The artist works between Montreal and Ottawa, Canada.
Labrosse has developed a unique technique where Fine Arts and the industrial world merge. Overcoming the gravity of representation and the figurative, automatism and acquired reflexes, she mixes brute force and translucid emotions to paint an ontological, disquieting, enigmatic human figure free from artifice, universal in its expression. She paints embodiments of the human condition. Moving through opalescence and a sometime monochromatic palette, the work is evocative, seminal and suggestive of a pre-incarnation, a transcendence evolving in an underlying objective space where our senses are fired into a leap of perception.
In contrast to an actual ritualistic praxis, Labrosse uses a highly sophisticated medium: electrostatic paint on sheets of aluminum, copper or corten steel. The process is intrinsic to the artist’s expression; a fast and conducive method that facilitates immediacy of thought and feeling, challenging a fine line between figure and abstraction, traveling from the unconscious to the conscious. Electromagnetic fields as a phenomenon, a life force and a binding agent, have become a unique and essential partner in Labrosse’s creative activity.
Labrosse was born and raised in Montreal, Canada, from Swiss descent. Her parent’s apartment housed the now defunct Montreal art gallery, VISUA. She grew up surrounded by paintings by Riopelle, Borduas, Cosgrove, the Group of Seven and Inuit soapstones and prints, an unknown art form at the time. Early in life, she understood the mysteries surrounding gallery space: it was sacred. Art shaped who she was to become.
Labrosse graduated from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School of Visual Arts in film and photography; her short films quickly won her critical acclaim. Further studies at Concordia University’s Visual Arts Program, in lithography and painting, led her to question the very meaning of painting and its inherent medium, and the “intimate subjective space we live in, but beyond the other side of appearance.” *
In the last decade, Labrosse has developed the METAL LANGUAGE corpus, which she labels Existential Expressionism, willfully branching out from the Abstract Expressionist tradition, primarily because of “its fierce attachment to psychic self-expression…less a style than an attitude”**.
In the past, Labrosse has been involved in the literary world, working as an editor, translator, writer and illustrator. She has published over forty books for children in the houses of Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Hyperion and Random House in the USA and the UK. She has also been a pillar in the design of the Artificial Intelligence semantic engineering Internet project IEML (Information Economy Meta Language) at the Collective Intelligence Lab at the University of Ottawa.
* Anthony Gormley, sculptor
** ART Speaks, Robert Atkins, Abbeville Press, 1990
“Art is the distance that time gives to suffering.”
Albert Camus, notebooks 1955
“I am a story-teller, and I have but a single story–man.”
William Saroyan, 1933
My work is essentially intuitive, gestural, vitalist action-painting, executed at the confluence of Fine Arts, alchemy and the rough, cool detachment of the industrial world. It is constructed in a state where contrasts meet and clash. On a technical level, my strong interests in architecture, my welding apprenticeship followed by years of aimless roaming through heavy industries, building sites, ports, shipyards and foundries, led me to recognize metal as the appropriate medium for what I want to express.
Fascination with the distorted human body is primordial to my art, resounding the catastrophic events of Minamata with its indirect repercussions on Butoh, the mummies of the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, the five-thousand-year-old Iceman, and more recently, the apocalyptic appearance of Rick Genest’s entirely tattooed body as he represents himself as both art and skeleton. It brings to mind Ensor, Soutine, Bacon’s fascination with teratology, De Kooning, Dubuffet and the CoBrA movement, Basquiat, Freud and so many other artists who have tried to push the human body’s envelope without completely losing perspective of its humanity.
In my early twenties, I had the great privilege of meeting Kazuo Ohno, one of the founder/dancers of the Butoh cultural movement. He performed privately for me—his body literally inches away from mine—bringing a profound and decisive epiphany to my artistic quest. During his troubling and exquisite performance of La Argentina, this one-on-one connection provoked in me a deep emotional shock—an awakening. As a small child, I had watched a black and white documentary on the discovery of World War II death camps. The forgotten and intense sensations of stupefaction, malaise, angst, fright and confusion left by the now famously iconic images of the self-destruction of the human race instantly resurfaced to my conscious mind with Ohno’s surreal presence, making Butoh a sort of anchorage, an inspiration, a link to long lost images burrowed and tucked away in my memory. Butoh, and its elements of Noh and Kabuki, itself inspired by film noir, Antonin Artaud, Marquis de Sade, Jean Genet and Mishima’s writings, and inspirited by German Expressionism and the Neue Tanze movement, were to become subtext influences in my work, like telluric currents, unseen but subconsciously felt.
I would spend a lifetime armed with draftsmanship and skills gleaned through different studies, techniques and practices as varied as lithography, printmaking, filmmaking and photography, trying to visually communicate the repressed feelings of a child questioning the madness of men, let alone process such violent images. In a nutshell, I was looking for a way to overcome the distance between the painter and a wounded body, and between a wounded body and the universe.
The result is a visual dream within a dream, or more aptly, a nightmare within a nightmare—an artistic enigma, where an emotional body swims back from the unconscious to the conscious mind, to finally resurface and breathe. With as little interference as possible, I try to save it from a virtual drowning—for an instant. I have narrowed down to the bare essentials, precisely what is necessary to substantiate it. I am not interested in the explicit: decor, perspective, narrative, face definition, or even the very choice of the colours—primarily because of the rarity of the pigment available at the moment of creation.
Descriptive time has been erased to make an archetypal, feverish, human form incarnate, to continue its magnificent, endangered reign, frontierless. By eliminating the figure/background dialectic, I take a step back to an Abstract Expressionists’ time where evocation gave the viewer space to win over the specific.
DS: Can you conceive of getting to a stage where you had such freedom in your handling of the brush that it became unnecessary to interrupt the process with other practices?
FB: But I use those other practices just to disrupt it. I’m always trying to disrupt it. Half my painting activity is disrupting what I can do with ease. I want a very ordered image, but I want it to come by chance.
From “Interviews with Francis Bacon”
David Sylvester, Thames and Hudson 1962-1979
“Drawing is faster than painting, perhaps the only medium as fast as the mind itself.”
Robert Motherwell, 1966
It is through the classical medium of oils and acrylics that I first tried to paint, with limited success. For a decade I produced infructuous paintings—all were destroyed but a few. The oils, and even the acrylics couldn’t dry quick enough to salvage a soul. The process had to be more immediate, almost in direct synchronicity with my emotions, that which drawings and quick sketches can sometimes render. Though painstaking, lithography gave me hope that I would eventually be able to abandon myself to increasingly less explicative gestures while still maintaining precision from the inside. The spirit of the stone was felt and explored with results uncannily, in the Freudian sense, resembling my present work. Its palimpsest effect gave me a glimpse into what I could achieve if I had the proper medium. I would eventually be able to map a reflexive somatic narrative and reveal pages of a psychoanalytical inner Codex. I was on a lead, blindfolded.
Years of research and experimentation were devoted to reach this goal. I had to develop a very unique and specific medium. It had to be agile, subtle and evanescent enough to evoke and translate the receding and concealed ethereal images seen by the soul, by the mind’s eye, almost instantly. This medium would have to be able to defy and destabilize any pre-conceptions or ideas. It would have mediumistic qualities itself that could foresee and sense the artist’s obsession and childhood engrams. This search for an iconoclastic medium that could convey and express darkness and decay, led to industrial electrostatic paint. It could, in its essence and process, in its unicity, echo the deafening meander of the chaos of an alienated industrialized world, while simultaneously respecting the limitations of its plane as an art form. Once revealed and tamed, the quest became to discover how this medium could be converted into an expressive tool. And once it was, a real ‘alchemistry’ was stirred and has thrived.
The pigments I use are as fine as talc, more like an independent pixel that won’t blend to produce another colour. Loose and free from any binding agent, it feels much like a multitude of cells in an ethereal state waiting for a breath, or a signal to multiply, and manifest itself. An electromagnetic field and the strength of my spirit conjointly hold the pigment on the plane. The constant vibrations of the mechanical room disturb, weaken and constantly shatter and alter my work-in-progress and I have to let go of any hope of controlling what I do. Lost in the process, I work in tune with all sensory perceptions, in a cybernetic loop, a reverbed autopoiesis, where bodies are formed. Golems appear, pending between virtual and actual, in limbo. In the absence of any binding agent, the pigments then reveal their truths in the heat; they are cured at a high temperature in an overpowering, gargantuan oven. Only then do the images finally set on the metal surface. Only then can the souls return to breathe. From their ashes they travel to a place where they can finally be seen and recognized.
“I sing the body electric”, Walt Whitman, Leaves of grass, 1855
“My opinion is that we need new techniques. And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements. It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express his age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any past culture. Each age finds its own technique…Most of the paint I use is a liquid, flowing kind of paint. The brushes I use are used more as sticks rather than brushes – the brush doesn’t touch the surface of the canvas, it’s just above.”
Jackson Pollock, New York, 1950
In the early Thirties, new media such as alkyd, polyvinyl acetates, polymers, nitro-cellulose, synthetic paints and resin-like acrylic emulsions became easily available. The ways in which artists applied and managed these agents were crucial to the development of twentieth century art. Industrial paint flowed onto canvasses, boards and masonite, letting abstract expressionists and pop and op artists to go furiously faster in an exploding creative world. The use of masking tape gave birth to hard edges; colour fields existed by themselves like new, unexplored lands. Palette knives held their own, creating planes and moonscapes. Serigraphy and photography served Warhol well. Simultaneously, Frank Stella started using aluminum as a support. It is in an extension of this Abstract Expressionist tradition, in search of an even more contemporarily potent medium, that I found industrial electrostatic paint, also known as powder-coating, a direct and perfect outlet for my innerscapes.
The process I use is fairly simple, although it is practiced in a hostile and relatively inaccessible environment. In the moment of creation, I dress, blend and become a layman with no specific identity, an industrious factory worker in an estranged world. I work on a production line away from the comfort and rêverie of the atelier. On an electrically charged aluminum sheet, equipped with a spray gun in each hand—usually charged with two different colours—an air gun hanging from my shoulder, which I use to add or remove superfluous pigment, and a paraphernalia of sticks, ropes, steel brushes and rags, I am ready to paint. This particular use of aluminium as a support is not, by all means, an end in itself, artificial or seductive but intrinsic to my practice.
The space I work in, with its stainless steel walls and floors, resembles a clinic or a laboratory more than a studio. There is no solitude, no intimacy, no privacy. There is no trace of me there, no images, no references, no visuals or guides to rhyme with what I want to create. It is all in my mind, eye and heart. The factory’s ambient noise is deafening, and sounds like David Lynch’s Eraserhead soundtrack or Thor’s or Dante’s imaginary thundering foundries. Acetone, rust and dust burn my eyes. Because I can’t breathe properly, the fogged visor greatly reduces my visibility. I hyperventilate from being so enclosed. Summer heat is suffocating, alienating. The expense of leasing factory time urges me to act quickly, and precariously, and could be compared somewhat to working on a fresco: I sometimes get only one take. I truly work under constraint, and it is this very fact that brings me to a state of quasi-amnesia. Thoughts, ruminations, trial and error are simply forbidden. There is a live deconstruction of skills that takes me into a necessary trance. A transmutation occurs. I am one with the medium, paradoxically uninhibited.
This detachment leads to a distilled self that can feel a presence, an entity that can only unfold in that very moment, in a painting.
An examination of Labrosse’s art
Pierre Lévy, 2011
Translated by Christelle Morelli
According to Isaac Louria, Creation was preceded by a period of divine retreat – Tzimtzum – during which the Infinite Being created a space within himself to make room for time, space, the world and humankind. The Absolute Being was only able to accomplish his work of art by concealing his presence. That is why the created will never know their creator other than through his absence. However, this absence calls out to them and sets them on their path. Labrosse often says that painting is, for her, “the final ritual” and I have often wondered what she meant. Over the years, I’ve come to understand. The ritual is a whirlwind of sincere actions that build a bridge between the absence or abyss that is felt throughout creation, and the presence of the infinite. The ritual opens a line of communication to the invisible.
We can imagine that the first rituals were either seasonal gatherings or performed on the occasion of life’s important milestones such as births, initiations, marriages or deaths. A tribe’s members lit a fire, exchanged gifts, offered a sacrifice. Painted, tattooed, plumed, masked, scarified, wearing ceremonial vestments, they would chant together; improvised couplets and refrains would bounce back and forth. There would be dancing to loud and rhythmic music until late at night. Intoxicating drinks and plants would be ingested. The earthly world would be breached. Supernatural beings would then manifest themselves through trances or possessions and have a lasting effect on memories and dreams.
Further to this primordial celebration practices and officiants became specialized: rituals for shamans, priests, oracles, warriors . . . Among all the descendants of the ancestral ritual, painting was one of the first to acquire its own identity without however, breaking the chain linking it to the original quest for that divine presence. Several thousand years ago, deep inside torch-lit crypts, painters applied pigments to a wall and the presence born there touches us to this day.
Labrosse doesn’t make “art.” She practices a specific ritual which, in effect, every society needs: that of allowing a presence, a power, the invisible depth of human existence to shine through an image. The ritual is effective if the resulting image establishes a live contact with the spirit world. The painting welcomes the invisible vibration of the soul to the visible world. Labrosse practices this ritual with total honesty. She doesn’t just go through the motions, she uses her mastery of mediums and techniques to effectively capture and transmit the presence’s impact.
I can not put into words the effect Labrosse’s images have on her audience. Her “transfigured bodies”, “charred cloaks” or “X-rayed souls” are hard to describe. We can project what inhabits our being onto their ever-shifting form, as onto a Rorschach test or clouds scurrying across the sky. However, beyond this failed attempt at identification – and precisely because of this mysterious blockage of automatic recognition – we are overcome by the energy of a human presence. One must courageously dive into these electrified icons in order to receive the gift offered by Labrosse to those with the eyes to see it. The sight of these images produces upheaval, like the confusion born of an encounter that reveals our deepest pain and desires. A repercussion to these thoughts is then to wonder who or what appeared to the painter. Hidden in the spectators’ subconscious are ripples, similar to the aftershocks echoing an earthquake, which allow the observer to make out – without actually seeing them – the agitated souls that appeared in the painter’s trance.
Labrosse does everything but conceptual art, although that is the initial technical protocol of the process. Technical mastery of the ritual’s execution is the sine qua non condition of its effectiveness. She trained in the processes of painting, engraving, illustration, photography and film. Based on her multiform experimentation, she perfected a wholly original technique consisting of shooting powdered pigments out of an electric pistol onto a large electrified metal plaque. An industrial paint called electrostatic paint or powder coating, widely used in architectural siding. The plaque is then fired in a kiln to set the image. The pigments are not bonded together by water, oil, resin or egg. It is probably the first paint to use an electromagnetic field as a binding agent: one could just as easily say that there is no “real” binding agent, making near impossible conscious or complete control of the image. One sees just what kind of difficulties this technique forces Labrosse to overcome when one considers that she wears a kind of spacesuit topped with a helmet while working in a room filled with the throbbing of a large industrial vacuum, in a factory setting that resonates with the roar of machines. However, the mechanical apparatus is only mastered to then be dismantled like temporary scaffolding. In this suffocating hell where the fires of the alchemist blacksmiths still burn, the painter in ritual has to overcome one by one all physical, then emotional obstacles. Despite the stress-inducing environment and the sounds of factory life, despite the weight of her spacesuit and the lack of control of the pigment deposits on the metal, Labrosse paints from an unreal sphere of silence and calm from which she absents herself to make way for the upcoming presence. And this is where she thrives.
In order to pierce through the known and recognized view of the world, to go beyond visual coding and decoding reflexes, Labrosse abandons all preconceptions, all agendas, all desire for self-expression, any idea of representing this or that. She wants to open herself to invasion, and therefore wants nothing. Labrosse’s creative trance depends on this discipline of withdrawal and renunciation. It is only then that she invites into her intimate experience something or someone other, for which she becomes the medium. In this instance, the ritual of painting is well and truly one of possession. Labrosse paints to break the silence between bodies seen and felt as cages, armours, archetypes, energetic phantoms, mesh and interstice. Her work does not inhabit the three-dimensional world of perspective but rather the creative void which makes room for the disturbing, violent, terrifying or marvelous presence of the other. Labrosse’s energized bodies emerge from the echo of Tzimtzum, they surge from the existential area that expands with an opening up.
Since she performs the ritual with absolute honesty, Labrosse, like all great painters, expresses a singular way of being. Her images communicate precisely “the shock of a presence”. Though she is tributary of art history’s inheritance, she walks a solitary path. Great painters don’t imitate but inspire each other because they mutually and intrinsically understand one another. Labrosse is inspired by Rembrandt, Bacon, as well as other Abstract Expressionist painters and Lucien Freud. She belongs to a long line of painters who have shown the suffering and glory of the human body. She continues the tradition of icon-painting.
In the darkroom of retreat, a trembling image is revealed though it is unclear whether it is a negative or a positive. One can catch a glimpse of femurs, pelvises, ribs, skulls, hearts, genitals in mysterious lights. A human presence emerges from the depths of the darkness. All of this seemingly captured by a machine that can photograph souls using improbable silver salts. Yet upon closer inspection of the painted metal, is this the image of one soul or that of a swarming multitude? Each of these corporal beings houses worrisome doubles, more bodies are revealed in the depths, an entire universe of passion, bewitched destinies, lives within lives. The analogy to the observer’s own life is troublesome, as if the painter has laid bare our most shameful secret: the terrifying abyss of the subjective identity that dogs our bodies.
Everything happens as though, at the moment of death, souls still entwined with their earthly bodies and their ancestors, illuminated by the passions and mercies that buoyed them in life, pierced by the existence of their loved ones and ancestors, these souls draw near to be weighed by the scales of judgment. This is where Labrosse captures them, in the interval, in this instant already outside the time continuum that sums up their existence, on the threshold to eternity where their earthly life energies fuse. Labrosse saves these souls from oblivion by projecting their body’s cry onto her sheet of aluminium.
In her fireproof costume, to the deafening rhythm of machines, in the glow of the forge’s fire, Labrosse dances in the depths of a crypt, abandoning herself to the unknown. She performs the ancient ritual of painting. Here are the buried shrouds, transfigured bodies, and glorious icons bursting with suffering and desire that bear witness to her travels. May we all carry out our own solitary rituals of creation as she does. As though each and every time was the final ritual.
PIERRE LEVY, July 2011
“The work of art leaves the domain of representation in order to become ‘experience’, transcendental empiricism, science of the sensible.”
Gilles Deleuze, Difference and repetition, 1968
By Jessica Harman, 2013
One looks at Labrosse’s paintings, and sees figures.
We do not see the skin and facial features of the figures, or at least those are not the clearest points of interest. What we notice right away is that these figures show the luminous light that each one of us stores in our muscles and tendons. The figures in Labrosse’s works are not particular people, I don’t sense: I sense they are depictions of the intensity of being human.
Human beings are spiritual structures, and memories are not just stored in our brains and minds, but in our physical muscles, tendons, blood, and even all of our physical attributes, such as our cells, and DNA. When we move, our memories influence our luminous or shadowy motions. The figures of men and women in Labrosse’s paintings dance with this memory, this light, this tense and brilliant shadow.
The figures in the works are intensely alive. They are in motion, as the lines suggest, as the lines sometimes form contours, sometime suggest a path of motion as the figures move beyond their bodies and transform before our eyes. The dance is made of pain and joy. Pain and joy in these artworks are not separate emotions, but fused together. Pain is joy, and joy is pain, and there are spaces of brightness that are the luminous intensity of the spirit, naked, enthralled in both pain and joy. These are paintings of souls in the thralls of life.
The colors are dramatic, not yellow and blue, as architect Louis I. Kahn wrote of the true nature of light and shadow. No. Labrosse’s work is where light and dark in extremes do their human dance in depictions on the human body, often in blue-black or white-blue, a white so hot that it is blue-white, sometimes even so hot it looks frozen. These are works about good and evil, and how we blaze and scintillate with both extremes, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes ecstatically, but always powerfully, beautifully, and on the edge of birth and/or destruction.
By JESSICA HARMAN
Boston, June, 2013