Following his passion for reading, books and authors like Hubert Aquin and Guy de Maupassant, Gabriel Rioux graduated from a literature degree. However, the academic world was disappointing, and thanks to a little help from his mother, he turned to painting. Now, after almost two years being a self-taught artist, he starts off 2020 with a solo show at Archive Contemporary gallery in Montreal until the 1st of February. We take the opportunity to sit down with him to speak about spirituality, his favourite authors and his highly symbolic paintings.
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You started painting in 2018, so it’s quite an accomplishment to start 2020 with a solo exhibition. Before that, you graduated from a literature degree, but it was a disappointment as I’ve read. What first excited you about literature and why was it such a disappointment?
As a teenager, I stumbled across naturalist and postmodernist authors such as Maupassant and Hubert Aquin, whose works sparked a fire within me and completely changed my perspective towards literature. Previously, I had associated literature with the academic readings imposed in my high school curriculum, which I always found dull and insufferably boring. Looking back, I realize that it took venturing outside the classroom setting and exploring authors independently, for my attention and interest to be piqued. I was fascinated by authors who wrote with sincerity and courage, and who delved into a protagonist’s downfall and the collapse of social/personal norms.
When I later started my program in literature, this same malaise resurfaced almost immediately. I found myself wanting to learn directly from the books and preferred directing my own trajectory when it came to readings. Of course, there were a few brilliant professors at the college, but overall, my inspired moments were few and far between. Perhaps I’m simply not cut out for academic establishments, or perhaps I just didn’t resonate with the material… all I knew is that I loved reading books but had no interest in listening to my professors discuss and dissect them.
After this disappointment, you turned to the arts. How was the process like? When and why did you first try to express yourself through canvases and mixed media artworks?
The summer after graduating, I decided to stay in Montreal rather than going to Canada’s west coast to explore the natural landscape as I had done for the previous four years. Seeing as I had lots of free time, my mother, who was a painter, gave me some paints and equipment from her studio and encouraged me to try my hand at art. I was instantly hooked and have been painting every day since.
That summer also coincided with a particularly low period of depression. Painting served as a way of processing my emotions, which at the time felt overwhelming and chaotic, while also directing my time and my thoughts in a controlled, meditative way. By delving into my subconscious for words, memories and images, and then layering these in unexpected ways on the canvas, I was able to reconfigure ideas of self and identify in a way which felt comforting and healing.
Libraries are a symbol we can find in many of your works, which I believe is pretty related to your interest in literature. Is it a way to connect these two passions? What other symbolic meanings do these libraries have?
Indeed, libraries represent to me a symbolic bridge connecting these two passions for the world of images and the world of ideas. And not just literary ideas, since the libraries in my paintings include books on geography, natural science, culture, ethics, and any other subject that intrigues me. Painted book titles represent keywords, each one holding a world of mystery and discovery. In this way, libraries are windows into my inner world; clues which help the viewer understand something about my interests, my dreams, my thought process.
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Speaking of libraries, I guess yours are stacked. What are some of your must-have reads? Some go-to books where you always go back for some reason?
There are so many to choose from, but at the top of the list would be The Horla, a short surrealist story by Guy de Maupassant. It was the first book that really marked me and a text that I’ve read and re-read through the years. The protagonist questions spirituality, the human mind, and eventually his own senses. Of course, he would have preferred to remain in the quiet certainty of his comfort zone, but his predictable life is upturned through the course of the story; cracks of doubt emerge in his vision of the world, and he is forced to come face to face with the unknown. These are all questions that shaped my imagination as a young reader: the uncertainty of outcome, the existential quest, the fluidity of identity… Some other favourites include Hubert Aquin’s Prochain Épisode, Baudelaire’s Les Paradis Artificiels, Toni Morrison’s Home, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémory d’Hadrien and Dostoyevsky’s The Gabler.
The sky is another constant in your work, especially starred nights and constellations. Are you interested in astrology or spirituality? Do you connect on a spiritual level with painting somehow?
Astrology and spirituality are intriguing subjects, of course, but I don’t think I could honestly call myself a spiritual person. I find the concept of spirituality too vague to draw concrete benefits from. I like to think about it from time to time but I don’t base my thoughts or actions on it. In my mind, the sky represents the same thing as a forest does: a vast and mysterious space dotted with several microcosms. A place that is intrinsically out of reach.
What really interests is the lack of knowledge that one can have in front of the immensity and beauty of nature. This void of knowledge often fires the imagination whether we like it or not. The skies are one way among many others to intrigue the viewer, to give oneself the chance to wonder, to find questions within the elements of the paintings and to attribute meaning through an imaginative exercise.
Your paintings have certain philosophical, spiritual and even mystic qualities to them, and the scenes you paint seem frozen in time and space. How are you finding your style, your voice (as you started painting in 2018)?
My paintings could be seen as visual archives of myself during the period of time they were painted in, and as such, my voice will always shift and evolve as my perspective does. My first works were created from a mental space of sadness and negativity. Compared to the work created in 2018, my recent paintings are tonally brighter and more optimistic in their choice of imagery because my inner landscape is such. This change is visibly noticeable, even to an external viewer – the colours are more vivid, the words depicted in the composition are much less pessimistic. When I look back at these older works, I remember my state of mind viscerally… they become ways of reminding myself where I was and where I am now.
The symbols in my work represent thoughts, experiences, and also people who have marked or influenced me (usually surfacing as names hidden within my paintings or objects that remind me of the person). As time brings new people and new ideas into my sphere of inspiration, the symbols I appropriate in my paintings will also shift accordingly.
“I’m curious to learn, but the biggest strides in my learning have never occurred in schools. I’m worried that school will stifle my passion for painting by making it stressful.”
I believe you’re a self-taught artist. But since you were disappointed with the academy after studying literature, would you try to go to art school? Why or why not?
Never say never, but for the time being, I am enjoying the freedom of guiding myself within my own journey as an artist. I’m curious to learn, but the biggest strides in my learning have never occurred in schools. I’m worried that school will stifle my passion for painting by making it stressful, being forced to respond to performance metrics or having to spend several hours on a project or topics that I’m not interested in. At the moment, I believe that continually working on my technique is pushing me to find my own style and keeps my momentum strong.
Last Saturday, you opened a solo show at Montreal’s gallery Archive Contemporary. Could you tell us more about it?
Yes! My solo at Archive Contemporary is curated by Maela Ohana and brings together paintings from 2018 to 2020, along with some brand new forays into sculpture. I have been part of many of Archive’s exhibitions since the beginning of the summer and have rubbed shoulders with many talented artists there. I’m truly blessed to have the opportunity to present my paintings comprehensively in an inspiring contemporary space. Anyone interested can schedule a private viewing or request by emailing [email protected].
After this solo show, what are your other plans for the upcoming months?
I’m starting work on a second series of paintings and also exploring various pottery techniques with the aim of including more sculpture in my studio work. I also have a few exhibitions lined up for 2020, the first being at Montreal Contemporary Art Museum’s (MAC) fundraiser, where I’ll be donating a painting. You can follow all upcoming projects on my website and Instagram.
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