About a year ago I attended un vernissage, an art exhibition at the Maison de la Culture Frontenac in Montreal. Don’t get me wrong, but I like going to these events without invitation and help myself with the free wine and fancy snacks kindly offered to guests. Shame on me, I know. Although it is true that I also enjoy being there because art feeds the soul (or so we are told, right?). Since I still have not developed un goût sélectif et raffiné du beau, I turn into a pretentious cynic while contemplating whatever is on display, holding my glass of red wine in one hand and a cracker with cheese and grapes in the other — Like a sir!
Well, this time was different.
Les Dernières Choses (the last things)
Gaudy colours, sceneries of fornication, amputated bodies, abstract spaces… It was like immersing into someone’s mind and looking at snapshots of his memories. Then I saw it, a boy standing in the middle of a circle drawn on a field, and there is what seems to be the piece of a dog’s head on the ground that he is contemplating.
I went back home and contacted the author, Alexis Lavoie, through Facebook and he agreed to give me an interview during the week. Days went by quickly.
Alexis arrived on his bike and, as he parked by the gallery entrance, I rushed to meet him. He had his sun glasses on and a friendly smile, we greeted each other with a kiss on each cheek — custom in Quebec — and rushed inside the gallery. We sit right at the centre of the room. There was a brief silence.
Alexis was born and raised in Montreal, fluent in both French and English. He graduated in 2008 with a B.F.A in Visual and Media Arts from l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), and has not stopped painting since then.
The interview took a good 30 minutes. I was lost and confused when this took place, which clearly reflects on the nature of my questions. Yet, Alexis answered them.
What is the importance of the psyche in your work?
“My work is really about the human being, about psychology. That is my interpretation of it. For every artist, I guess, their work is personal in some way, but it’s not like in Francis Bacon’s work where he talks about his life a lot, like in a diary. For me it can start like that but it’s more about the human being in general. It’s not like an agenda but I think that the subconscious always ends up there. It starts with a general idea and some pictures; then I say, I’m at point A, I have nothing, I want to go to point Z, but then I go through a lot of things during the process and that is where the subconscious comes in, I guess, but in the paintings you see elements of joy, elements of violence, of childhood, something about comfort, about love, about massacre. It’s all together. Symbols with symbolic force. But it’s not a clear narrative, or subject. This is what you have, it’s more atmospheric, it provokes emotion…” He paused for a moment.
“It’s more of an atmosphere than a concrete subject that I’ve already chosen,” He continued, “It’s not something that is very intellectualized all the time.. but it can be. It’s also something that comes directly from the heart, if I can say; but there surely is something more raw in the making of it.”
What is the significance of the rooms?
“A room is a space used to make the elements appear in the the artwork,” he replied, “When I do a painting, the wall is a wall in the sense of the idea of a wall that constructs the space, but it’s also to construct the illustrated space, putting in place the shapes, the colors. When I paint I think a lot of creating an artwork that stands by itself visually, as I also think of creating something that is complete in what I want to represent”
And what would that be? “The thematics”, bien sûr!
Alexis explained, “you put a dead dog’s head next to a child, it can mean something, but at the same time it has to work visually. These are two things that are there together, for all the paintings that are here but not necessarily the rooms, the rooms work somewhat like in the other series of paintings I do. They are colors, spaces; it’s like staging. When I arrive to a place, is what I see real? The rainbow, the ball, why are they placed there? Are they the traces of an event? A crime scene? Like a flash of the past, are they only from the memory? Those places are timeless. I even ask myself why creating them, the meaning the space, it’s all mixed up. When is it? Where? I am getting far from something clear to express through it more raw emotions.”
I pointed at other paintings that do not have walls at all, which he defined for me as a different series. In these ones the viewer could see the horizon.
“You still see the playground”, I said.
“You see an artificial space,” he corrected me, “It’s elements can come together and create something together but now it’s more about the skin. There is still a side to it that is joyful and that can probably come from childhood, which is playful, but at the same time is like a massacre.”
“It feels like you are taking the child outside of the room,” I said, pointing with my stare at the wallless images, “but Maybe my interpretation is a bit off”.
“The name of the series is Découpe,” he clarified, “which is a term used at butcheries (scallop in english). It clearly talks about human flesh and that it dies just like a pig. There is something about the massacre, something about a part of us that is like this and Découpe also means cutting. Like the way I make those paintings.”
Alexis continued to describe the process.
“I draw first,” he said, “then I put tape on the drawing and with an exacto I just cut it off. Then I paint and take off the layer it created, so it looks like a collage a bit. I used the same technique for the rooms. But in this series you are still confronted with the idea of whether it is joyful or really bad, or what is this? What’s happening there? It leads you to some kind of an interrogation room. But there is not something precise that I want to say. I’m exploring, I’m expressing. I think those paintings can make people think.”
“I’m still thinking about the child” I express, pointing at the painting behind him.
“In that one?” He looks at it.
Is it a metaphor? Does it recall an event from your life?
“Let me tell you the story of this painting…”
Which he did.
According to him, “I was at the metro and took a picture of two kids with my phone. I don’t know, I do this wherever I go. Then I went to google and searched for dead dogs. Not because I saw the kids, the two things are not connected…”
He briefly stops, “but in someway, as I told you, I should go see a psychologist to tell me that,” and then resumed “I wanted to see paintings of a dead dog and, when I saw it, I wanted to paint it. In this painting I painted it. Then I did the circles and the orange cones. I wanted to paint the child like this. I don’t know when in the process, how it happens, but the head of the dog is way too big to be a normal head of a dead dog lying on the floor next to a kid. It’s a mascot head, an emblematic animal costume to amuse children, usually, like you see in a parade or at allegoric wagons with the child that observes. The child looks de-personalized, anonymized, and he looks as fake as the dog’s head. So, it’s more the idea of a child instead of trying to paint a real child, they both are. They are glued there and they are in direct relation.”
“As for the metaphor,” he said “I don’t know. Death, infancy, innocence, orange security cones. Maybe, maybe life and death”
Voilà! My curiosity had been satisfied. I, however, had perceived a more dramatic feeling. I tell him so, he thinks about it. “Of course, there is a drama, but it’s latent… un drame latent…”
“It feels very surreal” I carry on, because, indeed, when you got inside the gallery, you were suddenly exposed to thoughts, and perhaps memories, captured within the pictures. I stressed the strength of the child painting once more.
He continued, “It’s all that together and you don’t know exactly what or why. But that’s what I was telling you, there is always an element of atmospheric drama or something that you can’t point exactly where it is. But in that one there is no dead head or blood (points at bedroom painting), but it is strange, nonetheless. There is no…”
Why a bedroom?
“It’s the elements that you see everyday. A bedroom is where you sleep, is where you dream, is where you have sex, is where your parents created you. It’s a symbol and then in this thing you have strange colours. Is it a window or is it just a colour that makes part of the painting and then you have the confettis. There is no clear meaning.”
Briefly he pauses and looks around the salon. “It talks about humans, it talks about the memory, it talks about some things that are hard to confront about the human being. Even if I draw a rainbow, it always comes back in the themes.”
So you basically talk about violence?
“Violence, childhood, artificiality…”
When I asked him what painting was his favourite, he quickly glanced at the one with the circus hanging behind us. All he said was “I really like that one”.
After a pause, nonetheless, he retracted saying that he wouldn’t feel good to answer for they all complement each other.
What did you learn about yourself after putting this show together?
“It’s cool when you do a show, you have the white walls like this and then you can see everything more clear than when it’s in the studio. Now I can see that it goes well together. I can step back and look at the results. I didn’t learn anything new because it’s a continuation of what I’ve been doing previously. But it’s a great feeling seeing them complete. It marks my way.”
Suddenly, the tone of the conversation changed. I was interested to hear his opinion about choosing to be an artist as a career.
Is it hard being an artist?
“It is very hard. You have no security, there is a lot of competition. Although, at the same time it is a gift.”
Did you ever imagine such a reality as a student?
“It was pretty clear to me that I wanted to do painting all my life. I can’t live without doing it…”
He thought about it for a few seconds, “maybe I can, but I don’t wish to.”
“I think I’m really lucky to have this in my life,” he said, “but at the same time you are somehow doomed because it doesn’t work well for a lot of people. You need to make money, and, you know, be comfortable, well, it’s like you are doomed in a way. You are lucky and doomed because you will have to fight all the time and be in precarity. For a lot of people it’s like that. But me, I consider myself lucky and, yeah, it’s something that I wanted to do and it’s something I am privileged to do and that I love to do. You do it for yourself and you should never paint for others, and if you do it for someone else than yourself, then you are fucked, you should stop. In my case, it’s always been with me, it helped me in my life. It’s part of me. Since I wanted to do a career out of it, I’m happy to show my work to everyone… I’m where I want to be.”
Would you say school is necessary?
“I do think that university helped me a lot. School helped me a lot because while in there the environment was good and I met a lot of other painters that were passionate about creating, so we could exchange ideas; I also met a lot of good teachers. It’s not about the paper you get from school, it’s the people you meet there and then what they teach you, plus it gives you links to the real world afterwards. You can be introduced to people. Like me, my first exhibition was at the Gallery Art Mûr and it was because of uni,” said Alexis.
He then added, “You get to think about your art. I was introduced to a lot of new artists that influenced me while at school and by myself…maybe other people can do it, maybe people who talk to a lot of people, that think a lot, read about it; but me, by myself I don’t think it would have been the same.”
What artists inspired you?
“There are a few,” he replied, “Now I look at pictures in the internet, I read the news, books, and that is what gives me the material to create. It’s through venturing with painting that I create new forms. The matter, the colours, intelligence.”
After pausing he continued, “Intelligent things happen that you wouldn’t be able to think of in the first place. But there are some painters that did make an impact on me like Gerhard Richter, one of the biggest painters alive of the century, he is one that I really like. I don’t know how much you can see of his influence in my paintings. I really like Francis Bacon too. Lots of people compare some of my paintings to Bacon. There is also a young painter from Germany, his name is Matthias Weischer, specially when I create interior spaces, you can recognize this but not in all of my work.”
A message to students…to arts students.
“Good luck”, he replied.
This was Alexis Lavoie, check out his website for more!