It's hard not to stare at the young woman wearing a form-fitting, red strapless dress. Propped up on one elbow on a saggy light-brown velour chair-the kind parents often shuttle off to their kids' first apartments-she looks upwards, partly at ease but mostly at attention. The light is dim and though her eyes are hidden in shadow, you know they're loaded with suggestion from the way she's sitting.
"She" is the subject of "untitled" (2004), one of two paintings by twenty-three-year-old Montreal artist Nicolas Grenier being displayed at the Galerie St-Laurent + Hill in Ottawa, Ontario. The work has been sold-as has the other, which portrays another, equally hip young thing who stares warily at the observer and oozes lanky rocker sex appeal. This subject's eyes, too, are veiled in shadow.
Grenier's style is arresting. The first time that gallery owner Pierre Luc St-Laurent saw Grenier's work, it literally caused him to hit the brakes. He was driving in downtown Montreal when he passed a window of an exhibition which featured the young artist. St-Laurent had to park his car to find out more about who Grenier was.
Looking at the images, it's obvious that Grenier has talent. At one time, he had thought of becoming a musician, but chose instead to study art at CEGEP and then in Concordia's fine arts department. In many ways, he felt it was simpler to be a visual artist, mainly because he wouldn't have to depend on anyone else to produce his ideas. But art also runs in Grenier's family-his father, who is completely deaf, is a painter and an art-history scholar. As a young child, the young Grenier would accompany his father on what seemed at the time to be endless trips to the photocopy shop.
"I had to wait for an hour while he was doing his stuff," Grenier says. "He would give me a pencil and some sheets and I would draw whatever. One thing I remember-it's really awkward-but I was drawing these weird elephants with big penises, and I was maybe four or something like that. It was one of my first memories because it was like, 'Why the hell are you drawing that?'"
He moved on, from elephants to cars to copying his older brother's heavy-metal album covers to graffiti. He built project upon project-first painting a friend's room, then a mural at raunchy downtown Montreal punk bar Foufounes Électriques, then more mural work for local restaurants. He left graffiti for photorealism, and discovered the informal classical art training that had seeped in with the exposure to his father over the years.
Now his focus is on image-making, and the influence of the highly volatile and constantly changing world of fashion photography is obvious. His colours are compellingly vivid; the edges slightly blurred; the subjects young, photogenic and urban. Depicted in medium-shots taken in classic Montreal apartments, most often his subjects appear alone, unfazed and practised in their unawareness of their social and cultural capital. These are the people that represent the Next Great Youth Aspiration-those whose asymmetrical haircuts grow out with impossible grace and who are able to make Urban Outfitters wish they had thought of gold-knit vests first. They are captured in those moments where one departs from an all-nighter at a bar; the body is still hyped but the mind is starting to drag with sleeplessness. They have been injected with sex, dancing, music, art, creativity and all that Montreal has been lauded and sneered at for.
Grenier is very much a part of this scene. As photogenic as his subjects, he sets up photo shoots which masquerade as informal drinking sessions with his friends. He is infatuated with mise-en-scène and with controlling every aspect of the production of an image; the shoot; the tinkering in Photoshop; the projection of the image onto a canvas, which is how he begins his paintings. He occasionally uses photos of old lovers or friends. An apartment wall is adorned with pencil drawings of the people who helped renovate his old studio loft, though he says this display will soon be covered over. Sometimes his connections to his subjects can be taxing.
"When you're painting and listening to music, you think a lot," he says. "When it comes to bad stuff happening in relationships, it's not really cool anymore when you have to paint a person for the next exhibition and spend three months working on her face again. Especially on nights when you really don't want to paint but instead you just go out and get completely piss-drunk. Then you wake up hungover and the only thing you can do to make it better is to work and paint-you're back to the same problem again."
In the face of emotional distraction, he is disciplined in his work-this comes partly from watching his mom working day in, day out to support his family (his artist father rarely brought home enough of the bacon). Ultimately, he is determined to create an image-in form and subject-which both points the finger at, and upholds changing the standards of, human beauty.
"Those paintings are about people, but they're also about how the aesthetic goes through time," he said, adding that Renaissance art may have represented the canon of beauty at the time, but today's standards of beauty have changed. "We see images all the time-everywhere-whether you want it or not. You see advertising everywhere, and that's a really powerful mirror you have to face all the time. The strategies those photographers use to beautify the image and create a new canon of beauty? That's really something I'm interested in."
While Grenier continues to impress gallery owners and the viewing public, it may be a year or two before he amasses sufficient capital to get his future visions of beauty off the ground. He's caught in the murky territory of being classified by grant-giving bodies as a post-undergrad but pre-professional artist-though he has participated in exhibits before, during and after his university degree and has a portfolio substantial enough to be considered professional.
His current paintings are guaranteed to keep people interested until the government money starts rolling in. His fascination with image has led to a success in imbuing in his paintings something beyond what is just seen in front of the observer. His scenes are more like anti-scenarios-the down-time moments of the young and social-and are given their value by Grenier's cinematic touches of colour and tone. This is the way we'd like to remember these moments if we experienced them ourselves; they make us want to have experienced them if we haven't. They are simple in their glorification of his themes, but eye-popping just the same. That balance makes them all the more mouth-watering, because you can never have what's in the picture-you can only have a want of it.
Melissa Wheeler is getting to know Montreal's culture creators. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Melissa Wheeler.