Gabrielle de Montmollin


Gabrielle de Montmollin's Imaginary Friends
© Ashley Johnson, 2015

Reality is an impenetrable maze of experience that we can never quite grasp or express. Thus we advance stereotypes, clichés and imagined fantasies as ways of interpreting things. Philosophically, it is the ultimate Existential dilemma.

Gabrielle de Montmollin has been playing within a very defined set of parameters, exploring the combination of photography and toys. In the process, over several decades of work, certain ‘characters’ have made their presence known to her consciousness and have become ‘friends’. Her 2015 exhibition at The Red Head Gallery presents them in new incarnations, shrouded in mystery and longing to communicate.

Photomontage as a discipline came into its own with the work of the Dadaists in the early 20th Century. Hannah Höch (1889 – 1978) was one of the preeminent practitioners of the process. Long before the digital explosion that resulted in programs like Photoshop, artists cut out magazine images and collaged them, in conjunction with photographic darkroom manipulations.

This kind of art has always been engaged with political and gender issues. Höch lived through the Nazi era, which disparaged art with appellations like ‘degenerate’. The Third Reich aspired to a eugenic perfection of form that art was supposed to represent and uphold. Rebelling against these dictums, Hans Bellmer (1902 – 1975), a German Surrealist photographer, started assembling strangely deformed dolls into erotic poses and photographing them.

De Montmollin continues this vein but in keeping with the consumerism rampant in our century, her commentary is subtle and less combative. Her adventure began with black and white photography. The stark contrast between these two extremes and the ‘silvery’ mid-tones naturally evokes a heightened sense of reality. A whole world of manipulation can take place in the darkroom, such as ‘burning or dodging’ to control light and shadow. The Surrealist, Man Ray (1890-1976) was a precursor who developed solarization techniques, interrupting the chemical development with sudden light, to reverse the tones. He also exposed solid objects directly onto the photographic paper. Manipulations like drawing on paper negatives or cutting out sections add further variations.

One of the key elements in photomontage is the lack of continuity in scale. Culled images carry over their prior spatial identity so when combined there is an odd discontinuity that adds a sense of mystery.

Addicted to scouring thrift shops for discarded soft toys and Barbie dolls, de Montmollin began staging these toys in a white box, photographing the scenes using rudimentary lighting and a couple of cameras. In time she realized she could transform the bland stares and fixed expressions of the dolls by substituting animal heads. Her images became a lot more manic, evoking the surreal.

Another practice she has fostered is the collection of old postcards. These could be vintage or cultural icons like Mick Jagger, famous paintings, or postcards advertising Canada with luscious landscapes. Gradually she realized that her inventory of images and toys encompassed its own world and promised infinite recycling. Thus many of the images in this exhibition have had other incarnations. De Montmollin says: “ I feel like I know them very well, these imaginary friends.” She combines elements intuitively, waiting for the right combination to suggest itself.

Her practice transmogrified into active political expression in her 2013 series Stephen Harper Hates Me. Images of the prime minister were culled from media sources and inserted into her scenarios. In essence he became another ‘friend.’ Rightwing politicians often lack sympathy for the arts since these activities are costly to support. De Montmollin was incensed by the bigotry of Harper’s funding cuts, especially to women’s groups, and by the stifling of dissent with threats of further cuts, yet he could host the G20 at mind-boggling expense.

The new work, Imaginary Friends, takes a step back from overt confrontation and presents wistful images of quintessential Canadian culture. The large mixed media works all derive from postcards. She selects the animal and human personalities to inhabit these landscapes from her stock of imagery and draws a rudimentary outline. The canvas is then produced as an inkjet digital print. At this point de Montmollin applies paint in a flat manner, covering undesirable objects or text and filling in the drawing contours. The process is fairly intuitive and does not follow any specific modus operandi.

The viewer is invited to create the stories for these paintings. A blacked-out Mountie salutes on a rocky landscape before an azure blue expanse of lake. In the distance the snow covered peaks hint at Canada’s majestic beauty. It’s a perfect world and frolicking female ‘friends’ are latched onto the flat surface of the postcard image, setting up a visual tension. We want to position them in a comprehensible space but they deny the easy option. One senses the underlying vulnerability of being nude, awkward and female in a society that validates a quasi-military icon of the policeman.

Equally estranged is the image of a dock looking out on a lake surrounded by Autumn foliage. A clothed man perches precariously on the edge of a white cutout chair that floats above the water. Nearby a naked pink female form seems to wait for something to happen. The drawn silhouettes are always crudely rendered and this counters our sense of identity, creating ‘movement and tension’ within each image. Thus this serene scene bubbles with a sense of imminent occurrence. It’s the armchair life of late capitalism and retirement, in which we are all bound like slaves to each other and to the system.

Animism is evoked in a third image that features totem poles. De Montmollin’s placement of her ‘friends’ encourages our perception that ‘birds’ seem about to take flight from the heads of the drawn/painted images. A female bunny looks over at her harlequin-coated mate, an indeterminate soft toy. They are poised like tourists in a befuddled state. The totem poles invade the negative spaces around them in places, asserting penile shapes between their legs and arms. They are vulnerable to powers beyond their understanding.

Ultimately all of de Montmollin’s protagonists are locked in isolation. One 4” x 6” postcard image derives from Double Self-Portrait (1979), drawn from the oeuvre of Jeff Wall, an iconic Canadian artist from Vancouver. He is known for constructing the scenes he photographs, displaying them as Cibachrome transparencies in lightboxes. The image presents two versions of Jeff Wall standing nervously together in a room from the seventies filled with odd, random furniture. De Montmollin’s animistic personages swell into the foreground space asserting their presence with strong colours and odd shapes against the banality of the background. Their bodies are at times transparent. This is quite a haunting multilayered image because the ‘two men’ seem to project their own emotional tensions.
De Montmollin is a very idiosyncratic artist who has succeeded in creating a sort of parallel world peopled by strange, contrary beings. At times they evoke gender issues but I think they extend beyond those issues to hint at our existential state. They have a profound sense of humour and cavort as ‘silly creatures’, dancing across the stage of our pretentions.


Ashley Johnson is a Canadian writer and artist based in Toronto since 2005. Originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, he obtained a humanities degree in fine arts (BAFA) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In South Africa, he was the art critic for Business Day, a financial daily newspaper with national coverage. In 2010 he was the editor for Bloor Magazine, a community-based publication. He continues to write art reviews for magazines and websites such as Canadian Art, Vie Des Arts, Dart International magazine and As an artist he addresses social themes through paintings that challenge cultural perceptions.