At the Burnaby Art Gallery, Jeff Ladouceur: Pearl Path takes cartoonish characters into surreal, amusing realms

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      Jeff Ladouceur: Pearl Path
      At the Burnaby Art Gallery until August 19

      Jeff Ladouceur’s drawings evoke feelings of both amusement and pathos, his cartoonish characters often engaged in imaginary situations that are clearly out of their control. Running madly atop a swirling tangle of mist or matter; tied in knots and carried off by a witch; bearing a battered and wordless placard in support of some undoubtedly hopeless cause. At the same time, Ladouceur presents us with occasional scenes of joy and elation: a figure blissfully upended in a bed of flowers; a sweetly smiling ghost emerging from a hole in a wooden floor; another figure, composed of flames and striding cheerily forward.

      The surreal and the existential, the sad and the frolicsome, the unfortunate and the blessed all come together in Ladouceur’s solo show of drawings (and a few oddly complementary sculptures) at the Burnaby Art Gallery. Born in Victoria and based in New York City, Ladouceur is a self-taught artist and extremely skilled draftsman whose influences cover the high-low spectrum, from William Blake to Mad magazine.

      His long-standing repertoire of characters and beings, finely wrought in ink, pencil, watercolour, and gouache, is suggestive of vintage cartoons and, at the same time, has become distinctively his over the course of his career. (An exception is a fat-cheeked, bulgy-eyed, cyclopean being that is a perhaps-too-literal homage to Philip Guston.) Among Ladouceur’s most notable characters is the bald, big-nosed, put-upon everyman he calls Schmo, who appears here solo and in multiples.

      Subtitled Pearl Path, the show illustrates what the artist describes in the curatorial statement as “the slow path through life”, one in which pains and aggravations create, like grains of sand in an oyster shell, precious pearls of understanding. An indication of the essential sweetness of Ladouceur’s vision is his description of the pearlescent light that guides souls on their secret journeys. Many of his drawings depict scenes of movement, striving, and transformation, and his titles are long and expository. An example is ‘Stride’ a.k.a. ‘Sun Runner #23’ (Onwards!), a running Schmo figure in clown shoes with a brilliant sunburst for a head. ‘Wing’ a.k.a. ‘Eyes Wide for the Wind’ (O.K. Ultra) depicts a bright-eyed cartoon face conflated with the wings of a butterfly.

      Art a.k.a Cloaky #7 (Growth of the Soil, Abstracts in Oil), by Jeff Ladouceur.

      Ladouceur’s pearly scenarios also employ anthropomorphized natural elements, such as clouds, trees, fire, and flowing water. An uneasily smiling tree trunk wears a string of pearls in ‘Stump’ a.k.a. ‘Yesterday’s Party’ (Holy Tree). A hand-shaped cloud holds a happy, multicoloured orb in ‘Pearl’ a.k.a. ‘Cloud Hand #11’ (Beachcomber). But, again, there’s the grit that stimulates the production of the pearl. Elements of the grotesque occur here: a pilloried figure whose head is positioned on a plank of wood amid a pile of disembodied heads; a ghastly, ghostly head within which are set three smaller, headless figures.

      Ladouceur is one of a group of Canadian artists, including former members of Winnipeg’s Royal Art Lodge, whose primary medium is drawing and whose work is marked by “lowbrow” sensibilities, a Dadaistic fondness for absurdity, small-scale handmadeness, and imagery that seems to spring, surreal and unfettered, directly from the unconscious. Such work stands in pendulum-swing opposition to the large-scale, theory-driven, photo-based work of the previous generation.

      For long-time viewers, clinging to that pendulum of art-world tropes and trends, well, it’s been quite the ride.