Fresh Paint Gallery | Alpha-Bête: Can't We All Just Get Ensemble?

It may be cliché, but art is a universal language. It speaks to everyone, transcending the boundaries of culture and tongue, and appeals directly to the heart and mind of the individual. It unites people. Perhaps this is why Montreal stands out as a city of artists. In the largest bilingual city in North America, the pervasive presence of art, from street to gallery, seems particularly relevant, as it promotes expression, understanding and unity in a place where things sometimes get lost in translation. 

With its renowned mélange of French joie de vivre and urban energy, its charming cafés, boutiques, and caches of intimate bistros and terrasses, Montreal’s unique appeal is rarely questioned. Recently, however, language battles have once again erupted, and Pastagate and Bill 14 have become tedious topics of debate across the province. In response, Montreal’s Fresh Paint Gallery celebrated its recent reopening with Alpha-Bête: Can’t we all just get Ensemble?,  an avant-garde group exhibit that explores language, culture and identity in Quebec through the eyes of six artists. Their installations reflect their individual experiences, whether they grew up in the city, lived here for a time, or relocated to make Montreal their home.

While news reports on language politics might have you believe differently, many Montrealers consider the unique intertwining of English and French culture, including language, to be one of the city’s greatest charms and something that its inhabitants readily absorb. I sometimes forget how much French culture has rubbed off on me – until I find myself in another city receiving a confused stare after asking someone where the nearest dépanneur is, or longing for a café au lait and freshly baked croissant from the café on my corner.  Even my dog, Faux (albeit pronounced “Fox”) Mulder, is a testament to this fascinating cultural/language transference. A further case in point, I’ve used, what, fifteen French words/phrases in this intro? How apropos.

Eric Clement is a Montrealer, born and raised. He received a BFA from Concordia University and has been featured in numerous exhibitions and installations, including a collaboration with Trevor Wheatley. When they asked him to participate in this show, naturally he jumped on board. His installation is entitled “Diggin’ in the Crates.”

Language is a hot topic for everyone in Montreal and has been for most of Quebec's history. The political climate right now is pretty tense so the theme seemed well-timed. I grew up with a French Canadian father and an Anglophone mother so I’m bilingual, like a lot of my friends. Growing up it was pretty natural to switch back and forth between languages. The anti-anglophone/anti-francophone rhetoric on both sides is just ridiculous, in my opinion, and seems to pull focus from the larger problems that our city is facing. In other parts of the world, people are psyched on being multilingual. I mean, we could go on and on getting to the root of where all this conflict came from, but the bottom line for me is that I am to proud speak both languages and I think it adds to the diversity of this city.

My installation is a representation of how I interact and relate to language and signage. I have made hip-hop music for the last 11 years and it has always been an important influence in my life. As an MC, wordplay is a key element of performing. My installation is made up of lyrics (either my own or artists who I look up to) and sayings that reference art and hip-hop culture. They flip between French and English. That was sort of something that happened through working in the space and interacting with the staff there.  The conversation often switched back and forth between French and English. 

Lettering and fonts are the basis of graffiti, so it seemed natural to tackle a subject like language with lettering and fonts. Fonts can express things based on the height or slant of a letter, or even how thick the stroke is or if you throw a drop shadow in. If art is a universal language, in a way so is text, right? The characters may look different but the tool is the same. It’s a symbol used to communicate an idea. So focusing on the linguistic back and forth, and playing with the way the letters interacted with the ideas being expressed, both commented on the language debate and took it beyond that.

Painter, designer and graffiti artist XRAY came to Montreal from Orlando, Florida, five years ago. The mix of military and native cultures he experienced in his youth catalyzed a quest to discover “a universal language that could express the mix of mythologies in [his] life.” His installation for Alpha-Bête is entitled “Sign Language.”

Although I am not fluent in French, I am inspired by the culture here. Yes, language is a point of debate and can sometimes be a divisive issue. As someone who loves lettering and signage in all its forms, I wanted to create something that celebrated the things we have in common, instead of pointing out the differences. This experience has increased my appreciation of the local culture and slang, and it was really fun to come up with ideas that could be enjoyed by everybody.

My intention with “Sign Language” was to pay homage to the history of sign painting and lettering, and also to the way that it relates to graffiti and street art in the present time. I wanted to evoke the traditions of hand-craftsmanship. Some of the signs were designed and planned out, while others were just painted freehand on a whim. After the signs were complete, I took everything to the gallery and arranged it on the wall in an improvisational composition, trying to create many layers to give the impression of old signage and advertisements. I also wanted to make a reference to the work of Barry Mcgee (TWIST), who has been a big inspiration in my life. I did this by incorporating geometric elements inspired by the EPCOT center, a reference to the theme park culture that is an iconic symbol of Florida living.

My installation creates a space with something for everybody. Although people may gravitate toward different elements of the work, they will all be in the same room with a chance to interact with each other. Besides, even if everyone can’t understand every sign, they will be able to appreciate the hard work and the mathematics of the art of lettering.

Both born and raised in Montreal, HOAR and KOR met three years ago while working at the same restaurant and immediately developed what Hoar calls “a weird and instant connection.” Similarly minded, yet stylistically quite different, they formed the collaboration crew HOARKOR, which specializes in pop and street art-inspired painting, printmaking, street art, digital art and sculpture. Their installation for Alpha-Bête is entitled “Braille pas over spilt milk.”

We were excited to work on this theme as we both are bilingual, but HOAR comes from a more Anglophone family and I come from a more Francophone family. We like how that messes with the whole concept of the French and English split in Quebec. Language politics is not a huge inspiration in a lot of our work, but the topic of language in Quebec is often a hot one, so there are some things we like to poke fun at. This exhibit’s theme was a great way for us to do that.

Our installation was first inspired by the expression “Don't cry over spilt milk,” as we both try to live our lives without regrets. That expression became “Braille pas over split milk.” This was our way of mixing the French and English, like we often do here in Montreal. We considered how we, as babies, are all brought up on milk, a connection that we have with almost all human beings no matter what language you speak. From there we knew we wanted to build giant milk cartons and fill the room with milk-related pieces. We did a lot of research into dairy products and dairy history in Montreal and picked a Montreal company called St-Laurent Dairy to reference in our work. The installation became two eight-foot-tall milk cartons and three four-foot-tall small cartons. Then, we made huge cutouts of a milkman and a cat drinking milk. We painted on the walls our expression, “Braille pas over spilt milk,” and our logo, along with another expression taken from a Wu-Tang lyric. It originally talked about “weed” and we changed it to “cream”. The murals were largely inspired by old school sign painting, an art form we love. 

A memorable moment was Hoar almost getting crushed by an eight foot tall milk carton while trying to get it up the narrow flight of stairs to the gallery as Kor just laughed. For sure, though, the whole time spent working on the installation and the time working at the gallery was memorable for the both of us.

With a mother from Uruguay and a father from Chile, native Montrealer, Carolina Espinosa, attests that she loves her city, her home, because “it’s the only place that is like me - a little mix of everything.” An illustrator and graphic designer, Carolina studied at the University of Quebec and the École Nationale d’Arts Décoratifs. Her installation, largely inspired by her desire to teach her three-year-old the alphabet, is entitled “From A to Zoo; De A à Zoo; De A a Zoológico.”

For me, languages are not a big issue in Quebec. I feel that we should embrace all the language and cultures that are present in Montreal. I don't think that the salvation of the French language will come by making English the enemy. My family has preserved their Spanish in a French province. It is hard, but I think the preservation of a language comes by the value we each individually give to that language.

My installation started precisely with my cultural baggage that I wanted to teach my daughter. I wanted her to learn the letters of the alphabet. But since I am raising her in a multi-language environment, I needed something that took into account the French, English and Spanish. So I drew animals in the shapes of the letters their name started with. But the project quickly evolved into an exploration in typography - how much could you remove from the letter or from the animal and still see both elements.

For me, that gap [between the English and French languages] is almost invisible. The Alpha-Bête installation as a whole shows that. Every time I went to work at the gallery, I would speak a different language with the people and artists working there. My installation shows that in the animal kingdom there is no gap. A cat is a cat, even if you call it a "chat" or a "gato." Language is just a way to communicate with each other, to bring us together, not to be an element of separation.

Each artist selected is so different from the other. It was really interesting to see how the theme was interpreted and that the use of typography was the only element in common between the rooms. I think it makes the show really interesting and eclectic. I really liked the fact that every artist was very optimistic with their pieces. There is a lot of colour, and the French and English words live together happily. It shows that, in Montreal, the cohabitation of different languages is possible and appreciated.

Trevor Wheatley grew up in Toronto, yet knew from an early age that, at some point in his life, he wanted to live in Montreal. That goal was realized when he moved to the city for school, eventually receiving a Fine Arts degree from Concordia University. He currently lives in Toronto, where he operates a collaborative studio. Having been familiar with the Fresh Paint Gallery, he gladly accepted the perfect chance to return to his old stomping grounds. His installation is entitled “Mood Board.”

When I heard the show theme, I figured I could bring an interesting, or at least different approach to the show. I'm the only artist who installed work who isn't currently working in Quebec. So I wanted to make wordplay about definitive moments from my time spent in Montreal. It was nice to use my installation as a time to reflect on the great years I spent there. I essentially made my work about the language issues from an outsider’s perspective. 

In Ontario we see a lot about Quebec's language issues from a biased, non-francophone media perspective. I didn't want to start the project in Toronto, knowing that the issues, and my perspective on them, might change once I had a first-hand view of them. I ended up creating a series of broken sentences that jumped between English and French, and that allowed a broad range of word play and varied understandings. I wanted to engage with individual interactions with language (both French and English) and the observer's ability to read or receive understanding from the pieces. 

My experience was amazing. I love visiting Montreal. The opening was amazing, and it was cool to see the different ways the artists developed the theme of the show. I really enjoy the manner in which the curators pushed us to develop our work and the show theme. They allowed us to use the space in whatever way we wanted, giving us creative liberties that are rare within a gallery space. 


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