Secret Museums

Junk Art: what you won't find in the galleries.

by Jack Ruttan

(Published in the Montreal Mirror)

Once you've passed through the MMFA, the CCA, the Art Contemporain and the rest of them, don't worry, you haven't seen it all. Behind dirty windows on commercial streets are the city's secret museums. Junk shops: They tell the stories you won't find in the regular places. All of the countless things they contain-the worn out, the outmoded, the unneeded-passed through people's hands. These objects didn't just arrive on the smelly shelves and tables. Unlike things in other shops, somebody owned them once. So looking through a junk shop or flea market, or inspecting a garage sale is like taking a time trip through the lives of strangers.

Some of the stores themselves are works of art. Many mainstream artists have felt the need to fill galleries with "found objects," occasionally even reproducing parts of their parent's closets or grandmother's attic on the gallery floor. When samples like this are turned into serious art, they become known as installations. Junk stores are installations in their native settings, put together by store owners with the help of many anonymous hands.

Photo by Giacomo Ruttanellini

Riddell's on Bernard near St. Urbain is a good example. It's not really a junk store, it's a shop to buy fishing tackle, but there is probably not better example in the city of accumulated clutter turning into art. This is not somewhere you would like to be locked up in at night. Hundreds of hooks and lures hang from the ceilings and walls. Cod masks, and ancient fish trophy mounts stare at you from all sides with dusty glass eyes. There's a queasy feeling that if you put your hand in the wrong place, it'll get caught on something sharp.

Looking in through the window from the street side gives you more room to breathe. Behind the cracked glass are fish-skeletons painted gold, old advertising signs, and a lot of stuff like what's found underneath a marina when the tide is too low. On the wall is a work the Dadaists might have appreciated if any of them were fishermen: a framed snarl of fishing line involving lures, lead weights and a pair of rusty pliers with a label reading:

Big Catch?
near power dam
May 23, 1976

The signboard up above the window is also a work of art. Signed C. Tremblay, it shows a jumping trout, which judging from the scale of the fisherman and background appears to be about sixty feet long. The painted fish has a real lure in its mouth, similar to gallery paintings which include actual objects in an attempt to "subvert the tyranny of the frame."

Most junk stores are dark inside. This is mainly because they have many corners and crannies, and the windows are packed full of things, but it might also be a strategy like that used in bars and restaurants. There, the less visible things are, the more enticing they seem. For whatever reason, the darkness and clutter, along with that trademark "musty clothes smell" helps to give all junk shops a surface sameness. Browsing through a few of them feels like passing through what are merely branches of one giant junk shop. So to really see things it's important to look carefully, sometimes even to rummage through piles. Like sands in the desert, the tides of junk are always shifting. What was there one week might be gone the next, so it pays to come back. Your writer did most of his rummaging a month before Christmas. Returning last week, he didn't always find the things he'd seen before. They might have been bought or discarded. Perhaps on another trip they'll appear again.

In a pile once in front of but now subsumed inside a store called Marche du Soir [now defunct] at 227 Mont Royal east are paintings by "Adam." These are brightly coloured nudes and devils scrawled in crayon on a background of lacquered tissue paper. Child-like, except for their subject matter, they look like they could have been copied from the walls of an ancient sorcerer's cave. You can ask yourself, what separates them from serious art? The materials used? The size of the pictures? It could be just the fact that they sit in a junk shop. Likely, Adam never went to art school. He might have been one of the bohemians still displaying sketchbooks to their friends in Carre St. Louis or at Bar St. Sulpice. Then again, he might have been a child.

The amateur paintings are touching. Gathering dust on a table at a place called La Boutique de Collectionneur were two pictures of pet cats. These were obviously done not for hope of fame or gain, but because it pleased the artist to paint them. More sensitivity than art knowledge went into them, though writing winding around a slightly psychedelic Siamese refers to Louis Wain, a famous twenties painter of cats. As Wain went crazy near the end of his career, his once cute cat pictures began looking like posters for The Grateful Dead.

"Lucille" did a painting on display at the Boutique which shows a ball and chain with one of the links broken. Rendering a round ball was too much for her-it looks more like a black dinner plate-but the picture is an eloquent statement of angst in a cheap apartment, the place where it was no doubt painted.

All of this is art at its most primal level-something to put up on a blank wall. It's no accident that a lot of these pictures end up in laundromats, where people are supposed to sit for hours and stare at white machines. Much of what sits in junk shops is so-called "professional" painting. Yards and yards of this can still be bought in shopping malls and variety shops, though posters and "laser-etched" photos have mostly taken over. The subjects are still pretty much the same: landscapes, "cheesecake," and animals. Sometimes these are so badly done they end up being surrealistic. Airbrushed cockatoos at 1903 Amherst have blank eyes like steel ball bearings. In a shop down the road at 1840, a ballerina leers at you with a sinister green face under Fu Manchu eyebrows.

The prize for persistence in subject matter has to go to a forgotten, probably long-dead artist who signed himself "F.W. Read." His elaborate chalk drawings of pretty women dressed as fairies can be found under piles in several stores. They must have seemed sugary even in their heyday in the forties. Now, they're so out of style they end up only being silly, or maybe even offensive. Too "well drawn" to be thrown away, they sit forgotten, waiting for some crazed collector whose idea of great art was inspired by Disney's "Fantasia."

It's ironic that green ballerinas and landscapes painted in colours not found outside a chemical factory can be thought of by somebody as beautiful. A lot of people call something art only when they're told it is. But nobody would say that about a store called Les Batteries Ontario. Despite its name, it sells only one thing: automobile hubcaps. Yet looking at these shiny metal objects, all more or less alike but different in subtle ways, the sensibility starts to alter. You become tuned to the aesthetic qualities of these mandala-like shapes and they no longer become things that came off a dead car. They become works of art.


The best places are the hundreds of junk stores, Marches aux Puces and "Ortiques" found on the main streets of the less well off parts of town. Lots of more or less interesting antique stores can be seen along West Notre Dame just East of Atwater, on Amherst below Ontario, Duluth, and in Old Montreal.

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