Louis Touyz is the Peter Max of Jewish-themed art. His colours are as psychedelic and his canvases are similarly crowded with multitudes of figures and objects.
But Touyz treats Judaism as his subject, not pop culture or Beatlemania, though the effects are equally intoxicating.
From July 4 to Aug. 4, more than 60 of his large and small paintings will enliven the Community Art Space at the Eleanor London Côte-St-Luc Public Library, under the title, New Horizons.
Hasidim are his protagonists, dancing through life, making music as klezmorim, walking with chickens or swinging them overhead as kapparot before erev Yom Kippur. They are fishmongers, rebbes in shtreimels arguing halakhic points of law, or striding along carrying Torah scrolls or siddurim.
Women also take pride of place and can be seen cradling a Torah as much as they carry their children, teach their daughters how to light Shabbat candles and stroll with their sons.
“My mother used to get very upset when it was said that the Jews are patriarchal and unfair to women. ‘Not at all,’ she would explain, ‘the women are different but equal,’ and in my paintings, I represent men and women,” says the artist who was raised in an Orthodox family in Johannesburg.
Touyz studied dentistry and came to Montreal with his doctor wife and two children in 1990, after being recruited to teach at McGill University. He retired eight years ago, but the octogenarian still holds the title of professor emeritus and director of periodontics.
Touyz has sketched and painted all his life and made a foray into ceramics before choosing acrylics as his medium once he established his home studio. He now works there full time.
“The interesting thing about acrylics is that acrylic is a polymer of plastic and in dentistry, we work a lot with polymerized plastics for restorative material and to make prostheses, so I understood very well the chemistry behind them and knew how to manipulate them,” he says.
His sometimes electric colours characterize the many symbols he uses to give his seemingly whimsical works a depth of iconography. What he calls “the fruits of life” – which are depicted literally as plums, cherries and oranges – often frame a celebratory scene.
His yellow suns have a shin at their centre, representing God. Likewise, he says that he draws poppy flowers to honour the valour of the soldiers and martyrs who died “to make the world a better place, tikun olam.”
He cleverly changes them into lilies and roses to represent, in some compositions, his life in Quebec among the French and the English. Touyz paintings are mostly places of happiness, except for one small sketch that shows refugees fleeing lands that rejected them, as his ancestors fled Lithuania in the 1870s.
“They say that Judaism vacillates between joy and oy. I’ve tried to stay away from the oy and paint the joy,” he says. “Judaism, in my mind, is fundamentally a scaffold on which you build a life, always looking forward to a hag or looking back at one that you’ve just enjoyed.”
Touyz has experimented with many different art styles, but has never abandoned the Hasidic figures that characterize his work, or the Jewish meaning that overlays it.
“I paint unashamedly for a Jewish audience,” says Touyz. “You need a Jewish insight to interpret my work.”