Quebec 1950

Lida Maser art show review by Chris Little

Step into wonderment of a different time, a different place. Walking through the front door of the Stephan Bulgar gallery, we’re transported to a different place, back to another time. Presently, shades of Lida Maser and her concept of photography fill the walls. The show, entitled “Quebec 1950”, offers a glimpse of Quebec in 1950. A wide variety of subject matter fills the plane of sight, and takes us on a picturesque walk through Quebec of a different date and time.
            Entering the gallery we are quick to glance at the photographs and see countless shapes of beauty. Masers’ abilities as a photographer are undeniable. Most of the photographs are able to stand up on their own. Each picture reveals a story, does say to us more then simply “I am a photograph”. As a common viewer, we can be easily lulled into visual contentment by scenes chosen by Maser. At the lowest common dominator, the photographs are a success. However, a curious thing happens the longer the photographs are studied. As if two hands are reaching out from within the confines of the frames, the pictures seem to draw us in, asking us to passively participate within. Is it the inviting smiles of the children captured? The milkman waiting for a pickup? Or the quality of the light in the pictures? At some point over the course of viewing the pictures, it seems that we cross the threshold of reality, and become part of the photograph. At a certain irreversible point we ourselves are captured within the frame and become voyeurs sneaking in houses, hiding in the shadows, tiptoeing around our subject matter hoping to get a better understanding of it without disturbing that which it is that we our studying.
            The photographs within this exhibition seem to extend past the point of recording images and sights. Within the contrast of light and shadows exists a feeling, a soul, Maser’s soul? To dream is to be unconsciously taken on a journey and thrust into an adventure seemingly out of our control. To enter into the Bulgar gallery, is to enter into the mind of Maser, the dreams of Maser, to journey similarly as  in the film “Being John Malkovich”, into the mind of another. We walk through the country side and into the open door of an abandoned farm house. We are alone in its decrepit interior, yet we don’t feel afraid, we don’t recoil from the duress we see before us. The paint peeling off of the walls seems to peel away with it our need to escape this room. Captured, if even for only a moment, as we are in this room, that moment causes us to look beyond our first impression of its’ squalor. Like opening up an ugly cover to find a masterpiece buried below, Maser first shocks us with a room that looks beyond repair. Yet, through choice of framing and technique, Maser rewards those with the patience to pause for longer then a second, with a room of glory and splendor. Initial glances betray a room with gorgeous windows, wood lining, and a great hearth that still provides warmth despite its fire long since put out.
            Maser seems to have explored Quebec with more in mind then beautiful images for a glossy magazine. Having been contracted by Vogue magazine for the assignment which produced “Quebec 1950”; Maser seems to have pushed contemporary desires aside in search of a piece which places a piece of her own soul within each frame. As we walk through the gallery, it is as though we look through her eyes, as though we are a voyeur on her voyeuristic journey. People stand before us working on woodwork on the beach. Despite our close proximity to them, they seem to be unaware of our presence. Surely they can feel our breath, see it within the air, yet eerily they don’t seem to detect us. We stare hard, strain our eyes, yet they continue on with their work, they will forever continue on with their work.
            Silent bells sound as people emerge from a church. They rush right towards us, yet only one pair of eyes seems to even acknowledge our presence. The eyes of a man seem to call out for freedom, for help to escape from 1950, as if he knows, like us, that he will be forever stuck there. We stare what seems like forever but move on, because we can.
A great deal of the work within “Quebec 1950” contains the same dreamy quality of light. Cloaked in these natural shades, captured objects appear more fictional then real. We see them and know that we can’t reach out and touch them, so rather, we observe them and try to determine how it is that they fit together within the framework of the exhibition. A hearse for a child sits under a window in a Church, waiting for someone to pull it, to acknowledge it. Was this what the people in the previous photograph fled from? Did the man who caught us catching him, have more to do with this then he would want us to know?
Religion is a large part of life within Quebec, yet Maser chooses to explore only a few symbolic objects. An empty alter, angel statues perched high above us on ledges, carvings of religious frescos. Save for few chosen objects, she seems to choose to instead objectify the church and it’s presence. Through use of a photograph of a Church ceiling, it seems that she is attempting to say that the Church can only go so high. Rather then being something of otherworldly proportions, she seems to view the Church as nothing more then a collector of beautiful objects. As religion does represent a large portion of life within Quebec, the purpose of her religious photographs then becomes much more convoluted, confusing. Is she making a statement about organized religion? Is she making a statement about the greed of the Church? In terms of quantity of prints, there are few dealing with religion, thus we are left to wonder what the exact purpose of their inclusion within the exhibition is.
A quick glance over the body of work would seem to lead us to feel as though it were merely a quick summary of Quebec in 1950. Yet very few of the images can be dated specifically to that time period. People wear simple black clothing, architecture with the photos remain today much as it did when they were taken. But the longer that the exhibition as a whole is studied the longer it all seems to fit together. As if a story without words lies before us, we are given images and then given the task of assembling them together for greater meaning them simply beautiful pictures of beautiful objects.
Neglect, abandon, loneliness, what is it that Maser is telling us, showing us. What is that that she wants us to know over and above Quebec 1950?  Great expanses of emptiness merge together with images of solitary children in large open fields. The exhibition seems to place a great deal of emphasis on objects, on the importance of things. Yet these same things seem to be solitary, are solitary, these objects seem to exist only in their universe of one, with nothing but itself inhabiting that universe. Maser seems to be creating fantastic eye candy, but with it she seems to be trying to give an effect of the cause. As though she’s saying, “you can have this, but at this cost”, it seems that to her the cost of beautiful things is isolation. Translated into contemporary theology, it’s alike the modern Suburban individual, the person who has a beautiful house, but who erects a large fence around it to keep others out.

Apart from social commentary, “Quebec 1950” is quite simply an important and significant show. The Canadian agenda seems to be modernization, and as such much of the physical history of Canada disappears daily. Lacking photographs, there would be little to give evidence of a past to future generations. As such, this exhibition is important for the simple fact that it places a specific Canadian geographic location within a time capsule forever more. Buildings can be bulldozed over, and pastures can be paved over, yet images hold a glimpse of specific places, at specific times forever. While it is hard to date these photographs simply by looking at them, by knowing the history behind them, it’s reassuring to get a glimpse of something that would be impossible for anyone to physically see now. Lida Maser’s abstract tour of Quebec fulfills our need for beautiful images while at the same time making us question the role of the photograph, and our role in her photographs. Within her photographs, there are no black and white answers as to her meanings, to their meanings, only shades of gray which hint at answers. Thus, “Quebec 1950” is something that should be experienced to consider and create your own meanings. The exhibition is very complex, but an open mind and a brave soul are all that is needed to enter into it and come out slightly more experienced then you were when you crossed its threshold.