Painter Alexis Lavoie’s exhibition Faits divers at Galerie d’Art d’Outremont is disturbing and ambitious. He poses urgent questions about how images cross a threshold from virtual spaces for mere entertainment to tightly controlled ones for the promotion of national cultures. Hung in a broken line on a curved wall, the first of three series includes forty-two small paintings set side-by-side, in pairs, or clustered to read like an ECG dangerously close to flat-lining. Lavoie says the works convey “threat or menace” and a “quest for happiness.” These qualities are mingled in a painting of a smiling teenaged boy making a suicide vlog and a pair of canvases that place a clown with bulging eyes over a bound man in a black suit. The boy is taken from a Larry Clark film and the man appears in a source image with a gun held to his neck by an ISIS assassin. Lavoie leaves out these contextual details and invites us to fit together the broken parts of a whole lot of (heart)breaking news.
Alexis Lavoie, Faits divers (installation view)
The imagery reminds me of a story neurophysiologist Oliver Sacks tells about watching a Ronald Reagan speech with patients suffering from aphasia or agnosia. The aphasics thought Reagan was a bad actor. The patients with agnosia thought he was incoherent. Reflecting on Sacks’s anecdote, philosopher Brian Massumi attributes Reagan’s unlikely political success to a “mime-effect” that united his “gestural idiocy and verbal incoherence” in a resonant TV image. For Massumi, Reagan’s hypnotic jerks, veers, and fumbles anticipated a coming age of virtual images as affecting as they are incoherent.
Signs of this spastic mime’s art pepper Lavoie’s world. Another American “Ronald” is pictured with his villainous sidekicks Grimace and Hamburglar. Colonel Sanders appears as a meditative floating head on a bucket. Quebec’s Carnival mascot Bonhomme and his childhood friend Santa Claus loom in several of the paintings near vulnerable women and children. Lavoie turns down the volume on these patriarchs of American cultural imperialism and Quebec folklore, and calls attention to the emotional tones of images used to sell things, to commemorate juvenile pranks, and to mark chilling expressions of cultural identity.
In one of the exhibition’s most troubling moments, Lavoie offers a pair of trophy pictures – one based on a viral news image of a hanged gay Iranian man; the other showing a teenager beaming in front of a passed-out friend whose face is covered with Sharpie doodles. In these two paintings, humiliation is cast as an instrument of cultural politics and as a benign boyhood rite of passage. Lavoie suggests that the practice of shaming, whether at the gallows in Tehran or in suburban basements is endemic to our increasingly globalized visual culture.
Alexis Lavoie, Station 3
The remaining series (Station and Jardin) feature imperfectly recalled halcyon days with friends in studio or collections of objects arranged by the artist outdoors. These larger works are cautiously hopeful counterpoints to the agonized televisual or online present depicted in the smaller paintings. In Station 1 a naked couple is shown tangled up in front of a wilted plant. As with many of Lavoie’s paintings, the action and the models are ambiguous. The love-locked pair is caught somewhere between clumsy foreplay and post-copulative collapse. In Station 3 the lovers are held at a distance, blinded and feeling around for each other. One is buried under a party hat and a wreath of balloons while the other is in pieces, either emerging from or disappearing into a bruised wall. The Jardin paintings look like messy trailer park lawns or ransacked stage sets. In Jardin 3 an astronaut’s helmet sits ingloriously beside a beer bottle and a gravestone fitted with an American flag.
Lavoie’s exhibition opens with pictures of disenchantment and ends with darkly romantic adventures in studio and carefully planted objects in post-apocalyptic gardens. His rogue’s gallery beckons from some dark place between an abyss of cheap consumer thrills and a promise of something more.
Galerie d’Art d’Outremont: http://www.galeriedartdoutremont.ca/
Alexis Lavoie: Faits divers continues until April 30.
Tammer El-Sheikh is a writer and teacher based in Montreal. His art criticism has appeared in Parachute, Canadian Art, ETC and C Magazine.
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