Metaphysical and deeply personal, the paintings of Montreal-based artist Gabriel Rioux embody the coveted balance between individual and universal.
His canvases rustle with memories and references to loved ones, encoded in symbols and the spines of books. Plants, vases and ladders are suspended in painted rooms that open into vast skies of constellations and portals. This personal universe, at once mysterious and familiar, expands the walls that enclose us, allowing us to see up and beyond.
We caught up with Gabriel to discuss his experiments with clay, personal symbolism and the emotional origins of his practice.
Can you tell me the story of how you started painting?
My first experimentations with painting took place about 4 years ago, when I’d just finished my college studies in literature. During those two years of study I had devoted all my energy to one particular art form, then I finally had the opportunity to open my horizons to other things. I had a lot of time for myself, and for once I didn’t have to devote my energy to writing a text or reading a book. So one day without thinking too much about it, I simply borrowed some tools from my mother and tried to paint. I remember the feeling of having fallen back into childhood, of doing something with no purpose except to enjoy the moment. The feeling of doing something without wanting to please anyone was really refreshing for me at the time, and still is. This is an aspect of painting and art that I really enjoy; being left to my own devices without rules or constraints.
Your academic background is echoed by the shelves of mysterious books that populate your paintings, but I’ve heard that you found academia disheartening. Do you think that studying literature has influenced your creative practice?
Yes, my studies influenced my painting enormously. Literature was really the first art form I was interested in. Before that I was rather indifferent to art in general. I liked it, but for me it was more of an abstract concept. Having never done anything artistic before, it took my studies to realise my ability and love for creation. I saw how school could stifle the naturalness of an art form, by grading it, judging it and stifling it with all sorts of constraints. I met some good teachers, but also others who seemed unhappy and bitter – the kind of people who as youngsters imagined themselves to be great writers, but ended up teaching literary history in a small town college! So yes, I learned a lot from school, although I don’t think it was for me.
Plants, libraries and constellations appear as recurring symbols in your paintings. What significance do they hold for you?
The plants in my paintings are a reflection of my respect and love for nature. All my life I have lived either in the suburbs or in the city. It was only when I took my first trip outside Quebec (to Western Canada and Africa) that I had the chance to taste real nature. I quickly realised the benefits of being surrounded by plants and trees, instead of buildings and people. Plants also represent, like books and constellations, an infinity of possibilities. I am not teaching anyone anything by saying that literature has an infinite number of subjects, each approached in the author’s own way. It’s a bottomless hole of different styles, techniques and knowledge. Constellations represent the many potential paths that our imagination can take when faced with the unknown. Much like subjects and authors, each one has its own way of approaching things.
In your paintings you displace ceilings and walls, inside and outside, to construct a dreamlike space. Are these non-rooms grounded in memory, or spaces of pure fantasy?
A bit of both. I think it’s a mixture of real spaces, which together form a whole that can look like it’s from fantasy. I try to create spaces that are comforting to me, so some elements are necessarily from my memory, like the vases or the libraries. Other elements are a little less concrete and more fantastical, like the portals. Some of my paintings are situated in completely deconstructed and fantastical spaces, where I try to recreate the action of remembering by locating key moments from my memories.
Hegel, Monet and Dostoyevsky’s names have appeared on the spines of your painted books. Are these figures who have influenced your style?
Hegel and Dostoyevsky have certainly influenced my thinking, but I’m not sure about my art. Seeing Monet on some books, you might think that his art could have inspired me in one way or another, but in fact when I mention Monet, it’s not even about the painter Claude Monet. It’s about another Monet, who has nothing to do with impressionism and whose name is not Claude! My influences are mainly abstract artists, like Mafia Tabak and Mateusz Sarzynski. I also really like KangHee Kim‘s pictures!
Even though you’ve only been painting for a few years, you already have a very refined, distinctive style! How would you say this has evolved since you started making art?
At the beginning, I was painting to detach myself from certain emotions. It was literally therapy. So my first paintings were much more thrashy, abstract and negative. I would pour all my emotions out onto the canvas, hoping to lighten my mood in some way. Over time, I got better and it definitely showed. Instead of painting to get away from negative thoughts, I started painting to connect with what makes me feel good, which is nature, plants, books, comfortable spaces and soothing landscapes.
You’ve said before that your goal is intrigue more than to please – why is this important for you as an artist?
Good question. I’m a pretty curious person and that’s usually why something captures my attention. Besides, I never felt that I had the talent to please people. My drawing skills are quite limited, if not non-existent, so I always thought it would be necessary to find other ways to capture attention than with a complex and masterful technique.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on some larger paintings, my favourites! Space is getting scarce in my apartment, but nothing beats the feeling of painting on a huge canvas. I always wish I could do bigger canvases since they can incorporate my world, which is full of small details. They allow me to make paintings that are much more elaborate and complete. I’m also working on a series of paintings on clay. I don’t have much experience with clay, so when I use it it takes me back to my first experiences with painting. I have no idea what I’m doing and it feels good!