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Karsh Award 2014 winner Chantal Gervais – a presence of absence

By John Olsthoorn on September 24, 2014

Two visits are still not enough to absorb Chantal Gervais’ artwork. Every time you look at her pieces on exhibit at the Karsh-Masson Gallery in Ottawa’s city hall, you see something you didn’t see before and along with that a heightened appreciation and understanding why the Karsh Award’s jury selected Gervais the 2014 winner.

Gervais uses digital, film and scanner (both flatbed and MRI) technologies to created her pieces, most of which are photographs. The half dozen or so groupings of her work each have their own focus.

In the Portrait of my father Paul series, it seems Gervais is trying to capture a presence of absence, or, as the Welsh put it, mae hiraeth arna amdanot ti. This expression translates roughly into “there’s a homesickness on me for you”. In the photographs of her late father’s garage, where he worked and kept his tools and things, you get a sense of a longing for a place where the person who filled the space – her father – is no longer there, and will never be again, at least not in body. You know that, too, as all the doors are closed, forever so it seems.

Chantal Gervais gazes at her photo of her late father’s garage. Photo by JC Olsthoorn.

Chantal Gervais gazes at her photo of her late father’s garage. Photo by JC Olsthoorn.


Gervais says her intention was not to catalogue his belongings, but more to capture something else: Some shots are looking down, some up, some straight ahead – perspectives of someone other than a casual viewer. She avoids panorama shots in this series. Instead, you notice the gentle misalignment in a number of the photos where overlaps extend the view so that some items, or parts of them, appear twice, a ladder, gas tank and others.

You notice, too, the misalignment in the scanned pieces that fit together in Vitruvian Me, part of The Body Ineffable series. It was created using scans of the artist taken on a flatbed scanner on the floor, inches by inches with Gervais having to rescan often to get the alignment right. This type of self-scan is not the most comfortable she said adding that when it is you, it is very different; you can be and are much harder on your own body.

A very different approach than the one she used for the images in Between Self and Others. Gervais said when she was taking photos of her models, those with wounded or scarred bodies, she was very aware of making them feel comfortable.

Self-portrait #3 of MRI from the series The Body Ineffable. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Self-portrait #3 of MRI from the series The Body Ineffable. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The full-size images of The Body Ineffable photographs reveal the inner workings of Gervais, literally. They came to life through MRI scans. It’s not the usual way someone exposes themselves and it is fascinating to see the organs, bones, brains and a whole lot of other stuff. One piece in the exhibit, Self-portrait, seems like an extension of The Body Ineffable.

A video projected on a wall shows Gervais being MRI’d, life size. You hear the clicking and other noises that magnetic resonance imaging machines make and the artist appears in various stages of exposure, internally and externally.

“Her work searches for identities as referenced through her own body,” Karsh Award jury member Raymond Aubin remarked in presenting Gervais with the award at the September 12 reception. That seems right. A third visit later on is warranted, perhaps, with more to discover.

With the Karsh Award, the City of Ottawa honours Yousuf and Malak Karsh with a commemorative award of $7,500 every two years. It is given to an established professional artist for outstanding artistic work in a photo-based medium who has demonstrated a strong commitment to artistic excellence in the discipline.

The exhibition runs at City Hall (110 Laurier Avenue West) until October 19, 2014 with a not-to-be-missed artist talk on Sunday, October 5 at 2 p.m.