At the Atelier Gallery until December 18
Victoria-born cartoonist Jeff Ladouceur works exclusively in one medium--black ink over graphite (with occasional corrections in White Out)--and in one key: mordant gloom. From these limited means, Ladouceur makes small, memorable drawings--about subjects like depression, self-mutilation, the injuries the unhappy inflict on themselves and everyone around them--that are all the more arresting for their modesty.
Ladouceur's medium isn't really news in and of itself. Hundreds of cartoonists are now exhibiting their work in a fine-art context, everyone from seasoned pros like Robert Crumb and Lynda Barry to Winnipeg's Marcel Dzama and Vancouver's Marc Bell and Jason McLean. Ladouceur's drawings stand out from this crowded field. There are no splashy colours, no messy handwritten phrases, and no kitsch symbols like dolls, robots, ninja assassins, or bears. Instead, there are thin, cautious ink lines that resemble the tracks of a skier descending a steep and potentially deadly slope. There is also a real sense of menace to Ladouceur's drawings, one totally absent from the work of better-known contemporaries such as Dzama.
A Dzama drawing of a giant robot chasing a naked girl or of bears menacing cowboys is many things, but frightening isn't one of them. Dzama's drawings hint at evil, but they never crank the menace implicit in their subjects up to full bore. We sense that once we look away, the bears and robots and cowboys and naked girls will be swapping jokes in the cafeteria lunch line.
Ladouceur's drawings are far less reassuring. Here are a few of his subjects: An octopus slashing itself open with a straight razor. Endless processions of fat, little, round-headed men--Ladouceur calls them "schmoes"--with clown shoes and patched pants, whose pudgy faces, curved noses, and jowls suggest a caricature of former U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, or a cruel portrait of a hydrocephalic child. A schmo in a rowboat whose oars have carved gaping wounds in the heads of the waves he floats on. Miniature baby elephants, trickling like blood from a sleeping toddler's nose. There are many others.
I take two things away from Ladouceur's drawings. First, they are parts of a larger mythology. Nothing in them exists in a vacuum; everything, including inanimate things like signs and waves, is alive and busy changing into something else. Ladouceur, in his own secular, slyly ironic way, puts me in mind of the best Northwest Coast art, such as Douglas Cranmer's more abstract paintings, or Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun's blighted biomorphic landscapes. Like Ladouceur, these artists understand landscape as nothing more than a collection of frenzied, interlocking figures.
Second, Ladouceur is purposeful. He points out some pretty unpalatable truths to those of us unlucky enough to spend most of the time depressed. Relationships are awful. (One memorable drawing depicts a couple whose heads are little linked thunderclouds.) You can hurt people just by being near them (that guy in the rowboat again!). Social structures inflict their own damage but are better than the alternatives. (A cartoon cloud is held together by boards nailed onto its body.) Ladouceur's best drawings make you wince and laugh simultaneously. Though fantastic, they are a lot like life.