by Ann Cernek
The first public exhibition of visual art was at the Palais du Louvre in 1793. The new institution – which was to showcase mostly French artists – was designed to raise the spirits of post-Revolutionary France. But the lavishly-decorated royal palace couldn’t be transformed into a public museum overnight. There was a danger that the building itself, rather than the art it housed, would capture the attention of its visitors. The space needed to be reconditioned and organized so that the art of the people could be valorized.
Many of the issues that the first curators of the Louvre Museum encountered remain relevant today. How should the works be ordered? What is the best placement for certain works? How can the works be best appreciated?
Even now, as visual art is finding its way out of the confines of the museum and being exhibited in non-conventional places, questions of space and placement remain as relevant as ever – if not more so. Here is our first discussion of these questions, of the spaces that Montréalers have chosen to honor and exhibit art.
We begin at Pourquoi Pas Espresso Bar. A large island of various coffee-making machines and fresh viennoiseries is at the center of the room, leaving little space for anything other than a few tables and chairs. Still, the owners of the café have made one full wall available to the exhibition of a new local artist each month.
This October, a collection of photographs entitled “Form & Perform” by di Maio takes up the larger part of this exposed-brick wall. As a Montréal native, world traveller, and both patron and employee of cafés, di Maio has a lot to say about their support for local artists. Not only did she inquire about showing her works at a variety of venues, but she has been a barista for 5 years.
In Montréal, cafés generally agree to exhibit local art in exchange for little to nothing. Pourquoi Pas Espresso Bar charges neither an exhibition fee nor commission. They’ve dedicated a lot to proving their support for the arts. On the black wall opposite from the one on which di Maio’s photographs are hung (the only other available wall space in the café) doodles appear in white. Most are related to coffee, one says “SUPPORTING LES ARTISTES LOCAUX YALL.”
Di Maio believes this benevolent attitude is one manifestation of the city’s “bohemian” culture. “I go to other cafés in different cities like New York or London or Paris and they don’t really do that as much and I think there’s something about Montréal – throughout the past 20 years it’s always wanted to promote its local artists,” she explained.
The café offers an unassuming space to artists at the start of their careers: somewhere public, yet more easily accessible than a gallery to show off their work. The artist, she goes on to say, has the opportunity to expose their works “to a public gaze, which isn’t a critical gaze like in galleries, it’s more of an interactive gaze.” Di Maio puts this interactive engagement down to an atmosphere specially curated by café owners who want to offer “a space for creative inspiration.” Nowadays, the café is a sort of studio for professionals and creatives alike, where caffeine is only one part of the experience.
Di Maio is an astute observer of people and the spaces that they construct and occupy. “Form & Perform” captures the subtle, every day, overseen beauty of our space. Di Maio focuses on the human performance of life, and how this is delineated by the way we navigate architecture. “We as individuals move through space and interact with space and design,” says di Maio. “It’s a performance dictated by the architects and urban planners” in our society.
Di Maio’s perception of the purpose of café space and café-goers’ expectations stems from an ability to observe the details of the ordinary. She attributes these keen observational tools to travelling alone. Being able to pay “attention to details in life is not innate,” di Maio explains. Her travels have allowed her to bring attention to the otherwise unnoticed. Indeed, her photographs combine elegant composition and compelling documentary.
“We shape our buildings and therefore they shape us” (Winston Churchill) captions Montreal Farine, an image of the Farine Five Roses factory all Montréalers will recognize in the city’s skyline. Though to serve a different agenda, the devotion that Montréal café owners have to exhibiting local art is reminiscent of the French nationalist art first shown at the Louvre. The art must be identifiable to its audience to allow the space in which it is exhibited to become public. This month, Pourquoi Pas Espresso Bar has succeeded at this task. Laura di Maio’s photographs can help us recognize how the shaping of our buildings, museums and cafés will continue to shape us.
“Form & Perform” will be on display at Pourquoi Pas Espresso Bar (1447 rue Amherst) until October 30, 2016. Laura di Maio’s photographs can be viewed and purchased here.
Photographs courtesy of Laura di Maio.