Gabrielle de Montmollin    

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Photographs of Gabrielle de Montmollin
© Ned Richardson-Little

Published in Scrivener Creative Review #28, 2004
(cover image Davida Kidd)

No matter how hard one tries, it is hard to pigeonhole Gabrielle de Montmollin's work. A combination of photography and drawing, with subjects that look like Dr. Frankenstein's latest designs for Mattel, her images don't exactly correspond to any particular school of art. Even she has trouble defining where her work stands.

"Art is just so weird today, it's hard to fit in," says de Montmollin over coffee at her studio on the Danforth in Toronto's Greektown neighbourhood. "My work isn't surreal. People call it surreal because they don't know what else to call it. My work is just weird."

And weird it is. Using only children's toys as models, de Montmollin's portfolio is bizarre. A horse's head is perched on the top of a nude doll, while other human-animal hybrids dance around in what looks to be some sort of tribal ritual. The face of Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring is pasted onto that of a lone Barbie doll sitting in a white room with an old home seen in the background through a window. Plastic giraffes pick at a tree made from a stem of broccoli. De Montmollin finds the humour and horror lurking inside of children's toys that are often overlooked. There is a vitality in her compositions that is as strong as work with living models.

Not only does her work defy artistic taxonomy, those looking for a cohesive statement in her art will find it equally elusive. Preferring to leave the meaning of her work to viewer, she says that she tries to concentrate on telling stories rather than sending overt messages. Her photographs are untitled to prevent unexpected meaning from creeping into her tableaux and the names of her shows are often tacked on as an afterthought. "I don't like my photographs when they send messages," she says. "They're mysterious enough so that people can find their own stories."

This, however, has not always been successful, especially with a photo called Paris Tunnel. The piece was named for a picture of a tunnel in Paris that was in the background, yet many were convinced it was a commentary on the death of Princess Diana.

De Montmollin may not be seeking to send a message to her viewer, but this hardly means that her work is not well thought-out. She just concentrates on creating a visceral and emotional reaction rather than a cerebral one. "In The Psychology of Imagination Sartre describes an image as a form of consciousness whereby something that is absent is nonetheless present to our consciousness. It is the absent something which is nonetheless there that I am looking for when I pose the dolls and click the shutter," said de Montmollin in reference to her most recent collection Bird Women.

Her concentration on the human figure crossed with animal anatomy is hardly an accident. From ancient mythology to the psychological theories of Carl Jung, these images have played a major role in western society and de Montmollin believes they are deeply rooted in our collective unconscious.

Her compositions are just as carefully planned. Her subjects, while inanimate, are always dynamic, giving the images the feel of a real-life snapshot. One's eye is sometimes drawn to a subject that is out of focus while the background details are crystal clear. There is a certain calculated uneasiness to many of de Montmollin's photos.

Like a jazz musician exploring variations on an old standard, de Montmollin has constantly evolved over the last decade while keeping to almost the exact same subjects. Always there is a tableau of posed, used toys, yet nothing is duplicated. Her early work stuck to ironic contrasts: a roman legionnaire lying in wait behind a cantaloupe for a column of Napoleonic soldiers or a cowboy chatting with a polar bear while a trio of nuns hang out in the background. In the early '90s she switched to what would become her model of choice: old, beaten up and unclothed Barbie dolls. The dolls were soon fitted with faces cut from magazines with eerily life-like results. Next, de Montmollin combined sketching and painting with her photographs to create the look of her recent art.

One thing that strikes you sitting in de Montmollin's studio is the lack of fancy gear. Among the thousands of toys that populate the controlled chaos, there is a three-sided, white cardboard stage (the box her TV came in), a pair of aging 35mm cameras, a well-worn tripod and a handful of lights. Also in her arsenal is an ancient photocopier that helps to create the grainy and distorted look of her recent work. A single photograph may be copied and resized repeatedly, then painted on before the final product is complete. "I'm not very technically proficient. I use a basic camera and I have very little equipment," says de Montmollin with a touch of pride. "There's a great freedom, you don't have to rely on the technology."

For her recent work, de Montmollin makes extensive use of paper negatives. Prints are altered and turned back into negative images in the darkroom. Sometimes they are left that way; sometimes they are turned back into a positive print at a later stage.

Largely self-taught, most of her techniques have evolved from years of experimentation. The limitations of her equipment have spurred her to be creative using low-tech solutions with fascinating results. None of the surrealistic touches to her work are done with computers, let alone with anything more high-tech than a dark room and some basic art supplies. Though her work can be disturbing, de Montmollin is interested in more than just shock value from her mutant toys. "I hope that it speaks to people and that it continues to speak to them," she says.

Given this aim, it seems that she has chosen the right subject matter. Personally, I find it difficult to forget the image of a horse's head stuck to the body of a naked woman whether it is a doll or not and I suspect I am not alone on this. Like it or not, de Montmollin's photography is anything but forgettable.