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Gabrielle de Montmollin, Stephen Harper Hates Me, at The Red Head Gallery, April 24-May18, 2013
by Leanne Unruh
Published in KAPSULA 07.18.2013

At a recent conference on museum and exhibition practices, Discursive Space, I had a discussion with other participants about the state of politics in the museum. We lamented that, while many public institutions displayed artworks and objects that were political in nature, they frequently see their role as objective. Each participant had examples of museums and galleries which overlooked art’s potential to create political action, even going so far as burying political facts under neutral presentation and wording. Commenting on politics is not “safe” artwork, and displaying political work is not “safe” for publicly funded institutions. It’s a huge risk: after all, we consider political opinions to be private, and when talking about politics it’s easy for conversations to dissolve into heated arguments. No politics at the dinner table, please.

In this light, the overt political statement of Gabrielle de Montmollin’s recent solo exhibition, Stephen Harper Hates Me, was refreshing. Working within the collectively run Red Head Gallery, de Montmollin has no qualms about engaging with politics. She confronts them head on, and with a firm opinion. Those familiar with the state of the Canadian political landscape will understand the sentiment of Stephen Harper Hates Me, since the Conservative government seems to alternate between cutting arts funding and ignoring the arts altogether. The essay accompanying de Montmollin’s exhibition explains that she takes Harper’s opinions and actions personally because, as both an artist and a woman, de Montmollin has been specifically targeted by him. Not only does our illustrious leader think that “artists are not hardworking citizens” and refuses to represent them, but he further “doesn’t approve of women unless they are relegated to raising children in their homes” and has slashed funding for women’s organizations (Susan Swan, The Fantastic, Fearless and Furious World of Gabrielle de Montmollin. Essay for Stephen Harper Hates Me exhibition, The Red Head Gallery, 2013). If his comments on art funding and the status of women aren’t enough to get you riled up, don’t forget Harper’s management of the 2010 G20 summit in downtown Toronto, for which he was heavily criticized. The $858 million spent on the event (ibid) was used to create an indoor lake (among other expenditures), and bringing in police from outlying cities so that Toronto resembled a police state for a period of time. Are you suitably unimpressed with Harper yet? Good. Now imagine yourself in a small gallery surrounded by portraits of him.

The focal wall of Stephen Harper Hates Me displays twenty different photographs of Harper pulled from news articles and framed. Each photograph has been given the same treatment: printed on photo paper with the background painted in bright yellow, blue, pink, green or red; hair painted over in solid brown and shirt or suit jacket covered in a beige tone. Only Harper’s face remains, staring vacantly into space. The effect recalls Warhol’s colourful prints of Marilyn Monroe. But where Warhol treated Marilyn interchangeably with the other commodities in his work, such as the famous Campbell’s soup can, de Montmollin’s use of Harper deviates from her previous artistic practice and makes an overt—almost didactic—political statement. De Montmollin’s early works are primarily black and white photographs that use dolls in fantastical and often subversive settings. In experimentations with mixed media she began incorporating newspaper clippings and social justice issues into her work.

Now, in Stephen Harper Hates Me, de Montmollin has combined her mixed media and photographic practices into a cohesive body of work focusing on one issue. In addition to the Pop portraits of Harper, a photographic series uses paint to transform his photo-ops into the realm of the ridiculous. Harper appears as Satan, a clown, a Mexican wrestler and a balaclava-clad figure. Another key piece shows a photographic print of Harper with one arm raised waving to a crowd. However, with the background painted red and the image emblazoned with the word “MAJORITY,” similarities begin to emerge with Chairman Mao. Yet another photographic series features a paper cut-out of a miniature Stephen Harper that moves around the artist’s studio as an ever-present force, watching her work. Titles such as Disdainful Man Looking Down His Nose Sitting in My Studio and Ignorant Man Despising What He Doesn’t Know Standing in My Studio make it explicitly clear that de Montmollin feels the effect of Harper’s political leadership in her everyday life.

The overall atmosphere of the exhibit, however, was comical. De Montmollin places Harper in ridiculous situations and silly outfits. She uses low-tech photographic alterations such as paint and collage to make her point, rather than aiming for a sense of veracity. De Montmollin’s sense of humour makes it clear that she does not reciprocate Harper’s hatred. By poking fun at the situation she gives his hatred no justification.

The comical nature of Stephen Harper Hates Me also calls for a response from the audience. In laughing at the images are we signaling agreement with the portrayal of Harper as a clown? Furthermore, if we agree with this portrayal, what are we going to do about it? By eliciting viewer’s reactions  de Montmollin has created artwork that expresses a boldly defiant opinion, and also creates the potential for political change.  

 

Leanne Unruh holds an MA in Contemporary Art, Design, and New Media Art Histories from OCAD University. Her experience in the field includes an internship at Rodman Hall Arts centre, work at The Red Head Gallery, organizing student exhibitions at Brock University, and a collaboratively produced group show, HIVE, at OCAD University’s Graduate Gallery in 2012. She was also the co-ordinator of OCAD’s annual graduate conference for 2013, titled Too Soon: The Contemporary as Method.