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Family Portrait

Geneviève Cadieux
Family Portrait, 1991
Cibachrome transparency, Pearl Cibachrome print, 3 fluorescent lightboxes
Lightboxes: 233.1 x 233.1 x 39 cm each
Gift of the artist, Montreal, 2001

Cadieux has been working with large-scale formats in both lush colour and black and white since the early 1980s. Although her primary subject has been the body, more recently she has exhibited landscapes, sculptures, and a video projection. What distinguishes her photographs is their cinematic quality. Her large-scale images often include close-ups, faces, or skin, and sometimes the crevices of the body. Memory Gap, an Unexpected Beauty (1988), for example, is a sculptural form employing a huge and horrific photograph of a scar. In another, more dramatic, autobiographical body work, Hear Me with Your Eyes (1989), the artist's actress sister, Anne-Marie Cadieux, is portrayed enacting what might be pain or pleasure, reflecting the artist's interest in emotional states, the irreconcilable, and the impossibility of communication.

The immense installation Family Portrait depicts the artist's mother, father, and sister, each head shot supported by a monumental freestanding light box. The boxes are arranged in an open triangular fashion, a form that allows the photographic and sculptural portrait to reveal a public (exterior) face and a more private (interior) space. As viewers move around the periphery of the group portrait, they realize that all is not well. The father's downcast, almost closed eyes express failure or sadness. Anne-Marie, whose eyes are also closed, projects defiance. The mother's eyes appear to be both open and closed at the same time; she sees yet does not see. In the act of photographing, Cadieux becomes part of the portrait. Far from being an idealized family portrait, these images in no way glorify the legacy of the family.

As viewers wander into the interior of the portrait, the tension expressed on the exterior is confirmed within. The three interior photographs depict the back of Anne-Marie's head, the father's bare torso, and the mother's raised hand. The artist's sister literally turns her back on the family. Blood drips from the mother's hand, positioning her as a saint or a victim. The father's torso is layered with the close-up of Anne-Marie's parted lips from Hear Me with Your Eyes, the lips a visual echo of the emotions enacted by Anne-Marie in earlier photographs. The nature of the felt tragedy is left unsaid and can only be guessed at, while the viewer is left wondering whether the portrait is in any way autobiographical.

In the more than ten years that have elapsed since Cadieux made this work, the portrait has begun to assume a quasi-documentary status and to take on the role of assisting understanding and memory. As the family ages, this portrait will stand as a document of a moment in time and perhaps one day will serve as a monument to those who have passed away.