Gaetanne Lavoie : Tragedy, Tension and the Sublime
Canadian painter Gaetanne Lavoie is a figurative artist primarily concerned with raw human emotivity: the stuff that happens deep in the limbic system far below the activity of various parts of the cerebral cortex working together to rationalize the things we experience first and foremost as basic emotions (such as fear, pleasure and anger) and drives (like hunger, dominance, sex and care of offspring).
Her subjects are predominantly women and it is immediately clear that the models are all projections of raw emotional states experienced subjectively by Gaetanne. They are her and she is them. While there’s certainly an openly feminine perspective to these pieces, there’s also a universal undercurrent to the work that we can all relate to, mainly because we all experience basic emotions and drives.
In an interview with The White Review, Paula Rego remarked: “The only way to get to things is through the basement”. Gaetanne’s rootedness in primal emotions and drives reminds me a bit of Rego’s work. Both are concerned with juxtapositions: the tension between elegance and the grotesque, love and cruelty, pain and healing, and the material world versus the interior reality of the imagination.
While the overall aesthetic program is quite different, both artists bring us into strange environments and open ended visual narratives that have a lot in common with what we encounter in fairy tales. (I’m thinking of Rego’s take on Disney’s version of “Snow White” and Lavoie’s reference to the DC comics Harley Quinn character).
Moreover, they both have this tendency to create a seemingly mundane environment, but reconfigured into a bizarre and clearly “not really real” one. But because everything is a representation of familiar objects and spaces, this parallel reality is disturbingly convincing in its alternate reality.
A good example of this is “Creating Wonderland”, where virtually every element in that painting is anchored in the familiar (library, books, chair, girl, etc), except that gravity and perspective function differently here. And, of course, there are the rabbits that remind you that you should go and dust off your Penguin’s Dictionary of Symbolism to help you decode the painting. (Rabbits are symbolically connected to the Moon, water, rejuvenation, fertility, and fecundity).
In Lavoie’s work, one also encounters literary references. In my mind, there are remarkable points of commonality between Gaetanne’s “The Double, Plus One” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s fantastic short story entitled “The Yellow Wall Paper”. Both address the splintering of a woman’s core identity and the rising dominance of a shadow figure emerging from a parallel universe behind the yellow wallpaper. They both narrate an internal psychosis.
In Gilman’s story – set in Victorian times – a physician’s wife is relegated to a room in an old mansion to recuperate from a “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency”.
With nothing to stimulate her, she becomes obsessed by the pattern and color of the wallpaper.
It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about that paper – the smell! … The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell.
In time, she comes to perceive a shadow figure lurking behind the wallpaper:
I’m getting really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper. It dwells on my mind so […] There are things in that wallpaper that nobody knows about but me, or ever will.
In Gilman’s short story and Lavoie’s painting, the shadow figure is quite literally the woman’s shadow both in the physical and the Jungian sense of that term. Repressed for so long, it can no longer be contained. It is breaking through. This is an incredibly tense moment fraught with terror, but also anticipation – sweet, sweet release!
Observe now the wonderful, strangely coherent world of free association at work: According to Lavoie, “The Double Plus One” is actually loosely based on Dostoevsky’s novel “The Double” – the of story Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, a government clerk who goes mad. This insanity is precipitated by the main character’s internal psychological struggle as he repeatedly encounters someone who is his exact double in appearance but far more confident, aggressive, and extroverted than Yakov. That is to say, everything he wishes he was but isn’t.
The overlapping theme bridging “The Yellow Wallpaper”, “The Double” and “The Double Plus One” is the rise of the shadow figure and the inevitable atomization of the protagonist’s sanity in order to allow the emancipation and actualization of the far more powerful shadow figure to operate freely in the void of a now vacant mind. Maybe this is what Plato is talking about when he tells us that art and poetry is rooted in the same inspiration and instinct as you find in seers and prophets.
I spoke earlier of juxtapositions as a defining characteristic of Gaetanne’s output. A prevalent theme in her work is the contrast between body and soul. That symbiotic relationship is explored in different ways. Sometimes the soul is healing the body. We see this most keenly in pieces like “Untethered”, “Creating Wonderland”, “Resurrection”, and more ambivalently in “Greatness Shall Ensue”. Other times, the soul is being punished though the body. We see this in “The Definition of Insanity”, “Can You Hear Me?” and “Freedom”.
Either way, the visual experience is incredibly visceral. The psyche (or soul) is often presented in relation to the corporeal body. Sometimes, that visceral tension hits a really feverish pitch. You encounter this in pieces like “Freedom” and “Can You Hear Me?” where you’re in the presence of psychic pain communicated through the body.
Let’s begin with “Can You Hear Me?”…
We’re looking at a woman taking a physical beating that’s about to get a whole lot worse. Her hair is disheveled, she’s been crying, and she looks scared and defiant at the same time. It seems like everything freezes in this painting at the precise moment that she’s been tossed from across the room, using the chair to break her momentum. You get the sense that the moment you look away, the relentless action frozen here will resume. She’s not bleeding, but she will. The blood splatter pattern on the curtains (drawn, of course) foreshadows that.
We note that the woman’s lips are sown shut. The curtains, as we have already remarked, are drawn. All of this is happening, as these things so often do, behind closed doors. The direct and implacable response to her question is: “no. We can’t.” And that sort of sums up the whole cycle of conjugal violence. The curtains are drawn, the victim takes the beating, and a lot of the time nobody hears a thing. We don’t ask and she’s not talking.
I opened this review alluding to basic emotions. This is the dance macabre of Rage and Fear. But there’s something in that woman’s look that tells me that we’re about to witness a reversal of the power dynamics depicted in this painting. Just like Howard Beale impassioned plea in “The Network”, that look is telling me she’s mad as hell and she’s not going to take it anymore. Rage and Fear dance so close and it’s not always clear what emotion is leading the other.
In “Freedom”, we’re looking at a woman gagged by a kid’s toy. She’s blindfolded with a sleeping mask. She’s got these headphones pumping whatever into her ears as she holds out her tied hands towards us in a pleading manner. The environment is very suburban bedroom. All the trappings of freedom, right? Right…
There’s more to say here. “Freedom” plays an ambivalent game with sexual power dynamics (all that bedroom bondage, and let’s face it: I am at the head of that bed in that bedroom. That woman’s arms are outstretched towards me and as disconcerting as this may be to me, a male viewer, there’s a sexual undertone here… did I not list sex and dominance as basic human drives?) But there’s a transcendental quality to all this fleshy double entente. There’s that juxtaposition again, or what Gaetanne calls “the importance of contradictions”.
On the one hand, the woman on the bed is objectified. When you can’t see a person’s eyes, they forfeit some of their humanity, and role playing or not, tying someone up and gagging them is about reducing their status or making them subservient to you. But there’s that butterfly wallpaper motif and mobile that brings in the sublime symbol of womanhood. Thumbing through my trusty Dictionary of Symbols, I’m told that a common cross-cultural belief held in antiquity was a shared notion that the soul or breath of life exhaled by the dying left the body in the shape of a butterfly. The word matrix surrounding the butterfly touches upon womanhood, the soul, death, sacrifice and, on account of its antecedent existence as a caterpillar, resurrection.
That cycle finds its happy ending in “Resurrection” where we note the womb like aura of the pink tiles and tub as well as the chrysalis posing as a body scrubber. Here we’re thrown into a new 1st person point of view. We’re the woman in the tub or, on a more sublime plane, the butterfly about to emerge from its chrysalis.
In light of the two paintings discussed above, maybe that rebirth happens every night, only to wake up a caterpillar again the next morning. It’s a sad observation I know, but such is the nature of the body/soul relationship: often tragic even in moments of pleasure, always tense because of this and most acutely so during the more sublime moments of release, such as we experience during birth, coitus and death.
You can view Gaetanne’s powerfully symbolic paintings here: www.gaetannelavoie.com