Rue Drolet, Montréal
1936
Huile sur panneau
Oil on panel
20 x 25,5 cm

Rue Wiseman, Outremont
1942
Huile sur panneau
Oil on panel
41 x 30,5 cm

Scène de rue, sous le Cap, Québec
1958
Huile sur panneau
Oil on panel
25,5 x 20 cm

Nature morte
1940
Huile sur panneau
Oil on panel
51 x 102 cm

Autoritratto
1962
Huile sur panneau
Oil on panel
122 x 51 cm

Parade
1963
Huile sur panneau
Oil on panel
122 x 183 cm

Éblouissement
1967
Huile sur panneau
Oil on panel
76 x 102 cm

Paysage
1963
Huile sur panneau
Oil on panel
122 x 213 cm

Composition
1964
Huile sur panneau
Oil on panel
61 x 46 cm

Imagination
1998
Huile sur panneau
Oil on panel
91,5 x 122 cm

Composition, songe
1988
Huile sur toile
Oil on canvas
75 x 71 cm

Mouvements
1975
Médiums mixtes
Mixed media

91,5 x 122 x 2 cm

Dans les Laurentides
1973
Huile sur panneau
Oil on panel
61 x 76 cm

Peinture et mosaïque
1961
Médiums mixtes
Mixed media
41 x 30,5 cm

Relief sur fond blanc no3
1988
Matériaux et médiums mixtes
Mixed media
76 x 61 x 8 cm

Mouvements sur fond gris vert
1974
Matériaux et médiums mixtes
Mixed media
68,5 x 137 cm

Accents noirs sur fond vert
1981
Matériaux et médiums mixtes
Mixed media
40,5 x 30,5 x 2,5 cm

Composition avec collages
1975
Matériaux et médiums mixtes
Mixed media
101,5 x 76 x 1,5 cm

Entourage
1982
Matériaux et médiums mixtes
Mixed media
61 x 46 x 6 cm

Montage sur fond vert
1979
Matériaux et médiums mixtes
Mixed media
30,5 x 40,5 x 4 cm

Composition no 2
1978-1979
Matériaux et médiums mixtes
Mixed media
76 x 61 x 5 cm

Composition
1970-1971
Matériaux et médiums mixtes
Mixed media
51 x 41 x 7 cm

Et il y a de la musique
1978-1980
Matériaux et médiums mixtes
Mixed media
61 x 51 x 7,5 cm

Composition no 1
1978-1979
Matériaux et médiums mixtes
Mixed media
122 x 91,5 x 8,5 cm

Composition arthitectural
1980
Matériaux et médiums mixtes
Mixed media
61 x 51 x 7,5 cm

Bien assis
1981-1982
Matériaux et médiums mixtes
Mixed media
61 x 51 x 6 cm

Montage no 1
1979-1980
Matériaux et médiums mixtes
Mixed media
91,5 x 71 x 8 cm

The work of Joseph Giunta, painter and constructor, extends over more than sixty years of pictorial practice. From 1930 on, his work had its finger on the pulse of the major movements that, throughout Europe and America, founded the art of this century: surrealism, lyric abstraction, automatism, “art brut”, geometrism, etc. The evolution of his work also forged, as much through form and material as through spirit, affinities with the work of certain artists such as Antoni Tàpies, Pierre Soulages, Georges Braque and Hans Hartung. So it is no accident that, in the historic lineage of a modern art that saw its greatest masters deconstruct the system of figurative representation inherited from the Renaissance, Joseph Giunta’s painting took root very early in what is appropriately called figuration, and then turned towards an abstract “manner” that coincided with the belated blossoming of modernity in Quebec, if not Canada. This abstraction gradually guided Giunta towards the powerful geometric constructions he achieved during the 1980s, and which forcefully highlighted the originality of a technique that matched his profoundly contemporary creative thinking, with regard to both process and final form.

Thus, privy to the formalist and gestural traits of modernity, and more recently to the heterogeneity of postmodern practice, Joseph Giunta’s work calls upon a multiplicity of materials. His thick oil textures, collaged objects and three-dimensional constructions respond to the material appeal that also distinguishes other twentieth-century artistic practices which award the canvas’s surface primacy over the illusion of figurative depth that obfuscates the impact of the plane’s pure pictoriality. We then understand what Joseph Giunta means, declaring with the utmost lucidity: “You must make a work of art and not a picture.” But before allowing him to express his convictions as a resolutely postmodern artist, this “work of art” is first inscribed in the logical sequence of a formal progression, the particularities and phases of which we shall now examine, beginning with his professional début in the 1930s.


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Even though, despite the serious economic crisis, the 30s witnessed the first signs of the primarily-European modern adventure, the Canadian and Québécois contexts remained dominated by the traditional order – namely, figuration, the forefront of which was, without a doubt, landscape. This genre reassured buyers, chilled by the Crisis, and, moreover, consoled them in their sense of national identity, as demonstrated by the Group of Seven’s popular northern landscapes, among others.

In such an atmosphere, the young Joseph Giunta, who was nineteen in 1930, had no choice but to undertake his artistic career according to what he saw around him, and to the ensuing influences. In terms of the model of development typical of his century – beginning with figuration and gradually evolving towards abstraction – he had still to await the wake of the liberating shocks that Alfred Pellan’s art and Paul-Émile Borduas’s automatism would provoke the following decade. For the time being, Joseph Giunta began painting as artists like Adrien Hébert, Clarence Gagnon, Marc-Aurèle Fortin, Alexander Young Jackson, William Brymner, Maurice Cullen and Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Côté dominated the artistic scene, basing the realization of their efforts on the renewal of old formulae like those of impressionism. (1)

Impressionism was probably at the origin of Giunta’s paintings which were distinguished, still within the context of representation, by a pre-eminence of material and colour over line, a principle one finds to a much lesser degree in, for example, Suzor-Côté and Maurice Cullen. Indeed, unlike these painters, whose steadier strokes accorded with the imperatives of a style of realism still subject to chiaroscuro, Giunta displayed a will for vibration that was expressed through strong chromatic contrasts and strokes with the candour and freedom of those in paintings by Marc-Aurèle Fortin, Tom Thomson and Arthur Lismer. Moreover, the city theme Giunta exploited, characteristic of cultural modernity in Quebec, differentiates him even more from the landscapists of the same period. For example, Rue Drolet, Montréal (1936), Rue Wiseman, Outremont (1942) and Scène de rue, sous le Cap, Québec (1958) bear no relationship to the conservative and nationalistic ideas very often linked to the picturesque theme of the earth. Pictorially, they declare more of an interest in texture than a concern for realism, and hence foreshadow certain paintings that would open the way to abstraction or, rather, to a time when being modern in Quebec painting was “wanting to be abstract”.(2)

Among these paintings, we shall recall two oils from 1940, Violon and Nature morte, painted on a single support which they share recto verso. On either side, we are midway between figuration and abstraction; in the presence of a few motifs like a violin, bottles and fruit, the play of surfaces presented on the picture plane, the dilution of forms and a thick, uniformly distributed texture contribute to the absence of the illusion of depth, hence to an effect of planarity. Besides these factors, the play of colour is achieved with no regard for the motifs’ usual tones and, consequently, it also screens the realism.

This strategy continued to nourish Giunta’s compositions until the late 50s while, by his own account, his reticence about research beyond figuration was fading. Such investigations would now constitute the greater part of the artist’s gestural daring as, henceforth, he got involved in a mode of painting that appeared lyrical, expressive and organic, time and time again.


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It was around 1958, let us recall, when Joseph Giunta began abandoning motif painting and became interested in what his materials suggested, and in collecting miscellaneous objects that would be used in the collage-paintings, a genre he would practice largely between 1974 and 1995. For the moment, he perceived increasingly clearly openings that initially lent themselves to non-figuration and, subsequently, abstraction.

This transition from figuration to non-figuration and then to abstraction corresponded exactly with the evolution of painting in Quebec in the crucial period from 1945 to 1960. (3) As early as 1940, the adjective “non-representational” had been used by Pellan
(4)
but it was soon replaced in critics’ and artists’ vocabulary with “abstract”. For his part, Joseph Giunta began painting an initial category of paintings obfuscating direct reference to the world, where he nevertheless kept certain indices of figuration, and a second group in which any allusion to the objects of reference disappears altogether, to the exclusive benefit of colour and movement.

Autoritratto (1962) and Port de Montréal (1963) are fairly representative of the first category. They share the effect of dark form over light ground that, through subtle indices, still retains the idea of figurative representation. For example, in Autoritratto (1962), title notwithstanding, the painter allows us to recognize only a head using a few strokes that coincide with the morphology of the face at the top of the surface, while the bottom part of the canvas is itself entirely bereft of representative indices. If, by contrast, Port de Montréal (1963) appears slightly more iconic in its harbourlike structures, albeit through a white associated more with sky, the painting still proposes a formal and geometric interplay that, at the bottom of the surface, emancipates itself outright from the imperatives of realism. In relation to paintings of the same subject by Adrien Gagnon executed some thirty years earlier, this painting exuberantly shows how well Joseph Giunta studied the lesson of modernism, namely the autonomous construction of the pictorial surface. After Port de Montréal (1963), we need only look at Parade (1963) to be convinced of this.

To this end, Éblouissement (1967) is a key work insofar as it condenses at its core characteristics coming from a more blatant transition towards abstraction. Everything here is just freedom, gesturalism, colour, impasto and pure pictoriality. Generous and colourful materials do not facilitate the recognition of the form/ground relationship, but the ensemble nevertheless gives the impression of a floral motif. Despite this link with nature, the painting displays the features of the more abstract works that make up part of the second group from this period: lyricism of movement, expressive planar construction and organic appearance.

Paysage
(1963) is another important work within this group. Unlike Éblouissement (1967), described above, Paysage is completely abstract. In establishing its major axes and many entanglements according to chromatic rules exclusive to the painting, Giunta inscribed it in a very personal way within zones of lyricism and abstract expressionism of which this is his finest example. In so doing, he approached the earlier practice of such contemporaries as Jean-Paul Riopelle, Marcelle Ferron and American painter, Willem de Kooning, and distinguished himself from automatist spontaneity and surrealist oneirism, with which he had nothing in common.

The construction aspect which, despite its lyricism, affords this picture structure, lies at the heart of another series of works including Parade (1963) and Composition (1964). A certain abstract geometrism and a fragmentation arising from soaring gesture prevail here. Giunta put into play here more of an equilibrium between surfaces while preserving a few expressive strokes, like an artist seeking to scrutinize the rigour and objectivity of plasticians like Fernand Toupin without for as much exercising their principles. Moreover, the thick texture and collaged elements in Parade (1963) clearly indicate the artist’s predilection for thickness and his ontological incompatibility with plastician purity.

From here on, it’s not surprising to observe the organic appearance of a number of Giunta’s paintings, also encountered in his most recent work, Imagination (1998) and Composition, songe (1988). For instance, Mouvements (1975), extends an irregular network of interlacing that evokes both fauna and flora. The artist’s effort to abstract the world around him is even more manifest when one compares the abstract stretching in this painting to filaments rendering the effect of snow in Dans les Laurentides (1973), a representational work achieved two years later. Another organic painting, Peinture et mosaïque (1961) instead presents fragmentary material but on two levels: one of white stains and one of round collages. To lyricism, planar construction and organic interlacing, Joseph Giunta would soon add many collages that further demonstrate the originality of his work and his desire to construct each canvas as an autonomous object.


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In a way that had been practiced selectively since the 60s, yet would around 1974 become a technique in itself, one he practiced to the end of his life, Giunta amassed objects to collage them into his paintings. Whether found or belonging to him, these objects are as varied as they are plentiful: corrugated cardboard, wire, (his wife’s) jewellery, hats, string, balls, sand, nails, stones, metal lattices, short sticks, candies, etc. To all these elements he added carpet glue and cement to ensure overall cohesion. The rich, uneven surface that resulted often looks like a maquette of vernacular architecture: a topography of mysterious places, networks of terrain, slopes, circuits of communication, baroque house or, in the case of Relief sur fond blanc no 3 (1988), multi-coloured alcove where Giunta used, among other things, one of his hats.

When talking about these amalgams, which he had no hesitation in constructing with an impulsive attitude, Giunta admitted to working according to the attraction that his hat, candies, pieces of string or lattices held for him, and also according to the utility of the object to be collaged. However, this utility in no way responded to imperatives predetermined by some plan of action. Neither was it related to the collaged object’s usual function. As in some works by Antoni Tàpies, this utility was invented entirely according to the needs of the moment; the hat would be chosen for its contour or volume, it served as a niche; marbles were inlaid to set a rhythm or simply for their roundness; rope would mark rectilinear extensions, a periphery, if not a network; candies suggested colourful flavor, etc.

Indeed, in these collages, the function of every object was diverted to the sole benefit of the painting in progress. In this respect, Giunta was responding to a spirit we rightly or wrongly call postmodern, and which has animated the field of artistic practice for nearly twenty years; the work was a series of events that set up its own rules. (5)

Along these lines, the organic collage-paintings bear an analogy with the biological model of epigenesis. Like embryos, or in this case hats, the collage-paintings developed through the successive differentiation of their new parts. The artist departed from one element, added a second which called for a third, the relationship of the first three leading to a fourth, and so on. We can already envision the expansiveness of a work like Mouvement sur fond gris vert (1974), where whitish ramifications spreading over a predominantly green ground have taken over from the long brushstrokes of the expressionist paintings. Insect, animal, rootlet, rhizome, veins – it matters little; the signification of the painting is preponderant in its solitary though immense presence. And this is enough.

Thus, in such moments of development, the collage found relevance through a progression wherein the artist didn’t think in terms of conscious or unconscious, but of instrument. (6) So, if the postmodern position of Giunta’s canvases can be paraphrased in terms of “the expression of the artist’s subjectivity,” such subjectivity wasn’t conceived through the simple presence of his collaged hat or the potential illustration of his inner identity but, on the contrary, was thought of as the result of a set of unique and unrepeatable acts. Mirroring the centre of Mouvement sur fond gris vert (1974), the painter’s subjectivity sought to be the hub of encounters. And therein nestles Giunta’s originality, in his complicity with instruments.

The consequence of these actions was, of course, constructions whose strength, apart from firm chromatic and formal harmonies, was to multiply readings, the possibilities of which were as numerous as the present materials and their arrangements. For example, the very beautiful Accents noirs sur fond vert (1981) et Entourage (1982) offer readings that are both whole and fragmented, and do so on multiple levels: topography, aerial view, electronic microcircuits, riverbed, rhythm in red, organic tissue, tic-tac-toe game, interior chasm of blue, etc.

Finally, in relation to many other collages like Composition avec collages (1975), these canvases displayed a three-dimensional rise that, pushed much further by the artist between 1971 and 1989, yielded a series of powerful and original works that in themselves justify Joseph Giunta’s place in the history of art in Quebec. Hence, we dedicate this next section to the subject.


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While sharing the materials, colours and textures of the three prior groups of work, the constructions are distinguished by several attributes that give them particular strength: planar levels, cavities, baroque formalism and regular rhythms. Built on sturdy Masonite supports, they present, like architecture, a number of flat levels that are assembled and fit together according to a new rhythm every time. For this reason, our reading relies both on the play of surfaces and on volumetric relationships, according to the ambient lighting and, above all, our angle of vision, whether frontal or oblique; this consequently multiplies the painting’s levels of interpretation, and thus its richness. Going along with this, Giunta added to the complexity of the works’ various strata by systematizing their titles. With regard to this, he stated, “Giving evocative titles is unnecessary. I’m often content with Construction no... You must give people with a lot of imagination some hope.”

In the same order of ideas, a number of constructions possess rectangular, round, triangular or oval cavities. Sometimes arranged as cocoons containing who knows what mysterious small forms, or else opened like vaginas, elsewhere recalling a floral perianth, often rendered inaccessible with wire mesh, obscured in their recesses by a dark, inky blue, these hollows afford as many openings in the picture. These are understood both literally and figuratively; the cavities physically breach the picture planes and, eliciting investigation, open the “signification” of the work to a field of possibilities and thereby a wealth of interpretations. Moreover, Giunta was unwittingly accurate when he claimed to have implemented holes in the volumes of Montage sur fond vert (1979) in order to aerate the painting. This undoubtedly elicited him to avoid the closed and hermetic surfaces of rigorous formalism at home. And topping off the opening, the holes pierced in these volumes introduced the idea of birdhouses or camera lenses, in other words, the concept of passage into life – whether attached to the creation of a photo negative, the fledgling’s flight or the transformation of material into work of art – through the orifice. Giunta continued like this for another construction, Composition no 2 (1978-1979), which unlike the previous, has the more centralized, compact grouping we generally find in this series, of which one of the first, Composition, was conceived between 1970 and 1971.

With regard to this last point, the grouping of various surfaces in the vast majority of constructions is distinguished by formalism with a somewhat organic aspect that needs to be emphasized. Clearly distinguished from the pure formalism practised by the plasticians by using clear borders, rectilinear designs and colours lain flat, Giunta’s formalism could be called baroque. Through planar surfaces, Giunta played instead with curve, tangent, irregularity, asymmetry and gently textured colours, as the astonishing works Et il y a de la musique (1978-1980), Composition no1 (1978), Composition architecturale (1980) and Bien assis (1981-1982) clearly illustrate. In these constructions, colours generally coincide with a surface delimited by a relief of collaged rope and thereby respond to a principle inherited from Greenbergian formalism which proposes that uniform colour correspond to the surface it occupies. Thus, along with the alternation of planes, the resulting chromatic contrasts contribute to the importance of the rhythm that measures the organic constructions. But it seems important to specify here that, according to the artist’s disclosures, colour was very often applied after the construction is realized. Commencing with a few lines, Giunta would quickly abandon drawing so as not to prejudice his imagination, and would set up a series of volumes, rhythmed by the differences, if not the oppositions, that by his own admission exhilarated him.

Finally, rhythm can be considered from several angles. It participates primarily in the planes’ asymmetry (Et il y a de la musique, 1978-1980; Composition no 1, 1978), in their symmetry (Bien assis, 1981-1982; Composition architecturale, 1980) or their successive unevening (Montage no 1, 1979-1980). The rhythm is then punctuated by the ordered repetition of small miscellaneous elements – arrow signs, grids, nails, pastilles, short sticks – visible in works like Montage no 1 (1979-1980), Bien assis (1981-1982), Composition façade (1983-1984) and Composition architecturale (1980) and where, elsewhere, they echo the corrugated cardboard found in certain backgrounds. Inherent to the very process of construction, and governed by the painter’s pleasure in opposing horizontal and vertical, these few rhythmic factors afford the paintings the visual stability and control necessary for solidity, to the point of setting up a mise en abyme, namely that of the construction within the construction. By analogy, one might say these rhythms are just as essential to the works of art as the rhythms of the seasons, days, fields and prayers are for life.

With his constructions, Giunta intuitively understood that rhythm is also, and above all, a fundamental element of poetry. Constantly renewed, and unprecedented from one work to the next, rhythm is articulated through changes of levels and hollows in a baroque form which imprints certain images in the viewer: computer circuit, musical instrument, Japanese mask, decorative brooch, aerial view, fantasy of secret corners...

Reflecting Giunta’s whole oeuvre, these baroque constructions are purely a matter of poetry, constructed according to the world order that material imposes.


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Throughout these four periods, Giunta remained receptive to the influences of lyric abstraction, automatism, art brut and formalism, and he progrssively imposed material as the essence of his art. Accompanying every work to completion like a veritable monster to be fed, he set as an imperative necessity of his art the achievement of constructions that, under the guise of amalgams, allied geometry and the organic. After painting images of the world through figurative representations, making them abstract with a view to self-referential work, he integrated fragments of reality into his paintings to construct new objects that in return, offer themselves to the world without categorization, without denomination, in the silence of their contiguities, invented before writing.

Hence, the plastic constructions of Joseph Giunta designate their place in the history of postmodern art.

Bernard Paquet
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