Great apes make sculpture exciting again

In her debut solo show BOONZ, Laurence Vallières’ stunning cardboard creations offer street art’s take on sculpture.

From BOONZ, by Laurence Vallières.

It’s spring, mating season. As the warm weather settles over the city, from the womb of the city’s trash heaps, a horde of primally charged simians completes its evolution from garbage to gallery.

Laurence Vallières’ stunning, several-feet-high cardboard sculptures of charging, lifelike monkeys are already part of Montreal’s concrete jungle. Vallières made a huge splash at Fresh Paint Gallery last year with a massive installation in which apes attacked a life-size car, a reference to the gallery’s feud over artistic licence with Chevrolet.

Thanks to the success of that installation on social media, Vallières’ art has caught the attention of Galerie Yves Laroche, where she will be presenting her first solo show, BOONZ, this Friday.

It may come as a surprise to fans of Vallieres’ work that the choice of medium for which she’s most well-known, cardboard, came about as unconventionally as her first solo venture.

“You do what you can with what you have. For the Fresh Paint space, I really wanted something huge,” Vallières says. “Near my studio, there’s this dumpster where the nearby stores leave all these amazing cardboard boxes. So I decided to go with it.”

The liveliness and smooth lines of Vallières’ sculptures belie the crudeness of the stuff from which they are crafted. The resulting work is imposing and dense, as Vallières doesn’t use a hollow base for her pieces. Despite the learning curve in getting cardboard to stay intact under humid conditions over time, it’s a medium that has allowed the artist to explore limitless possibilities.

“Cardboard is a great material. You can do anything in any size,” she says. “At the same time, it’s very conceptual. I’m basically working from trash.”

Yet another kind of papercraft inspires Vallières’ work: literature. George Orwell and Eugène Ionesco have influenced the artist’s exploration of human themes through animal-based metaphors.

For BOONZ, Vallières draws on the competitive world of business to draw parallels between the office rat race and hyper-aggressive mandrills in heat. In one piece, mandrills crowd an office desk, wild with sexually derived urges for dominance and power.

“It’s a form of humour, and it’s absurd. I think humour is the best way of getting a message across, although there are many ways to speak a message,” she says. “Using animals as a metaphor for human emotion really works for me.”

Vallières’ fascination with human impulses has spilled into her street art, which she’s exploring for the first time in Montreal. After living in L.A. for a year and then completing an artist residency in St. Petersburg, Vallières says Montreal is an ideal city for artistic expression. But it’s a tricky place to make sure street art installations stay in the street.

“I had put out maybe 80 of those little guys,” she says, referencing the devilish heads, rhinoceri and other whimsical ceramic figurines she left around the city. “Some were gone the next day. But they’re made to be ephemeral.

“I don’t really mind if someone takes one home, or gives it to someone else, or brings it elsewhere in the city,” Vallières says. “Montreal is a people city like that. It’s like a bunch of little towns connected by the metro system. So it was nice to explore and find the best place to leave them.”

Vallières has expanded her street art sculptures into a limited edition of twelve fluo-coloured, mini-monkey-like creatures entitled “Tarsius,” available at Galerie Yves Laroche, which fund opportunities for more street art creativity.

“The ‘Tarsius’ pieces finance their friends,” she laughs.

Vallières is on the cusp of her first solo show, a huge step for any artist. But she’s already thinking about the next project, an October Nuit Blanche installation in Toronto that will involve one truck, one street corner and one really, really large elephant.

“He’ll look like he’s coming out of the truck, but that he’s too big to really be coming out of it,” Vallières says. “Sort of like the expression ‘an elephant in the room.’ Maybe I’ll try to park it in front of a government building.”

Whether they’re a few feet tall or as large as a truck, Vallières’ out-there constructions aren’t always easy to handle, especially as an emerging artist. She recently had one buyer in Rome back out of buying a large gorilla from her Fresh Paint installation when he found out it was her first foray into the medium.

“He asked me who my gallery was, and I was just like… nope, no gallery,” she laughs. “I think he was thinking, how can I know she’ll keep doing this?”

“But it was a good learning experience. I’m lucky to be able to do what I do for a living, especially in a city like Montreal,” Vallières says. “And I’m really happy people are responding to my work.” ■

BOONZ runs May 4-18, Galerie Yves Laroche (6355 St-Laurent), vernissage Saturday, May 4th, 2-5 p.m., free.

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