Sophie Castonguay
Self-portraiture survives and thrives in digital photos
par HENRY LEHMANN - Mars 2007

It looks as though lowly self-portraiture will easily survive the current digitization of all existence. Like the ragweed we see cropping up in the sidewalk in one of six unassuming digital self images by Montreal artist Sophie Castonguay, the sovereign "I" continues to survive as a major artistic concern. Of course, this fixation on the self may be because our fashion-obsessed era is terminally narcissist, hopelessly in love with commercial fantasies of the true self.

Then again, perhaps the portrait genre lives on precisely because artists, the oracles and seers of their time, wish to be on the front lines in a battle royal against that very same narcissism that, by definition, replaces real people with commercially conceived media stars. Certainly, in Castonguay's innovative, questioning photo images in Un temps soi peut, just opened at the Maison de la culture Frontenac, the focus is inward.

In this series, which combine photo and sound, emptiness and silence are as important as appearance and speech. In all the works on view, we are struck by the quiet present of space surrounding the artist, in the images and between the images.

In L'attente #1, a young woman sits alone on a street bench. Each image is mounted on its own solid plaque, positioned a few inches from the wall and concealing an audio machine that sporadically plays short voice-overs from the artist. The artist sets forth her rigid routine -- how she comes to this bench each day and always sits there. Banality trumps dramatic self-insight. But it is in the often-plodding monotony of the monologues that the artist transforms her images into something more than the simple sum of their visual parts.

Castonguay's aim is not to bring tidings of warmth and good cheer. In a group of works including one titled La Veille, Castonguay plays the part of a young girl celebrating Christmas Eve with family and friends. She stares off into the invisible space beyond the Christmas tree. The relentless change in size and dress of the artist in each image signals different periods in Castonguay's life. In successive works she comes off alternately as kid, brooding teenager and insecure vamp; this is because these were selected from mounds of family snaps covering decades of the artist's early life. The variability of the artist as viewed in different works constitutes yet another type of emptiness in this show so obsessed with personal loss.

"My parents kept boxes of old photos. I am fascinated, especially by the ones of me in times I can no longer remember." Voice-overs like this were an attempt to put herself back into the picture: "I did not try to replicate my actual thoughts at the time of the old pictures." And, of course, the voice-overs represent the effort to somehow fill in, and thus revive, still another type of vacancy, that left by the missing memories, when the artist was too young to consciously hang on to time and give it a label.

In the end, what this exhibit suggests is the profound alienation of self as spoken word from self as seen image. The semi-fictional voice-overs simply affirm the possibility that the human self is not of a piece, and no amount of words can really begin to impinge on even the most banal of self-portraits. That the actual digital works on display were the work of people other than the artist, with the old photos themselves products of a family activity, suggests further gaps between artist and the self she vainly seeks. We get futility, but of a brave kind that is entirely valid as a subject for art.

Sophie Castonguay's talking images, Un Temps soi peu, remain on view at the Maison de la culture Frontenac, 2550 Ontario St. E., at Frontenac metro, until April 15. Call (514) 872-7882 or see

Portraiture of sorts is also the focus of an exhibit of photo images by celebrated Montreal artist Genevieve Cadieux, now on view at Galerie Rene Blouin. What the talented Cadieux delivers is a visual version of the game Clue. In one majestic central triptych, titled Cet apres-midi la (enchantement), the artist sets forth the "players" in her story. Included are a parrot, a massive flower, a young girl, and a tree branch.

These icons, full of deeper meaning and symbolism, reappear hauntingly in nearly all the other pictures. In one, the parrot rides the girl's outstretched arm; in another image, we see the sick-looking grayish flower; and in yet another vision, there's the branch, this time not as a 2-D image, but as an exquisite 3-D apparition. This limb, complete with perfect leaves, is cast from a real branch into a gold-like bronze sculpture. Cadieux had a skilled jeweller in New York do the casting. This gives the work a fourth dimension which it would not have if it were a cheap spray-job on an actual branch.

The irony is that this, the most sculptural work on view, is, at the same time, the most deceptive and fictional. Perhaps the ubiquitous parrot can give us the real, inside story of Cadieux's current fascinating inventory of things and concerns: a show worth seeing.