Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 4, No. 3, 2005
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Robert J. Lewis
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 Myène Gervais


reviewed by


This spring (March 2005) I had the pleasure of viewing an exhibition of extraordinary prints by Mylène Gervais. Gervais is based in Trois-Rivières, Québec, but has taken part in solo and group exhibitions all over Canada and the world. This socially engaged artist has spread her artistic message to Belgium, France, Argentina, Brazil and Cuba. Mylène Gervais has an impressive resumé: in addition to receiving numerous prestigious art prizes and being the subject of many articles and catalogues about her work, she is also a teacher at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. Mylène is the director general of La Corporation de développement culturel de Nicolet and has worked with cultural and humanitarian committees as far away as Cuba and Argentina. Her social conscience is, and always was, well developed. She told me that as a child she dreamed of working with an organization such as the Peace Corps.

© Myène Gervais© Myène GervaisUpon entering the exhibition, Mylène Gervais : Estampe, the viewer encounters technically beautiful prints of velvety black, voluptuous reds and pristine whites. I was immediately drawn to her work even as the subject matter brought me face to face with very disturbing images that produced a disquieting unease. Mylène Gervais, an accomplished print maker, examines the subject of child abuse. The fourteen, large format, and all untitled serigraphs and wood block prints, are displayed unframed and otherwise unadorned along the walls almost as children’s drawings are displayed along a classroom wall. But that is where the comparison ends, for there are no smiley faced families under sunny skies in these pictures. Gervais, in conjunction with a psychologist who treats victims of child abuse, has deeply researched the phenomenon -- the experience of which has profoundly informed her art.

© Myène Gervais© Myène GervaisI hadn’t met the artist before seeing her work so I was completely surprised to see such a young woman. The prints are so powerful and multi-faceted that I expected a much older person. Other visitors circulating around me were also asking how such a young person (mid thirties) could produce such profound work. Gervais avoided the temptation to exaggerate the horror inherent in the subject. Instead, she created stunning images that invite the viewer to contemplate the violent injustice done to children. Her accomplished technique allows us to contemplate the pathos of not only the child’s pain, but the anguish surrounding the perpetrators who inflict it. By making her work aesthetically accessible she promotes public awareness.

© Myène Gervais

Artist as social commentator is not a new phenomenon. From Francisco Goya (1746-1828) and Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) to contemporary artists like Eric Fischle, artists have been moved to depict their reactions to injustice. The artists we remember are not the ones who ranted loudly but those who moved us through the power of their art. Gervais meets those criteria which is why her images are memorable. The works are surface shallow, almost depthless, with densely saturated colors. Black, red and white transmit anger, evil, despair and other equally disturbing emotions. Mylène deliberately restricts her pallet to those three colors, explaining that they, in particular, elicit strong psychological associations in most people.

© Myène Gervais

I asked Mylène how her own children, Myrtille and Victor, who were in attendance at the vernissage, had reacted to the pictures. She confessed that she had been anxious about how they would react since they hadn’t seen the work before, (she had only spoken to them about it), but as it turned out her anxiety was unfounded. They had no response other than finding the children in the pictures sad, but didn’t understand why, and after a brief scan of the gallery happily resumed playing with their cousins.

© Myène GervaisMylène Gervais is a hands-on artist. When I asked her if the large prints had been printed for her she explained that she does all her own carving, printing and inking because she loves the process. She loves the feel of the wood and the smell of the inks and she considers the whole creative process to be part of the gestation period of the work. She feels that if she were to give up part of the process, the images would lose some of their verve.

Mylène Gervais has a Bachelor of Studio Art, a Masters Degree in the Visual Arts and has spent many years perfecting her technique in Serbia, Brazil, Buenos Aires, Cuba, Belgium and Holland. It is no surprise that she’s totally at home in the printmaking studio.

When I asked Mylène how she came to choose such a heavy subject, she said she has always been engaged by socially sensitive issues such as war atrocities, incest, suicide and sexual abuse. Her aim is to explore and expose subjects that society would rather not face, and through her art, make us aware of and sensitive to injustices everywhere. If the prints were only about ugliness and horror they would defeat the purpose. By making beautiful images about awful events, the viewer is encouraged to look more closely and contemplate more deeply.

The exhibition took place at the Vieux Presbytère in St-Bruno-de-Montarville on Montreal’s South Shore. This art venue, with an ever increasing list of very impressive exhibitions, is under the dynamic direction of Hélène Vanier, who is not afraid of controversy, and often invites -- with a jury -- artists to challenge the viewer. The Vieux Presbytère is divided into large and smaller spaces so visitors may move through it room by room. The building once served as a typical Canadiana residence, so it is definitely not the usual white-cube gallery. The room divisions create a viewing intimacy not found in the traditional cold, open concept gallery and re-enforce the fact that much child abuse takes place in just such mundane domestic environments.

© Myène Gervais© Myène GervaisThe last room I visited held a glimpse of the next project Gervais will be working on. It housed the first installment of the project entitled Chrysalide. There, I saw the poetry of Carl Lacharite digitally printed along the length of authentic, white body bags. Although the concept is not yet completely resolved, Gervais, in collaboration with her poet/friend Lacharite, will explore the subject of death and its many causes: illness, suicide etc. The plan is for every body-bag to address a particular aspect of death. Again, it is not a comfortable subject but I am certain Mylène Gervais will handle it with the same intriguing expertise she has demonstrated in this exhibition.


For more information on the artist, please contact Arts Editor Lydia Schrufer.



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