Review: Showing Stuff in a Big Room

Mathieu Lefevre: Showing Stuff in a Big Room
at Galerie Division, Montréal
25 June – 31 July 2011

Mathieu Lefevre “Face Plant” (2011) oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Division

Mathieu Lefevre at Galerie Division is effectively “Showing Stuff in a Big Room“. Whereas unpretentious exhibition titles often suggest modesty in the artist, Lefevre is putting some big cards on the table, playing against the plausibly inescapable boundaries of conceptual art. This show claims a much wider appeal than the usual art world’s initiated few, fighting conceptual dreariness with the weapon of humor.

Nearly all clustered on a single wall of Division’s main space, the works range form classic tableaux to three-dimensional painting-sculptures. By way of over-crowding Lefevre seemingly instills some sort of democracy amongst his works. Taken individually, each art object is as painfully entitled as a dated comedy club one-liner: a large black canvas, covered in feathers (“Tarred and Feathered”); a swath of white paint on a bare canvas, on which is penciled less is more (“More or Less”); an indistinct shape protruding into an unpainted, stretched canvas (“Trash Can Disguised as Contemporary Art”). The literal and figurative collide in many of his works to illustrate commonly known ideas in art, and thus reach a second level of understanding, which does question how many of a wider audience will ultimately “get it”.

Mathieu Lefevre “Persian Rug” (2010) oil on board. Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Division and Angell Gallery, Toronto

Dubbed by the artist as ‘irony as method’, we quickly realize how well Lefevre navigates in these murky waters, and also redeems himself by showing great skill and imagination in the rendering of these high relief paintings. In “Persian Rug,” thick layers of paint on a horizontal surface emulate the texture, volume and colors of, well, a Persian rug. Paint is used in such a quantity that it practically becomes sculptural. Lefevere also comically inverts a 1918 painting with “Happy Birthday Malevich”. “Suprematist Composition: White on White” typically depicts a white tilted square on a white background in an effort to waylay traditional use of perspective. Lefevre recreates the painting in volume, by adding a white canvas on top of another larger, equally white one. The literal imposition of spatial conditions onto this work simultaneously eradicates any illusion of distance and pokes fun at the austerity of a seminal painting. Where conceptual art usually values the idea over the object which it manifests, Lefevre’s apparent uncertainty between method and materials sees him juggle between the roles of painter, sculptor and conceptual artist, adding yet another layer of complexity to his work.

Mathieu Lefevre “Happy Birthday Malevich” (2010) Mixed media on canvas Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Division

As well within the cluster sits a series of posters, reproductions of classic paintings in the history of art, defaced by spray painted words. Works such as “Watteau Rave” demonstrate the full potential of Lefevre’s wit. In the latter, ‘RAVE’ is spelled out in black graffiti style, over a reproduction of Watteau’s “Pilgramage to Cythera” (1717). Lefevre juxtaposes street art writings on top of Watteau’s reception piece for France’s prestigious Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, using puns to bridge the realms of contemporary low art and 18th century high art. Imbued with repetitive music, pulsating lights and narcotics laden commoners, raves contrast comically with Watteau’s ‘fete galante’, a quaint gathering of aristocrats in soft pastoral settings. The obvious overstatements at play here, both literal and contextual, make this arguably his most achieved work in this show, along with ‘KEEPIN’ IT REAL’ over a Kandinsky, and ‘AWESOME’ over a Jackson Pollock. Lefevre’s irreverent use of art reproductions, provided the viewer’s knowledge of this history of course, taps into a collective memory in a completely different way than with his painting-sculptures.

Mathieu Lefevre “Awesome” (2011) Spray paint on paper Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Division

Lefevre’s facetiousness successfully brings levity to an art world that for too long only possessed thin slices of humor. His underlying sentiment, on the other hand, in its association with works from Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919) to David Shrigley’s farcically philosophical drawings, or even the Chapman brothers’ recent intervention on an original 1607 painting, puts him at risk of joining the back of a long queue of contenders, claiming to de-throne conceptualism as the dominant art form. Stylistically anti-conceptualist and yet very erudite in its subject matter, Lefevre still heavily relies on a viewer’s savvy knowledge to untangle and truly appreciate his web of art references, from tapestry to neo-classicism and the contemporary. In this manner, his original aim towards a wider audience has failed, but we sense this too may have been tainted with irony. We unveil his play, and by this Lefevre turns us into accomplices, now very much aware of the rules of his canny game. Perhaps all that is left to do now is to keep on playing.

Text by Yaniya Lee

2020 rue William, Montréal,
Québec, H3J 1R8
Tel: 514.938.3863

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