Paris Paradox – the vernissage of JCM’s Paris Pavements

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Paris the paradox. A gleaming city of gems and wealth. A netherworld of poverty and rough living. A whiff of overpriced perfume. The acrid stink of a piss-corner. Populated by givers, artists and humanitarians occupied with unique takes on equality, society, and freedom; living in peace. At the same moment, swarming with takers, shady dealings, corruption of all heights, and a dog- eat- dog attitude backed by the threat of pain and violence. Painfully polite, until the veil is pierced, then just painful. All the hope of the world and a woeful helping of its despair. A catch-22 that only hitch-22 could have grasped and then expressed in a way we can all appreciate. A modern world with a medieval heart. Or is it the other way around?

This article is about Jude Cowan Montague’s exhibition in Paris (“Paris Pavements d’Or”) revealing the homeless living on the golden streets of France’s capital. However, before we can arrive at the details of this tour de force I have a story to tell.

As I’ve walked the streets of Montmartre over the years since the Charlie Hebdo attack I have documented the homeless here. I have spoken with them. They have given me a splendid oratory in the company of fellow travellers. I have given them “resto” tickets exchangeable for food. They have given me stories that would not be out of place at dinner parties or around a BBQ. I have taken their photo for the purpose of promoting their plight. They have spoken in tongues. I have given coins, a smile, a dignity-affirming “bonjour“. They have been sometimes funny, polite, and at other times rude, confrontational, scary. Scent aside, I have started not to see them. Not to hear them. Not to talk to them.

Why do they become invisible? Does it sound impossible to you? Each day a little hook is cast at one’s heart and it has a little weight attached. Over time, the weight starts to form a tear and one’s heart must break or fall, eventually. My admiration is reserved for those I know in Paris who have freely followed the weight of need. They feed the homeless each night. They give and give. Their thoughts and care are taken up with those brought low. Brought low by unlucky chance or a series of unfortunate events or a pattern of poor decisions or vice or mental illness. When one lifts the cover of the bed occupied by the sans domicile fixe one finds a person like any other. Except for one difference. For most of us, they can no longer be fully seen.

So, with a film forming over my eyes I take my camera and take their photo. Their spirit, too, as some believe. In the viewfinder the full visage comes back to life in vivid colours: squalor, yes, but there is dignity, too. Human spirit carrying on in the face of a world without ruth. The Paris Paradox, once again. I pass on these noble spirits to a more than worthy champion of the underdog: Jude Cowan Montague.

The rest is history . . . spewing forth creative visions of a tourist’s Paris mixing with les gens dans les rues. The swirling chaos of the Arc de Triomphe topped by the proud-brave rats with yellow vests. A majestic Sacré Cœur towers behind those sleeping rough out front in the cold (sometimes even in the snow). The dominating regime-bridges of Paris carrying commerce while also protecting its toiling trolls. Twelve delves into the juxtaposition of overt opulence and abject poverty from a town hopelessly tied up in unbroken threads of both, wretchedly wreathing back into the mists of time.

Where to host this axial slice of Paris? Why, in a new bohémien bar à côté de Sacré Cœur, naturally. Inside that bar, Eric, a burly marine belies his appearance by providing the most sophisticated selection of wine and cheese that the local’s budget could possibly afford. Straight from the paintings, as though brought to life, are characters and artists and intellectuals and loons and lovers of the area. The local mafia, too, and a shell-shocked veteran there to complain about claustrophobia in the loo. All classes present, all ages, all slices of this town stared upon by naked nuns and beleathered men, well and truly hung on the walls. As I alluded, truly a place for all people of all walks of life!

Jude crossed the channel as Boudicca with a handy Bowie type, on the coach as regular people do, to orchestrate the framing and hanging of the newest denizens of this delightfully dirty drinking den. They deliberately took a room in an old Parisian apartment in one of Fox’s infamously false “no-go zones”. The wrong side of the tracks with a fine independent brewery next door, Goutte d’Or, named for the area.

Jude is the type of artist for whom I coined the term, “polypan”. Metal painting and sculptures, poetry, journalism. A musician, composer, radio show host, art critic . . . it would be easier to list what she does not excel in. More importantly to me, she is an artist that supports other artists. #artistsupportingartists

Jude’s popular series on “Ghost Soldiers” and “Wolves of Atina” led to the confidence and desire to create a very different series. With “Paris Pavements of Gold” Jude wanted to connect the romantic sights of Paris with the homeless who, along with rubbish and vandalism and other undesirable visual elements, don’t appear on most tourist’s photos. Luxury travel in the face of absolute need. Here is an affordable way to bring the homeless into your home; transforming them from being homeless by bringing their paper form under your roof. Jude’s works are priced so that they can find their way into just such homes of regular folk: the originals framed excellently by Matt Armstrong go for just 75€ and limited edition prints made at their artists-only print shop, “Montague Armstrong” in St Leonards-on-Sea, are 50€. Prints can be ordered via judecowanmontague.com

The works are on Fabriano Rosaspina italian printmaking paper with pastel and ink topped with modern gold leaf. The angelic gold leaf on the Sacré Cœur added with the royal blue sleeping bag are an echo of religious symbolism, namely the blue and gold stars from renaissance painting representing heaven on many church ceilings. The red of the Moulin Rouge nightlife is fuelled by voyeur’s’ money ejaculating in gold leaf, sucking the life out of the homeless represented as caricatures under cold winter light. Under a bridge man and animal live as stoically as one another. The blue sleeping bag of heavenly hope links all of the paintings. The hope that brought all these dreamers to the city of lights and enlightenment.

The size of the 12 paintings are uniform at A3 displayed in a grid creating a larger portrait in a flaneur’s sequence across the medieval rues and Haussmannian boulevards.

On to the vernissage – the French exhibition opening. An event every Thursday night across Paris galleries, made most popular because every rat, in a top hat, knows there is free cheese and wine. Locals admired their city seen afresh by new eyes. Visitors attended via Facebook invitation. Photos of Paris sights and blights play in a slide show, interacting with the coloured spotlights cast on the dirty dozen. Red stickers applied. Good wine, beer, cheese and the art of conversation down at Le Silex on 5 rue Ramey, 75018, Paris, France. The exhibition remains until the end of February, 2019.

This article was written by the producer of the exhibition- Lindsay A Gordon

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