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Belgo art galleries hiding in plain sight

The Belgo Building occupies a huge corner lot on Montreal's St. Catherine Street, in the middle of the Quartier des Spectacles. This part of town is known and hyped for its cultural offerings, yet many who pass the Belgo's front entrance probably don't know that the place is packed with art galleries. The metal sign that loops over the sidewalk is strangely easy to overlook, and the main-floor windows are currently filled with banners advertising space for rent.

Inside, the main floor still feels a bit like the department-store interior it was a century ago, when retailer W.H. Scroggie (aka Scroggie's) flourished in what was the biggest shopping place in town. But the Belgo had a short retail career, and by the late 1920s had become a congeries of garment-trade sweat shops. Art dealers began moving in during the 1980s, attracted by cheap rents and the central location. Now there are about 27 contemporary galleries, mostly spread along the upper floors, along with a sprinkling of artists' studios.

The centrality means that when Montreal's Nuit Blanche rolls around, as it will again on Feb. 27, dealers can expect about 8,000 people to surge through the building, says artist Bettina Forget, owner of Visual Voice Art Gallery and producer of the Belgo Report, an online newsletter. But a lot of those late-night visitors are teenagers looking for the party, Forget says, and many others seem to retain only a vague idea of what they saw in the tumult.

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Inside the front entrance, a couple of plain-text wall directories reveal nothing about the particular character of any of the galleries upstairs. And yet there's some remarkable and extremely varied stuff on view there right now, as there probably is most weeks.

At the Joyce Yahouda Gallery, a suite of surrealistic paintings by painter Daniel Horowitz displays fantastic anatomies: a patient's leg fusing into a nurse's arm, a man dragging his fishtailed leg into the sea, two men standing conjoined by one headless neck. Most are drawings in paint, with a few splotches of colour applied to the unprepared canvas. The work has a spontaneous look, like something done immediately after waking, though it also shows a sharp consciousness of the history of dreams as a scientific and aesthetic study.

Galerie Roger Bellemare/Galerie Christian Lambert is showing a Lyne Lapointe series of ink prints on paper of an unchanging figure she calls garçon singe – monkey boy. This chimp sits in a relaxed yet tense pose, with a palpable sense of human self-consciousness and a look in the eyes that could be fear, or wonder. Lapointe sets him on a burro, near a giant seahorse, or suspended near the end of a bed. There's dark whimsy in these childlike transfers, in which the supposed naturalness of the animal realm collides with the more studied presentation of the human self.

At Galerie Dominique Bouffard, Daniel Barkley has one knockout new canvas: The Rape of the Sabine Women, a classical-looking acrylic of a mythic scene treated in less satirical fashion by Nicolas Poussin and others. Barkley sites the capture near a shattered statue by the sea, where half-naked men wearing Napeolonic tunics carry off women in lingerie. One man in chest armour holds a coaster bike near a graffiti-streaked wall, while two women being abducted in opposite directions hail each other like sisters. Barkley has a playful sense of just how much rhetorical force remains in the visual language he's playing with, and the result still registers as a shocking violation.

At Galerie Laroche/Joncas, veteran sculptor Gilles Mihalcean is showing surrealistic works in wood and plaster. A giant finger joint in silver and gold lies on a pedestal, with a key-lock plate at its severed end. A white plaster torso of a suited man trails a long hank of yellow hair from where his arm should be, while his pedestal leaks wooden detritus, including a wooden skull. There's definitely a streak of Pop Art here, but Mihalcean is also doggedly pursuing the possibilities of his materials, and the limits of his imagination.

Galerie Donald Browne has Group Show, a small selection of pieces by Louis Fortier, in which the sculptor has pressed numerous resin impressions of his own face into wall pieces. The largest is a mucky-looking black and brown mélange, in which the collapsed faces (none of which look exactly alike) resemble preserved remains pulled from a bog. Shroud-like twists of fabric run between them. The piece is both a memento mori and a reflection of the great decorative arrangements of bones and skulls found in some European crypts.

Forget says the Belgo gallerists are "working on our visibility," through jamborees such as the Soirée Belgo, a periodic event during which galleries stay open till 10 and bring in musicians. But increased visibility isn't enough for Donald Browne, who told me he's closing his doors at the end of April after 10 years at the Belgo, and not because of the location.

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"The market has changed so much, and not in a good way," he said. "I always thought that the museums led the collectors, but they don't really." The art he handles is just too hard to sell, he said, even though he has represented the likes of Patrick Bernatchez, who recently had a significant exhibition at Montreal's Musée d'art contemporain. "I'm still making money," Browne said, but he often doubts that his buyers understand what they're getting. The eye of the beholder is not always focused on what's truest in contemporary visual art.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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