In November 2019, the University of Saskatchewan’s Gordon Snelgrove Gallery exhibited Annie Bérubé’s series Mother, six large canvases with a dreamlike, retro-futurist aesthetic that were produced in the months preceding and following the death of her mother. The Quebec artist has been living in Saskatoon for eight years and is a member of the Fransaskois artists’ collective Sans-atelier.
While the works in the Mother series fulfilled the requirements for a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, Bérubé has not always been part of the arts community. Before taking up her studies, she was a project director in the manufacture of air filtering systems for generators and turbines in offshore production platforms, and a drafter and designer of heavy equipment. A complete mastery of 3D drawing techniques and an advanced knowledge of mechanical technology both inform her artistic practice, with striking results.
From industrial design to painting
While still employed by a multinational energy producer, Bérubé made frequent trips to Europe, South America and Asia. She was beginning to feel exhausted professionally and impelled by a longstanding desire to launch an artistic career. The time had come for the artist, then in her forties, to make the leap.
“I chose painting because it is the medium I find the most difficult,“ Bérubé explained. “Learning to put emotions on canvas was hard compared to making meaningless, mechanical images. I was at a point of no return, and I had to create images in places replete with meaning.”
The piece that was hung at the gallery’s entrance, next to the artist’s statement and the show’s title, features a drilling rig suspended against a backdrop of desert hues. The yellowish sky recalls that in the shot of the Tyrell Corporation’s headquarters in the film Blade Runner from 1982. Visitors immediately understand that they are being invited to follow a dense, immersive visual trajectory in which light and sound play an essential role. Bérubé put together a sound track for the occasion from recordings of colliding underwater structures.
“This platform looks to me like my mother did – strong, straight and unbending,” Bérubé commented. “I just had to let the straight lines run. At that point, I told myself that chances were that I might not see her again, perhaps not ever. The sound of the metal surfaces scraping together underwater symbolizes her stifled cries, as she was by then very ill.”
Painting as a platform for the emotions
Industrial platforms reappear in several of the paintings, one of them in more than 10 versions. This coincided with receiving the news that her mother’s illness was terminal. “I was determined to transmit the idea that feelings are by their nature ephemeral, that they change as much as they fade,” she remarked.
Bérubé also makes use of in situ objects that she positions among the paintings, such as a white barrier of the kind found on construction and industrial sites. For her, the barrier represents the hurdles set up by the medical and health system as well as by physical distance.
“I started to work in a much cruder fashion, using spray paint. By contrast, from a natural standpoint, the evergreens that appear in other paintings symbolize what remains, the distance between us,” she explained.
Bérubé also employs a nightgown hanging on a clothesline to represent the loss of her mother. It harks back to scenes in some of the other paintings of colourful clothing drying outdoors at the mercy of the elements, and provides a transition to clotheslines in the back alleys of Montreal, where Bérubé grew up. One painting pays tribute to balconnage, the practice among housewives in Montreal’s downtown and working-class districts to trade gossip from balcony to balcony in the 1920s and 1930s.
“It reminds me of when we lived at De Lorimier Avenue and Rachel, in the heart of Montreal, in a middle-class neighbourhood. I remember the butcher shop next door, life in the district, and the apartment where my mother grew up a few streets over from our house,” she recounts.
The exhibition ends with a painting in darker tones evoking the work of US artist Ross Bleckner. We see an army of drones like dragonflies emerging from darkness in a beam of light. “The drone painting speaks of the beyond. Whether you choose to believe it or not, since my mother’s departure I have a feeling that she sees me, she’s watching me... In the end, it could just be my way of telling my mother, ‘I know you‘re watching me,’ like an inside joke between the two of us.”
Surveillance and robotics are powerful contemporary themes that Bérubé intends to take even further. On the level of form, the influence of such artists as Manitoba’s Alison Norlen and Belgium’s comic book illustrator François Shuiten endorse her paintings’ technical quality. The amount of time the many Saskatoon visitors devoted to each canvas confirms that Annie Bérubé’s future as an artist is a promising one.
English translation by S.E. Stewart