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Sophisticated Folk
Rosemont Art Gallery
Sophisticated Folk is an oxymoron. But the two gentlemen in this exhibition, Michel Boutin (Prince Albert, SK) and ManWoman (Cranbrook, BC) are just that, sophisticated folk who make sophisticated folk art! Like much folk art, their paintings employ a flat, 'graphic' style, bright colours, and present content in a didactic manner that stimulates your eye, mind and heart. And they take on the big existential themes favoured by the greatest folk artists: the Bible and religion, sex and death, love and hate, temptation and hope for redemption. They use direct and popular methods to relate these complex realities and experiences.

But ManWoman and Michel are also sophisticates. Graduates from post-secondary art institutions, they know the art world but are driven by callings that demand they follow their own path rather than play art world games. Though informed by high art, their paintings are addressed to regular folk who might not be savvy to that realm. ManWoman and Michel have absorbed Pop art and European Renaissance and East Indian religious painting, mixed them together with their unique sensibilities, dreams, visions and personal and collective experience. The mess gels in their imaginations and is then poured on to their panels with less censorship than artists who are beholden to a particular faith, institution, or patronage system. The resulting paintings are hilariously serious. These jesters deliver sermons that provoke laughter, blushes, and--If we are open to them--deep thoughts and feelings about our mortal coil and hopes for what comes after.

ManWoman has been on a spiritual quest for more than 40 years. He is an extraverted mystic who cannot repress his insights. And because he came to artistic age during the Pop art period, he expresses his visions and concepts in the visual currency of that cultural moment. As the great philosopher of the Spirit, Carl Jung, explained, artists rejuvenate archetypes by expressing them in a contemporary language so they can be understood and appreciated by a contemporary audience.

ManWoman was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition and in the pop culture world, and both of these elements appear in his paintings as aspects that he, at once, embraces and wants to transcend. (If he had been born 5000 years earlier he would have given Bosch a run for his money.) The material world is less real than the spiritual one; but, because we are encased in bodies and religious traditions, we might as well enjoy what we can and even use both our bodies and faith traditions as means to the spiritual--most of his works seem to imply. Sometimes the artist seems to be like a campy evangelist promoting his spiritual discoveries like soap. This may be a critique of the commodification of spirituality, or it could be that he is so excited by his experiences of this truer realm that no means are beneath him to get everyone to the Truth. I am particularly interested in ManWoman's Mr. Death pictures. This Mr. Peanut like character uses humour to encourage us to face the inevitable with humour and grace. The big question is not how or when we will die, but how do we accommodate ourselves to this fact with or without faith in a metaphysical Being-after-being.

As he explains in his autobiography, ManWoman had his epiphanies early. He was given several callings and missions that couldn't have been easy for a young man to honor: redeem the swastika! Embody and heal false dichotomies, such as man and woman , and change you name to reflect this fact! But follow these commands he has, with gusto. His fuel is joy! As a result of metaphysical certainty, his paintings are not so much struggles or "working through" as a direct publication of his revelations.

This is a small sampling of ManWoman's work, but what is here does reveal two trends in his work. There are the ecstatic paintings (especially of the 60s and 70s) that record the afterglow of metaphysical experience. These are giddy scenes often feature radiant babies ascending from the material realm to the metaphysical. The sentiments are clear and untroubled: "All is One;" "Transcend My Friend;" "Death Defying Joy." And the destination is the beyond. The second strain maintains the joy but recognizes our fallenness into the world. How does the mystic cope with an often tragic and ridiculous world once he has glimpsed perfection? How does one manage Being-in-the-world rather than just pining for the infinite? Heavy questions for folk art to tackle.

There are two Sister Serena paintings that could be bookends, here. In one, the good sister embraces Mr. Death; in the other, she places a hand on a demon's forehead. While cartoony, these pictures are clever updates of the archetype of the Mysterium conjunctioni , the mysterious union of opposites. ManWoman is not trying to clear the world of evil. He wants to embrace and understand the opposites and even embody these mysteries. This devil is not evil; he's pathetic. With his permanent and leaky erection, fevered and incontinent body, he figures our (male) vices and weakness. Serena takes pity and offers a benediction. The scene is comic and yet endearing. Another message here is that any rendering of the extremes of any dichotomy is going to look cartoonish. Reality lies in the middle.

[The work in this exhibition is a very small glimpse of art made ManWoman has produced during his long journey--there are pieces here from as early as 1968. But in order to have a fuller appreciation of the context of this work, I encourage you to consult his books, articles and website (]

While ManWoman embraces the metaphysical, Michel Boutin is sceptical. ManWoman can find humour in some physical manifestations of spirituality (aspects of organized religion) because he knows (following Plato) that our earthly attempts to express higher states are always flawed. Boutin, however, appears to doubt that such an elevated reality exists. He is less forgiving because without such higher states the lower "manifestations" (following Marx, for one) look like corrupt illusions. As a result, it may appear that Boutin has "issues" with religion. And it may be so. But it is also possible that his work expresses not an attack on religion but a struggle with faith. And, because Michel was born into a mixed cultural tradition (Catholic/French-Canadian-Métis) these are the mediums through which his struggle is manifest.

Michel seems to take a pretty jaundiced eye toward--well--everything! His pictures do not show much hope for human nature and our institutions. However, I am not sure that a true atheist or resolute sceptic would spend such care and attention to the painting of spiritual/religious themes! I see these works as expressions of a personal and spiritual struggle. While Michel does not offer the uplift ManWoman does, in some panels you can find glimmers of hope and the metaphysical in the disembodied eyes that witness the pain and suffering from above.

Michel explains that the small French-Canadian churches that dot the Prairies and his childhood inspire much of his work. Are the devils self-portraits, or at least representations of base aspects of the artist and our selves? We all wrestle with our demons. Giving a form to "Caprice" and "Avarice," for example, is a first step toward controlling these drives and temptations. I would not be surprised that for every outer and culture event these crowded and excited paintings take on, there is an inner and personal equivalent event being recorded.

Both ManWoman and Michel Boutin belong to the topsy-turvy and metaphorical tradition that includes many folk artists, Surrealists and religious painters. They are rare contemporary artists who not only share their personal thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, but also their struggles with faith and mortality; big themes of past art that are often ridiculed by popular culture and dismissed by academic theory. Theirs is a willed innocence that allows us a glimpse of our repressed dreams and realities.

David Garneau

January 2005


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David Garneau
Associate Professor at The University of Regina
Faculty of Fine Arts, Visual Arts Department.
RC 245 | (306) 585-5615 |