Louis Garneau’s recent work and its well-orchestrated presentation make obvious from the start that his objective as a businessman is to use sales from the exhibit to finance his newest foundation. His tangible commitment toward causes that speak to him is well known, whether it be helping youth through sports or the arts, or supporting the Petits frères des pauvres in their mission to pierce the isolation of the elderly. Having known luck, success and fame, Louis Garneau wants to give back and he remains sensitive to precariousness, a condition life has spared him.
An understanding of his latest pictorial series, entitled Double, must therefore take this marketing context into account. Louis Garneau is aware of the power he holds and of the possibilities this power gives him, of the brand image that has become his second skin.
This is not the first time Louis Garneau has brought his visual arts training to the fore and exhibited his work. In 1997, at Galerie Madeleine Lacerte, he presented a series of paintings explicitly inspired by pop art. More recently, in 2008, he proposed a series of large-scale calligraphic prints marked by spontaneous gestures. One might therefore conclude that the motivations driving his recent production go beyond charitable considerations. He himself admits the need for these pictorial “happenings” to occur in his life as a CEO; the anxiety, as well as presenting himself as a creator. These interrogations give rise to pertinent reflection on the nature and value of his work, both in itself and on the art market. What gall, one might say, to show work posited as a break from the frenetic rhythm of a life devoted to the mass production of consumer goods. What impertinence, one might think, to claim a place for this work on the market and to seek to manipulate the rules.
Would there be impertinence if Louis Garneau didn’t assume the doubt inherent in his daring enterprise? How is one to perceive work produced by a part-time creator? He himself would say that he is aware of what he represents and fully assumes it. Indeed, each component of the series Double is boldly signed, as in the past. A signature as trademark. Two million items bearing his signature are produced each year. A name serially reproduced. As a former Olympic champion who owns and runs a company with international ramifications, Louis Garneau knows the power of his name’s appeal. A public relations and marketing expert, he dares to believe in the possibility of attracting the attention of foreign investors. He directs an imposing team, involving them in the production of his series. Exactly… in the production of a series. A graphic designer positions source images; technicians oversee the execution, their actions they employ in this singular production are akin to those used to fabricate the Louis Garneau clothing line. A businessman exploiting the possibilities of industrial production to maximum effect within a company he himself created.
Consumer objects, artistic production, it would all seem to be one and the same. Indeed, the series Double bears witness to a surprising coherence, rarely attained until now, between the procedure and the end result, the creator’s life, the choice of images that are introduced and reworked…
In his daily life, Louis Garneau is constantly solicited: to approve the prototype for a helmet, to sign off on orders, to visit a foreign plant. His iPhone has become an appendage, an extension of his body, but also of his perception. Because he uses it to photograph whatever he can. Photographs taken one after the other, that accumulate and that he reworks in studio time that, logically, he doesn’t have. Quickly shot, quickly reproduced, retouched, superimposed. Photocopied, digitally processed, reprinted… then the very small window in which the artist applies paint. Industrial production confronts spontaneous, unfettered expression in creative sprints that occur rarely, but regularly.
Two years have gone by since the presentation of the last series, exhibited at the manufacturing plant itself. At the time, one noted a desire for self-sufficiency with regard to the work’s production and presentation. Marked by business collaborations with the East, Louis Garneau created calligraphic designs reminiscent of an ancestral mode of expression, in which traces of the hand, as writing tool, contrasted with the print method employed. Double is produced at the same plant using the same sublimated printing method, which is to say paper eventually transferred onto fabric. But the evocation of centuries-old gestures has now given way to more personal, autobiographic imagery. A riskier, more engaging attitude.
Placed side by side, each element of the series Double represents two cyclists, a direct reference to Louis Garneau’s life. One reference, however, does not belong solely to the past. Mounting a bicycle, primed for the starting line, moved by a constant desire to push boundaries still seems to inhabit Louis Garneau and embody the very essence of his being. The symmetrical composition confers a hieratic character to the work. Two faces are barely visible. Facing downward, they are dramatic, introspective and unexpected, troubling even to the artist. Photographs taken with a cellular phone, photocopied, then re-photographed on asphalt. Faces devoid of spatial depth, with a road as backdrop, a position that, for the artist, without knowing exactly why, brings a shroud to mind. The artist on the right. An anonymous cyclist on the left. A mirror effect, yet not. The effect of the double striking nevertheless. The tops of the helmets, their unique motif, their duplication, increases the illusion and introduces an urban calligraphic motif. Graffiti, perhaps even a logo. The colours, the position of the heads, the backdrop, all conspire to create an ambiguous reading of the surfaces while the polyester support, despite itself, lends an organic, vegetable effect to the whole. The work remains open to interpretation; in it, evocations of our era and the scarification typical of primitive tribes move back and forth.
Surprisingly, it is not the gestural overpainting, designed to appropriate the mechanically-produced images, that first captures our attention. It is the ancestral signs – tribal, primary, paradoxically introduced by the contemporary helmets – that catch our eye. As for the artist, he might be surprised to see in his creation the image of armour. And perhaps, given his capacity for surprise, also the image of a knight.
Lisanne Nadeau is director of the visual arts gallery of Université Laval. Art critic and historian, she was long involved in the artist-run centre LA CHAMBRE BLANCHE. A university lecturer, she has signed several exhibitions as an independent curator and regularly publishes in various catalogues and specialized contemporary art journals.