Internationally renowned Canadian painter Kent Monkman has unveiled his latest artistic work, Welcome to the Studio, at Montreal’s McCord Museum, where he is artist-in-residence. Monkman’s massive 24-foot-long painting focuses on the relationship between photography and painting and was inspired by the work of William Notman, one of Montreal’s premier 19th-century photographers, and French painter Gustave Courbet, leader of the realist movement.
Welcome to the Studio also comprises more than 30 portraits by Notman, chosen from the McCord Museum’s Notman Photographic Archives of some 600,000 photos.
“The project started over a year ago when we started looking at photographs, which I began to study six months later,” says Monkman, a contemporary artist of Cree ancestry who grew up in Winnipeg before moving to Toronto. “It took about two months to do the painting.”
Monkman’s painting alludes to The Artist’s Studio, the celebrated work by Courbet. Like Courbet, Monkman portrays himself in an imaginary studio studying the artistic practice of painting. In rich allegorical terms, he personifies this reflection through a self-portrait that draws on both Courbet the painter and Notman the photographer. The figures that surround Monkman, painted from more than 30 portraits in the Notman archives, are assembled using the composite photography technique of Notman while respecting the arrangement of figures in the work by Courbet.
“We did not find any male nudes in the Notman archives,” Monkman says. “But we came up with something close: male athletes. Notman didn’t photograph any aboriginals [either], so we came up with photographs of white French Canadians dressing up like Indians. We also found some photos of colourful characters with elaborate costumes and backdrops, and I realized this would all make for a really rich and interesting painting.”
The Notman portraits that inspired Monkman’s figures are also displayed on a wall in the exhibition hall, and visitors are invited to position themselves in the middle of the installation, where the reflection of their faces will be superimposed over the artist’s own features in the glass-covered painting.
“Monkman breathes new life into photographs from our Notman Archives and invites us to reflect on the notion of the artist’s mission,” says Suzanne Sauvage, president and CEO of the McCord. “This result is a wonderful example of the dialogue between past and present, contemporary art and history.”
Monkman, who recently received an Indspire Award in Winnipeg, continues to prominently address aboriginal and queer identity in his art.
“My gay identity is usually at the forefront of my work; I never shy away from it, and it’s in Welcome to the Studio, although perhaps in a more subtle way,” he says. “It was fun creating this painting with phallic references, which in a way can be more erotic than just showing a penis. So just for fun [in my own portrait in the painting], I even put a huge paint brush in my hand!”
Monkman smiles, then adds, “It’s about having the biggest brush!”