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Oppositions & Challenges in Melanie Authier’s Grisailles
Oppositions, challenges, parameters. Hardly terms most people associate with the creation of an art exhibit. However, Melanie Authier ’s new Grisailles exhibit at the Rodman Hall Art Centre in St. Catharines is not your typical exhibit. In fact, at first glance, it’s not even typical of her usual work. Known for her use of bold colours in abstract compositions, Melanie created a collection inspired by the tradition of monochrome painting known as grisaille. At once familiar and disorienting, the exhibit, on through March 16, incorporates juxtapositions and a surprising range of hues to create a lasting impression.

When Ottawa-based Melanie Authier begins a painting, she typically begins with a challenge or set of parameters. Perhaps she is determined to use a colour she hasn’t been drawn to recently; sometime she explores a competing set of concepts: artificial versus natural, synthetic versus organic, geological versus atmospheric. This combination of seemingly divergent elements fits in with what drew her to art in the first place.

Growing up in art-centric Montreal and a frequent visitor to local museums and galleries, she fell in love with abstract artists, both hard and geometric styles, as well as expressive, gestural works. By the time she completed her MFA from the University of Guelph, Melanie had developed her distinctive style, combining hard-edge and gestural abstraction with a love for vivid colour.

“I start with a certain type of space in mind, often the type of space you would encounter in a landscape. But ultimately, each painting portrays an imaginary space. I’m working with the idea of what you would encounter in a cave or the relationship between a cliff and its surroundings rather than an actual space that exists,” Melanie explains.

“My work is about presenting visual contradictions and playful and inventive antagonism in these imaginary spaces.”
After several years exhibiting across the country and represented by Toronto’s Georgia Scherman Projects, with her works collected by private collectors, corporations, and the National Gallery of Canada, Melanie became one of the artists in residence at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax in 2013.

It was in Halifax that Melanie set herself the challenge of working in the monochrome tradition, creating several small paintings. These works were seen by Marcie Bronson, a curator at the Rodman Hall Art Centre (a public gallery as well as studio and office space for the Brock University). Marcie and Melanie worked together to create the concept for the exhibit that would ultimately debut as Grisailles in early December. Melanie then spent several months creating the rest of the exhibit works, including larger works for the collection at Rodman.

Rodman Hall itself is a beautiful location. This 150-year-old, stone mansion still features patterned inlaid hardwood floors, ornate plaster mouldings, stained glass windows, and 11 Italian marble fireplaces. Although this is not an ideal time year for strolling the gardens, the grounds feature a collection of exotic and rare trees and plants as well as sculptural works (including Mary Anne Barkhouse’s inspiring Settlement animal sculptures).

Found on the first floor of the gallery, the Grisailles exhibit, at first glance, is created exclusively with whites, grays, and blacks. Closer inspection of the pieces reveals subtle yet rich colours throughout the works.
In fact, Melanie says, “I realized when I finished the exhibit pieces that I had actually used all the colours I typically use, but just in a muted form.”

The influences of fluid, gestural abstraction as well as the sharp, geometric shapes used in hard abstraction are clear as well.
An important part of creating this style is Melanie’s use of acrylic paint. Using quick-drying acrylic, Melanie can not only create the crisp edges she craves, but she is able to have a quick response time to each layer and create a sense of movement, energy, and dynamism. This technique allows for an interplay with elements in the foreground, middle ground, and background, as well as confusing these elements to create a sense of disorientation.

It is easy to be drawn into the works in Grisailles. There is something familiar about each painting that draws you in. You almost feel as though you know the location of its subject or the subject itself, only to be drawn to a different aspect of the painting and start your thought process again.

Although Melanie is inspired by colours, contradictions, and landscapes she sees in her daily life in downtown Ottawa as well as in her travels, her work is completely based on the formal elements of abstraction – never using direct source imagery.
“People often feel they recognize something in one of my paintings – an edge of a leaf or the ripple of a wave, but because each gesture and form is contextualized by all the other elements in the work, their hunch is never confirmed; the painting playfully withholds.” Melanie explains. “Art collectors who own a piece of my work, say they navigate the painting and connect with different aspects of the piece depending on the day, and their mood.”

This disorientation is intentional, particularly in Grisailles where the effect is heightened when the “distraction” of colour is removed. Light and shadow are heightened to create a more dramatic quality.

To see this dramatic exhibit, visit the Rodman Hall Art Centre before March 16. Admission is free.
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