Thursday, August 9, 2012

Les dernières choses: Alexis Lavoie at Maison de la Culture Frontenac

Alexis Lavoie En Pièces (21)

Montréal painter Alexis Lavoie is currently showing a collection of paintings at Maison de la Culture Frontenac. The works falling under the title Les dernières choses have a remarkable unity. Highly architectural in design, they are made up of fields and rooms through which are scattered the corpses of pigs and hacked up bodies. These macabre elements are accented by the inclusion of party favours, rainbow coloured Rorschach tests and op art effects.

One of the things which Lavoie is foregrounding in these paintings, whether consciously or not, is the affinity between the kind of geometric formalism common to contemporary condo design and pornography. As far as formalism goes, he's generous in his examples. The design of his interiors owes something to both geometric abstraction and the rigid interiors of someone like Pierre Dorion. This leads to him creating echoes within many of his images, further subdividing the space and setting up zones which often possess decidedly different tactile qualities. An additional aspect of this is that he is constantly bringing together divergent forms, exemplified in the diverse textures which he applies over the surfaces. It isn't tension he creates between them, but a kind of congealing within the harshness of design.

Lavoie En Pièces (16)

The use of these differences is very close to the kind of faux finishing often done in interior design and draws a direct line between the textural obsessions of abstraction and this kind of yuppie chic. It was precisely such a bourgeois conception of the surfaces found in living spaces that inspired the Cubists to move into collage. So it is not surprising to see that the majority of the bodies which appear in the paintings follow suit by displaying as definite a collage quality as the interiors. The paintings are blatantly based on collages, but they gain immeasurably from being transformed into paintings, fundamentally altering their significance. These bodies are, therefore, foregrounded as manipulable, if not malleable, objects that vary in terms of their properties according to the dictates of design. This demonstrates, through the parody of collage and design, a kind of maliciousness of urban living space (intimate of public green space) – chi recast as a malicious force which draws and quarters the bodies which inhabit its space. The treatment of these bodies doubles the fetishizing of textural qualities which have been chopped away from their moorings and relocated in the cauterized sense-world of, presumably, the viewer.

Lavoie Découpe (5)

All of these aspects are orchestrated around distinct tableaux. While each of these seems to resemble an atrocity, or at least something foreboding, they are rendered in a way which makes what is happening in them hard to apprehend. The images he creates are carefully tabled, set upon a grid. The contents are spread across it, often unevenly, and heaped up in different places, as though obeying some unstated taxonomic principle. Yet, it is not at all clear what such a governing principle would be, either morally or formally. All contents are still readily recognizable. Regardless of how fantastic his combination of elements may seem, they are banal, whether it is the interior designs, the rainbows, the pornographic bodies or the bodies of tortured prisoners from Abu Ghraib. They are all mediocre aspects of a common world. What they lack is common sense (their divergent textures and shading allow them to retain their alien qualities). Within the consonance of the plane as he sets it up with its often soft colour schemes and blackly comic details, the dissonance comes precisely from the rigidity which underlies the image and which he constantly pushes against.

Lavoie Découpe (7)

The horizon is almost invariably demarcated by a harsh and artificial line. Degree in the works is demonstrated not by gradation but by the extremity of variance. It isn't a matter of tension, but of abrasiveness. In this respect, the paintings share an aesthetic in common with the films of what's sometimes called the "New French Extremity", where directors like Gaspar Noé and Bruno Dumont utilize disjunctions between visceral close-ups and cool distance, graphic sex/violence and brutal indifference to empty out the empathic function while retaining the intensity of sensation even as actively depersonalizing it. While those filmmakers attain a nauseous keel, in Lavoie the result is quite different. The abrasiveness in his paintings heads in a decidedly different direction. His palette demands it as does his sense of line. His work is ultimately less sentimental and, therefore, more extreme because of its cancellation of tension. His disjunctions always flatten one another, folded into the plane like images in a moving mirror.

Lavoie En Pièces (20)

The lack of tension is mirrored by a lack of tense. The decorousness of his canvases captures singular moments, but they are often moments of stuttering. So, for example, he will split that most momentary of illusions, the rainbow, and slice it into two divergent planes which function to smudge the plane by denying its singular vitality. Or he will place small optical illusions (slightly angelic figures, echoes of Rorschach diagrams) in his skies to appear or fade, depending on the angle they are looked at. And he will transform the window from one of his torturous rooms into a blind as a parody of a Molinari painting. For unlike Molinari, whose paintings are primarily structured around time (as a de-linearized event), Lavoie is concerned with space. There is no time in his paintings and, therefore, there is no delay, no suspension, no immediacy. There are degrees of intensification which reflect the degrees of libidinal investment. However, it is unclear whether this investment is the painter's or a game set in motion to trap the viewer within its baroque surface, one which has the unity of a stage with all of its flown down backdrops at the ready.

Lavoie En Pièces (18)

It is against this kind of formal grounding that the other aspect of his work comes out. This is the part that borrows from the tropes of pornography, with its toggling between extreme close-ups and distance, as well as its cancellation of character in favor of models. This can be seen quite explicitly in the manner by which he renders bodies. There are two primary oscillations: a vague and blurred body, deprived of the movement of time, and a harshly delineated one. The latter is usually present in the rendering of faces, which sometimes verge on traditional realism. But this intensification of the face as a zone of investment is offset by the fact that he offers the same treatment to the nipples. The face and nipple become equalized zones of excitation. Their delineation is a means to describe their appropriation as articles of pleasure. They are close-ups superimposed upon a vague pink body, hacked up so the interesting bits remain. Like all of the other faux finishes, these parody the reified surface of paintings. The bodies have no clearly offered orifices. It's only their area that is given to view. Even their gaping wounds are portrayed as decoration. It should also be noted that while the nipples and faces are highly detailed, they lack individuality, therefore, they are not given empathic or subjective substance, but a purely sensual one. Like the theatrical backgrounds, they illustrate only another fantasy of surface rather than imply depth. However, there is an important distinction between the kind of tableau which Lavoie creates and those that make up pornography. He always begins where they end. After the peak of the porno tableau vivant, with everyone satiated, the scene vanishes. It is the remainder which Lavoie paints.

Lavoie Découpe (6)

It is in this last regard that we can see that Lavoie demonstrates a particularly antagonistic sense of mediation. Mediation is intrinsically bound to cruelty and the viewer, as such, is party to this. This is something he continually plays with, whether in the variation of detail which dislodges the continuity of distance across the plane, or with more iconographic elements he uses to litter the space (such as beach balls or games of Twister). Such a sardonic joke about the sadistic pleasure of viewing is not haphazard. The theatrical spaces he creates suggest several things simultaneously: office cubicles, sports fields, boutique furniture show rooms and, perhaps most tellingly, the temporary walls often erected for art exhibits. It is the complicity of mediocre everyday life and its recuperation via aesthetics that the paintings most pointedly skewer.

Alexis Lavoie
Maison de la Culture Frontenac

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