Alexia Laferté-Coutu and Jessica Williams: Between Two Eternities
by Esmé Hogeveen
Textured glass pieces laid out like the remnants of a whale’s vertebrae summon the memory of a childhood trip to the museum. Moody figures painted in jewel tones recall a teenager decorating her binder and the incredible focus required to make Sharpie lines look thin. In Projet Pangée’s recent show Between Two Eternities, mid-size sculptural glassworks by Alexia Laferté-Coutu (Montreal) are put in dialogue with Day-Glo-dotted portraits and vignette paintings by Jessica Williams (Los Angeles). The result is an intermedia commentary on preserving—and actively recalling—personal histories.
Laferté-Coutu’s and Williams’ works invoke two pasts, two distinct spaces of daydreaming and reflecting upon memories, real and invented. In large part, the artists sidestep canonical questions of historical representation. Instead, viewers are led to contemplate the ways in which memory and mood often commingle, producing intractable—and potentially even pleasurably misleading—impressions of the past. Laferté-Coutu’s silvery, semi-translucent glassworks are cast from moulds taken from the edges and corners of buildings and monuments. Resting on a table wrapped in a taut indigo-dyed cotton, laid upon the floor and mounted on a wall, the works appear as ghostly timestamps of an ambiguous urban history and simultaneously present an obscured view of the surfaces they’re positioned against. By contrast, Williams’ works, which depict bright flowers, butterflies, young women and a bowl of redolent cherries, are hypercorporeal, rendered with heavy brush strokes and a plummy palette reminiscent of late-20th-century pop culture. (The Women & Songs compilation CD covers come to mind.)
The interplay between the directness of Laferté-Coutu’s blunt-edged, quasi-archeological works and the playful, borderline sardonic tone of Williams’ paintings is light yet engaging. Akin to scrolling past a Facebook-recommended “memory” and, caught off guard, feeling compelled to revisit the image, one feels the peculiar sensation of idiosyncrasy promulgating emotional intensity when experiencing Between Two Eternities. The interaction of Laferté-Coutu’s and Williams’ styles recalls a New Age ’90s romanticism seen through a contemporary lens, particularly as a result of Williams’ works: the thick, smooth outlines and almost fan-fiction aesthetic of her feminine characters and lurid bouquets suggest the pathos of a mood ring. Similarly, the dark interiors and glowing mauve horizons of Did I Dream You Dreamed About Me (Williams, 2018) and Strange Form of Life (Williams, 2018) evoke singing along to The Cranberries and the vacillations between shame and brazen self-confidence that compose youth. It’s difficult to plumb how deeply Williams intends for us to grapple with these tableaux. The self-consciousness of the portrait paintings is also manifest in Nature of Desire no.3 (2018), a cherry bowl still life featuring sticky, dimensional strokes, and Peonies on Fire (after Manet) (2017), with its cropped composition and pastel blending. Viewers may feel skeptical, for there is something about the ironic handling of painted domestic scenes that continues to feel ill-resolved, yet over-attended, in the early 21st century.
Prompted by the barefaced sentimentality—whether sincere, feigned or most likely a combination of the two—of Williams’ paintings, one notes Laferté-Coutu’s more reserved and delicate nostalgia. The opaline contours and rough edges of her work read more personally when one considers the artist’s method: applying fresh clay onto urban facades and then casting the imprint requires her to push, quite literally, up against the past. The captured imperfections remind us that each sculpture represents a moment of intimacy between the site and the artist’s body, a time capsule of care and inevitable decay. The majority of imprinted locations are from Montreal, where the artist lives, but a few are from further afield in North America and Europe, calling to mind to the ways in which familiarity and strangeness impact the cultivation of memories. Likewise, titles that combine of official site names with Laferté-Coutu’s sense perceptions and associations, e.g., Édifice Allan : height of water during flood of 1886 (2018), further underscore a blend of experience, objectivity and abstraction. Lastly, the spiral motif in her works, including the shell-like configurations in Édifice Ogilvie : agitation du fleuve (2018) and Maison Shaughnessy : odeur de paille (2018), concomitantly alludes back to the cyclicality proposed by the exhibition’s title. To exceed an eternity would seem to imply a new beginning. Laferté-Coutu’s fragmentary works appear to anticipate or foreshadow the eventual ruin of the very structures she memorializes, while simultaneously acting as self-aware future blueprints.
So far during 2019, Projet Pangée has excelled at curating unexpected artist pairings. Between Two Eternities offers strong evidence for the advantage of this duo-based approach: shown together, Laferté-Coutu’s restraint and Williams’ boldness instigate a more attentive reading of the subtler aspects of both artists’ works. Though upon first glance one might suspect that Williams speaks more to emotive than material histories—and that Laferté-Coutu does the inverse— the proximity of memory and imagination is keenly emphasized by both. Intriguingly, neither artist seems particularly interested in the affective influence of the internet, a referent often foundational to contemporary reflections on memory. If anything, Williams’ neon accents and swirling teal, green and purple fields gesture toward the abstruse digital landscape of post-dial-up and pre-social media ubiquity—Williams’ motif of windowsills as thresholds (Did I Dream and Orsini At Midnight ) recalls the uttering energy of logging onto a private LiveJournal. In a relatively analogous offline gesture, Laferté-Coutu takes us on a furtive tour of the city, her sculptures acting as relief maps that guide our attention to locations small enough to grasp with our own hands. For both artists, then, facades are merely gateways, markers that can point to both past and future.