Artist Caroline Monet evokes Anishinaabe culture with everyday materials

Montreal artist Caroline Monet opens her solo show, Hold Up The Sky, at the Burlington Art Gallery on January 13.Nick Iwanishin

When visual artist and filmmaker Caroline Monet was growing up in Aylmer, Kew, her parents flipped homes in the suburban and rural town that is now part of Gatineau.

“I used to come home from school to put insulation in the walls in my room… We moved around a lot,” she said, recalling her childhood in a construction zone.

This doesn’t seem to have infected Monet, who is now 37, based in Montreal, and well-established in her multidisciplinary career. Today, she creates bold, colorful art using blue waterproofing films, pink Styrofoam insulation, and multicolored sandpaper. The results are visually appealing and even funny, when you begin to recognize familiar industrial products, but they have a very serious purpose: in combining classical modernist abstraction with clichéd building materials on the one hand and the sacred geometry of Anishinaabe culture on the other, Monet quietly alludes to the housing crisis among the First Nations as Overcrowding, poor air quality and boiling water warnings threaten health and quality of life.

Monnet’s Pikogan (Shelter)—made of mesh polyethylene tubing, PVC conduits, brass, Velcro, and steel—is part nod to the traditional Anishinaabe shelter and part jungle gym. It’s an interesting structure, but it also suggests a sacred space under its open roof.Nick Iwanchin/The Globe and Mail

“I love working with these materials, not only for their texture and color but also for what they mean symbolically,” she said. The house should be treated as a living body. If there is mold left, it will affect your physical and mental health. If a house is healthy, then the people who live in it will be healthy.”

So, work like Bikogan (Shelter), The dome-shaped frame, included in a large solo show of her work now at the Burlington Art Gallery, is part reference to a traditional Anishinaabe shelter and part jungle gym, all made of polyethylene tubing, PVC conduit, brass, Velcro, and steel. It’s an interesting structure, but it also suggests a sacred space under its open roof.

Monnet’s Framing the Bones, embroidery on polyethylene, at the Burlington Art Gallery.Nick Iwanishin

Her work strives to address the housing crisis, “but not in a dark way. It’s playful in a way. I don’t want to be dramatic; it’s about the promise of better living conditions. It has to be hopeful.”

Monet, whose mother is Anishinaabe and whose father is from France, draws inspiration from traditional Anishinaabe patterns and techniques, though she is careful to stress that she does not reproduce directly.

For example, biting birch bark piqued her curiosity. A more sophisticated version of a child’s method of cutting a snowflake out of a folded piece of paper, it’s a traditional art form that produces very precise repeating patterns by biting off thin pieces of bark. But Monnet produces her own versions of the lattice-like origami patterns using computer software and laser engraving, rather than her brain’s eye and teeth.

Monnet’s The Room—a lavender styrofoam-lined wood-panel cube-shaped room in which Monet cut her signature patterns—is a hybrid art where settler meets indigenous, blending modernity with tradition and abstract forms peppered with potentially political references.Nick Iwanchin/The Globe and Mail

At the Burlington Gallery, titled Carrying the Sky, it included a series of smaller works, each one notable for its rectangular grid of perfectly cut figures and areas of leaves of deep red, Prussian blue, or pale green. Look closely and you’ll realize that the material is actually sandpaper as the grain catches the light. (Monet sources some of these unusual colors from Europe, saying, “When I travel, I make sure to visit the local hardware store.”)

She sketches out these geometric shapes instinctively, using graphics software and never repeating a pattern: “The designs have become my own language. I can’t say they’re traditional anymore. They’ve evolved over time.” She’s also now experimenting with machine embroidery, sewing her patterns onto plastic sheeting or waterproofing film, and favoring the loud colors of a safety vest or roadside pylon.

She traces the origins of her current art to a series of geometric drawings she made in 2014 that are included in this show. In this series entitled improbable processOn paper, I experimented with a six-sided flat template that could be folded into a three-dimensional cube, drawing a different pattern on each square. The cube is the perfect modern shape, regular, stable, all right angles, all sides the same size, but also, for Monnet, a symbol of infinite possibilities.

In this show, Dome Bikogan along with the room, a room shaped like a cube of wood panels, the size of a very large packing box, into which the viewer can enter to admire its interior walls of purple-tinted Styrofoam into which Monet has cut her signature patterns. The result is hybrid art where settler meets indigenous, modernism blends tradition and abstract forms are full of potential political references.

Interestingly, it was created by an artist who never went to art school but got into the visual arts through film and video art: Monet studied Sociology and Communication at the University of Ottawa before transferring to the University of Granada in Spain and finishing at the University of Winnipeg. After graduating, she began experimenting: “I made my first short film in 2009 and have never looked back,” she said. “I found a tool to express myself, to gain self-confidence and to reclaim my culture.”

Hold Up the Sky, an exhibition of Caroline Monet’s work, runs at the Burlington Art Gallery through April 23.

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