal way to acknowledge a movement “that includes visual arts, dance, poetry. The arts in Quebec took a radical transformation.”

The scope of the students’ project was huge. The actual organization, once the theme was finalized, was accomplished in a little over a month.

We were lucky to have a unique group of people with different skills. Some knew web sites, some had graphic experience, others had published,” Buis said. She and Vescio were responsible for matching the numerous tasks and responsibilities to the people involved and keeping the momentum going.

The vernissage for the exhibition will take place on Dec. 5 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the FOFA Gallery, and will be followed by a lecture on Borduas by Gagnon. The public is also invited to the graduate student symposium on November 26.

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