Mixed Messages

Christopher LaVoie uses everything from scuff marks to newspapers to comment on the changing nature of language

Last year, Christopher LaVoie drafted his fellow UA art students into making an artwork with their feet--and some of them didn't even know it.

LaVoie, a BFA grad who was taking a couple of grad classes, rolled out a giant swathe of paper on the courtyard outside the art building, and taped it down on the pavement. Underneath, he placed thick cardboard letters. The paper started out fresh and clean, but when students walked over it, their dusty shoes left scuff marks behind. Since the cardboard letters rose up three-dimensionally into the paper, the dirt clung mostly to them, and the patches of dust slowly evolved into letters, then words.

"Over three days, the words were revealed," says LaVoie, who's now exhibiting the collaboratively created piece in Loaded Language, an installation at Dinnerware that's his first one-person show. The marked-up paper is spread out over a long wall in the gallery like a painting, and you can easily read the dusty words on its surface: "You Can't Run From Loaded Language."

The work partly comments on the ambiguities of language.

"Language is dynamic and changes meaning," LaVoie says. "Our actions are a litmus test for what we mean with our words. We're never 100 percent sure--things aren't black and white. Language is a constant struggle."

Not all of the students were unwitting participants. Some of them ran right into LaVoie's loaded letters, deliberately changing their serious subtext from cerebral to celebratory. A video camera, sticking out of a third-floor window, recorded their antics.

"People really got into it," the artist says. "They had fun with it. One guy went out and got mud on his shoes and drew on the paper. People danced across it. Someone did a snow angel on it."

Gallery-goers can participate in a brand-new foot-scuff piece, "Canvass," which consists of a long piece of formerly pristine canvas unfurled like a welcome carpet on the floor just beyond the entrance. After just two days in place, the letters were already faintly visible. The art word "canvas" is inside the art space, while the final "s," which changes the passive noun to an active verb, lies just outside the front door.

The artist will speak about the genesis of "Canvass," "Loaded Language" and the other five works in the show in a gallery talk next week, on Thursday, Jan. 19. With the exception of the video, which will be projected in the gallery near the piece that inspired it, nearly all of LaVoie's artworks consist of some kind of marks on a surface. His tools are everything from rust and spray paint and wallboard to old-fashioned charcoal and paper and cloth. His "drawings" range from a relatively realistic charcoal rendering of the border wall that divides the U.S. from Mexico to a stencil piece that has red spray-painted words debating the struggle between official "history" and populist "ourstory."

LaVoie, who turns 25 this month, was a sculpture major, and, ironically, it was in a sculpture class that he got interested in marks on paper. He noticed that clay leavings, metal shavings and the like were tumbling to the studio floor.

"I started putting paper on the floor in the sculpture studio and collecting the residue from people's work. The paper even picked up the shape of the bricks (on the floor), and I decided to take it one step further."

But he had also done more conventional drawing in school, taking at least three figure-drawing classes. By the last class, he gave up on the model in the classroom, and started drawing "found images" that he discovered in the newspapers and in other printed materials.

The border piece, "We Have 600,000 Jobs," is inspired by an advertisement and a news photo that both appeared in the Arizona Daily Star. The sources, the two real pages clipped from the newspaper, hang to the left of the large, 6-foot-by-6-foot drawing. The cheerful display ad, about a third of the page, announces, "We have 600,000 jobs. One of them is right for you. Heck, dozens are right for you." Juxtaposed to this rosy economic forecast is a stark wire photo of the corrugated border fence and the headline, "House approves 300 miles of new border fence in Arizona."

LaVoie merged the two sources--and the contradictory messages--in his drawing. A stranded migrant and the curving wall are sketched large, in charcoal; they're layered over the words of the advertisement, drawn in large block letters across the paper. The work picks up LaVoie's language theme, and shows how it's mixed up in the furor over the border.

"Our laws say (most) immigrants from other countries can't come in," he says. "Yet the economy is saying the opposite message: 'We have jobs, and we need you.' It's a strong mixed message."

A companion piece actually creates a new temporary wall in the gallery. At one end, over Dinnerware's red-brick wall, LaVoie nailed up a piece of white dryboard over two-by-four studs. At the other end, his new fake wall is collapsing, curving out into the gallery. It's colored the rusted metal of the border fence.

"I went to a construction shop and bought corrugated rusted steel," he explains. Then he applied chemicals to transfer the horizontal bands of orange and tan and rust onto his dryboard. To make the board curve and collapse, he "wet the drywall several times, cinched it up with ropes and allowed it to dry in that shape."

The long title, which begins "C is for the Great Wall of China," alludes to numerous barriers around the world, from the Great Wall to the Iron Curtain to the Panama Canal to the more ambiguous "changing borders."

"It looks at historic barriers and how they've changed," LaVoie says, though he notes that the work also relates specifically to the "600,000 Jobs" piece and the contested wall between the U.S. and Mexico. And in his work, that wall is falling.

"It's not to say that these barriers are good or bad, but their function changes over time. Sometimes they need to be re-interpreted."

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