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This article was published 10/9/2015 (657 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
You have to trust that Mélanie Rocan knows where she's going: uncertainty is a guiding principle for the Franco-Manitoban artist, whose intuitive, emotionally charged paintings have earned widespread acclaim. Her meanderings and odd manoeuvres can be hard to follow, but they can also lead to moments of unsettled beauty and surprising clarity.
There are plenty of these highlights in Beautiful Disasters, Rocan's far-reaching, if uneven, first solo exhibition at Actual Contemporary. It's also her first show to include sculpture in significant quantities, featuring a selection of dollhouse miniatures and surreal contraptions that extend motifs from her paintings, which retain pride of place.
Those paintings span what have come to form distinct genres in Rocan's practice: portraits whose subjects disappear into their surroundings; landscapes and lakes dotted with heaped flowers and particolour beaver lodges; flocks of birds and explosions of floral chintz that verge on pure abstraction; fragmentary allegories offering glimpses into dreams and nightmares, half-forgotten memories and seething insecurities.
In Rocan's work, as in dreams, directions and definitions lose their hard edges. Up and down, inside and outside, action and intention, "good" and "bad": all bleed freely into one another. An unusual and sometimes exhilarating indistinctness typifies the paintings' content and construction, with images unravelling into one another and paint worked seemingly without premeditation, wet into wet.
In Drifting Up, a woman hangs suspended in mid-air, back arched, head back. Her features blend into muted background washes while daubs and scrapes of opaque colour accumulate in lacy encrustations on her dress and rain down like confetti. Two lovers perform a similar disappearing act in a nearby painting, dissolving into one another amidst leafy, fluttering brush strokes on the forest floor. The intoxicating sense in both is that surrender is the surest escape.
At epic proportions, Rocan's ecstatic fumbling approaches fever pitch and tremendous heights. Blazing in the Sun, a frankly astonishing 10-by-four-foot panorama, is a clattering symphony of sunshine, butterflies, brambles, weeds and blackbirds, all wrought in delirious, candy-colour impasto. Framing the scene, a bark-like border of black paint applied directly from the tube lends it a further, sculptural edge.
Rocan's purposefully "unstudied" handling doesn't always scale, however. Some of the looser small and mid-sized paintings (as well as some of the sculptures) just look aimless and shabby, at once unfinished and overworked. Other times size is no obstacle, making the inclusion of these apparent missteps all the more puzzling. In three smaller, rainbow-flecked monochrome landscapes, Rocan applies paint like literal cake frosting to terrific effect. Beaux Désastres, which lends the show its title, is a precisely worked jewel of a painting, and the tiny Globe Glowing is gripping and enigmatic.
One body of work seems, rather pointedly, to anticipate criticism. A cast of wooden puppets, paint dribbling from the ends of their phallic Pinocchio noses, go through the motions of painting. We see them walking tightropes, on puppet stages in front of jeering audiences and in studios with crows pecking at the window. There are flashes of self-aware humour, but the prevailing tone is self-pitying, and it's jarring.
The presence of unresolved works (if that's what they are) doesn't necessarily inspire confidence, but it might do something more important. The commanding presence of Rocan's best work derives from an essential, incandescent vulnerability, a vulnerability that both requires and inspires trust. As audience members, we trust that Rocan is communicating honestly, whatever that amounts to. As a critic (if that's what I am), I trust that she knows what she's doing.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.