These are portraits of women I want to invite to my birthday party. They will come wired with harlequin mindsets, Bristol Cream, spikes and all kitted out in the unique fashion sensibilities of the irrepressible Québécoise.
I first came across Janet Werner’s work years ago in the entertainment section of The Ottawa Citizen newspaper. It featured images of young bratty girls duking it out. Werner’s obvious illustrative skills mixed with irreverent humour was right up my street, so I tore out the page and kept it for years.
In the meantime, Werner sidestepped the abstractionist fray and continued to develop her work in narrative portraiture. Cloaked with a MFA from Yale University, she morphed into a professor of Fine Arts, at the University of Saskatchewan and then at Concordia in Montreal. By then, Werner had already participated in several exhibitions, but it was at her 2008 “too much happiness” show at the Parisian Laundry that I bumped into her work once again. Those bratty girls are now young women and her large scale and iconic portraits now looked like characters from New York who had suddenly found themselves cappucino-less on unpaved sidewalks of some small Northern Ontario town.
Fast forward another decade and Janet’s adventurous women are flourishing. They survived the journey back to the city, picked up a few friends en route, and landed an invitation to “reinventing the portrait”, a show about themselves to be held on the swishy walls of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.
Janet re-invents her growing tribe by weaving colourful and complicated backstories into them. They are chuffed with feminist empowerment and pumped with experience, confidence and attitude. They firmly raise that metaphoric “let’s move along” flag against long-standing male dominance in the arts. Their defiance can be easily seen in the confident thrust of hips, breasts and unflinching eyes. Werner’s women also reclaim ownership of their appendages, and in doing so, take on and shake off the centuries-long monopoly of the male gaze.
The artist lobs out figures that stand strong and resolute, as well as being skilled in the arts of mental and physical self-preservation. Undertones of vulnerability, wariness, sexual availability, and perhaps even happiness are all present, and the random mix of these elements provide the through line that ties this exhibition together.
The brushwork, the bizarre believability of the subject matter, the sense of spontaneity and the humour are these paintings’ mother tongue. Janet’s experience is evident in the manner in which she resolves compositional and technical issues, including the subtle balance between background and foreground, where her cools keep the warms in check.
At the end of the day, my personal favourite is the one with an air of magic, splattered with disbelief, hope, innocence, and yet fresh with optimism.
When Werner’s pieces are banded together, they create a raucous atmosphere, and I suspect that they will still be rocking into the early hours when the museum doors are locked.
This show is on until January 5th, 2020. For further info check out: https://macm.org/en/exhibitions/janet-werner/
Oh – by the by, girls, my birthday’s coming up. . . don’t forget the Bristol Cream!