For many years, Montreal’s Papier art fair was seen as a counterpoint to Toronto’s larger and more diverse (some would include more corporate) Art Toronto. Organized by the Contemporary Art Galleries Association (AGAC), which was founded in 1985 as a group of Montréal-based galleries but now has a national membership, Papier, from 2007 to 2022, presented a small, contemporary art fair, focussed on works on paper with the intent, at least in part, of keeping prices accessible. This was a fitting goal for an organization that lists as one of its key goals encouraging “the emergence of new contemporary art collectors.” There were fifteen iterations of Papier, each more successful and popular than the last. In 2023 AGAC decided to broaden their mandate beyond works on paper, and Plural was born.

Held over three days in a conference centre at Montréal’s Grand Quai, Plural featured booths for approximately fifty galleries, magazines, and institutional partners. Though the majority of galleries exhibiting were based in Montreal or Quebec City, the entire country was represented, with galleries from the west coast, the prairies, and Atlantic Canada. What’s more, several Atlantic Canadian artists were featured in galleries from other parts of the country. There was a steady stream of visitors while I was at the fair, and several gallerists I talked with reported both strong interest and strong sales.

Gallery 78 booth at Plural, Photo courtesy of Gallery 78

Participation in the fair is juried by a committee of AGAC members, and that competitive spirit was evident in the overall quality of the work on view. Booths are small, so galleries needed to pick and choose which artists from their stables to represent, with varying strategies on view, from an ever changing roster that attempted to showcase all of a galleries artists, to focussed booths that featured works by only one or two artists. Atlantic Canada’s two representatives – Studio 21 and the Blue Building Galley, both of Halifax – each adopted a focussed strategy.

Studio 21’s Deborah Carver opted to exhibit works by two artists: Charley Young and Toni Losey. Young, a Halifax-based visual artist, exhibited drawings on mylar of mountain scenes. Born in Calgary, and the daughter of mountaineers, views of the peaks of the Rocky Mountains have long been a part of her art practice. Her technique of drawing with white pencil and graphite on translucent drafting film means that her works have an airiness, a feeling of weightlessness belied by the stony solidity of her subjects. Losey, who lives and works in Dartmouth, makes ceramic objects that seem to hover between evoking some sort of animal life – amoebic or protozoan perhaps – and the globular forms of some geologic process. Resolutely non-functional, Losey’s abstract ceramic sculptures appear both mysterious and familiar, and it is this dreamlike quality that draws the viewer in.

The Blue Building Gallery booth at Plural, Photo: Ryan Josey, courtesy of the Blue Building Gallery.

The Blue Building Gallery’s director Emily Falencki decided to feature works by eight artists, all of whom will be familiar to anyone who visits the Blue Building regularly: Cinthia Arias Auz, Tim Brennan, Melanie Colosimo, Kayza Degraff-Ford, Ursula Johnson, Ryan Josey, William Robinson, and Jenny Yujia Shi. It was a strong mix of work, and I was particularly struck by Ursula Johnson’s sculpture Five Generations: A Lesson in Hope (2023), a series of small, tiered baskets rising from one level to five. It is a poignant, evocative use of a traditional art form to make a contemporary statement about resilience.

Ursula Johnson, 5th Generation, a lesson in hope. 2023, Black ash and sweet grass. Image courtesy of The Blue Building. Photo: Ryan Josey.

Several other Atlantic Canadian artists were on view at Plural. Newfoundlander Zeke Moores, who now lives in Windsor, ON, was exhibiting some of his bronze and aluminum sculptures at Art Mûr’s (Montréal) booth. The works – painted bronze solo cups and a cast aluminum shipping blanket meticulously patinated to recreate the soft blue of the original – were displayed on the floor at the front of the booth. The works looked for all the world as if the installers had just left without cleaning up after themselves. The attendant told me that they put the sculptures away at night for fear that an over-zealous janitor might clean them up. Halifax’s Craig Leonard was showing a new screen print at Ottawa’s Central Art Garage, an interesting, albeit unexpected, work from an artist usually engaged in less traditional forms of artmaking.

The area around Sackville New Brunswick was well-represented, with works by Shary Boyle (formerly a Toronto-based artist who represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2013) at Toronto’s Patel Brown gallery, new photographs by Thaddeus Holownia at Toronto’s Jane Corkin Gallery, a stunning work by Baie Verte’s Anna Torma at Galerie Laroche/Joncas of Montréal, and work by Graeme Patterson at one of the newer entrants to the commercial gallery scene in Canada, Montréal’s Chiguer Contemporary.

Patterson was also one of the artists featured in a special exhibition that opened the fair. Excerpts from his forthcoming exhibition Strange Birds (opening later this spring at the Grenfell Art Gallery, and on view this January at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery). Patterson’s trademark a stop-motion animation, sculptures, and costumes, were well-received, with the large sculpture of his house drawing a particularly enthusiastic crowd.  His long form animated video was here presented on a large screen monitor, and the light-filled space precluded the kind of dramatic and intentional staging he is known for in such exhibitions as Woodrow and Secret Citadel. Nevertheless, the installation was strong and ambitious, and not something one expects to see at a typical commercial art fair. But then, as Plural amply proved, this was no typical commercial fair.

Walking through Plural I couldn’t help but wonder if Atlantic Canada would ever play host to such a project. There certainly are the artists here to fill the booths, but the paucity of both galleries and collectors would likely doom any attempt to replicate what AGAC is achieving with Plural. The success of events such as Charlottetown’s Art in the Open and Halifax’s Nocturne prove that there is a willing audience for contemporary art events, but whether that same audience is willing to buy art is an open question. We’ve come a long way in Atlantic Canada in terms of fostering a contemporary art scene, but I’m afraid that on the commercial side, anyway, we’re not that different from the Halifax of the late 19th century that hosted the second annual exhibition of the Royal Canadian Academy, only never to see the then most important exhibition in the country return due to the disappointing sales. Until such a time as our region can support a robust commercial gallery culture, we’ll have to seek out vibrant and engaging art fairs elsewhere. Plural’s dates for 2024 haven’t been announced yet, but they will be soon at Plural: Montreal Contemporary Art Fair. Another late April weekend in old Montreal browsing Plural will again be on the top of my travel wish list.