Mélanie Rocan seeks out the kinds of images that we don't choose and can't control, crafting lurid tapestries from chance occurrences, dreamscapes and "involuntary memories."
That last phrase comes from Proust, who used it to describe the cascading torrents of imagery and sensation that arrive unexpectedly and unbidden, set off by triggers as insubstantial as a half-remembered taste or smell. It inspired the title of Rocan's touring solo exhibition, Souvenir involontaire, which makes its third and final stop at Plug In ICA, a homecoming of sorts for the Winnipeg-based painter.
The idea provides a useful framework for understanding Rocan's practice, her struggle to contain a deluge of forms and feelings in paint, and the underlying logic of the crowded, somewhat scattershot exhibition itself.
In the paintings -- almost 50 in total, dating from as early as 2006 -- disparate images jostle, overlap and accumulate in unexpected ways. Human figures, fragmentary landscapes, Ferris wheels, abstract marks and the detritus of everyday life coalesce to form half-lucid vistas in a remarkable approximation of dream imagery. Her boneless, blasé approach to paint itself, however, suggests that she might have still been half-asleep when she made them.
Rocan's indifferent handling and woozy, "unstudied" style (she holds degrees in painting from Concordia and the U of M and was twice nominated for the prestigious RBC Canadian Painting Competition) reflect a desire to relinquish rigid control that arguably suits her interests and dreamlike subject matter. Still, dreams only take on significance once we wake up and impose some semblance of order, teasing out fragments of narrative or the illusion of insight. Perhaps understandably, Rocan seeks to avoid this secondary layer of interpretation, preserving the inchoate messiness of the emotional landscape wherever possible, brushwork included, but her strongest paintings still provide some underlying structure or, better yet, arrive at one organically.
Sheer density of imagery gives heft and purpose to otherwise listless compositions, such as the evocative images of figures wading off into boundless bodies of water. Other paintings feature rickety, semi-architectural motifs like dollhouses, layer cakes, or the rectangular form of unstretched canvas, allowing for a patchwork of distinct vignettes. Here and there, pulsing veins of saturated colour slice through gauzy atmospheric passages, the moments of vibrancy providing contrast in lieu of solidity.
The numerous smaller works in the exhibition only infrequently arrive at these key contrasts, and the same is true of Rocan's more conventional portraits -- pouty, drowsy-looking women pockmarked with flowers or smeared with bird-scat globs of paint. Much like the show's overburdened, salon-style hanging, the inclusion of these less fully realized works helps reinforce and provide further insight into the breadth of Rocan's practice while simultaneously undermining some of its achievements.
When Rocan finds a hospitable balance, which she does in maybe every third work, the results are indisputably arresting. Those paintings (a perfectly serviceable exhibition's worth, incidentally) strongly hint at what painters for over a century have hoped to gain by surrendering coherence, precision and restraint. They have the force and inevitability of raw feeling, the elusive pull of hazy memories and a dream's perfect, visionary oddness. It's a calculated risk that takes remarkable skill and finesse to pull off. In its best moments Souvenir involontaire proves that it's one worth taking.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based writer, educator and bitter ex-painting major.