A Song and a Punch: Maskull Lasserre's sculptures balance the contemplative and visceral

Maskull Lasserre: Incarnate (Three Degrees of Certainty II), 2012: Books, steel, hardware; 40 x 8 x 11 inches. Images courtesy the artist and Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain, Montreal.Maskull Lasserre: Incarnate (Three Degrees of Certainty II), 2012: Books, steel, hardware; 40 x 8 x 11 inches. Images courtesy the artist and Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain, Montreal.

Among those 'in the know', Ottawa- and Montreal-based sculptor Maskull Lasserre is being touted as one of Quebec's rising art stars. Since 2007, Lasserre has shown regularly across Canada, though his first commercial gallery show, Vertigo, didn't take place until late last year at Montreal's Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain. In that show, Lasserre imaginatively combined mundane objects, such as an axe and a violin, with bronze casts of animal skulls and bones, returning these symbols of civilization and culture to more primitive states. Elements of nostalgia, allegory, humour, as well as a well-developed sense of the macabre, inform such works, and provoke a sense of the uncanny in viewers.

Lasserre studied visual art and philosophy at Mount Allision University and sculpture at Concordia University. He has been awarded several public sculpture commissions, and recently had his first U.S. exhibitions this year in the group shows Swept Away at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City and Paperless at the Southeastern Center of Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C. Here, Montreal-based critic James D. Campbell talks with Lasserre about boxing, the violin, and crushing pianos with boulders.

By James. D. Campbell

Maskull Lasserre: Second Thought, 2011: Carved axe, ebony; 3 x 7 x 27 inches.Maskull Lasserre: Second Thought, 2011: Carved axe, ebony; 3 x 7 x 27 inches.

James D. Campbell (JC): It is a truism that life today is ruled by hazard. Your work may not be ruled by hazard, but it is there in full measure. No?

Maskull Lasserre (ML): I would say that life today is not ruled by hazard, but by convenience. My work might be understood as an attempt to re-insert hazard into a lived experience that is really devoid of necessity, and the poorer for it.

JC: You have been praised for your “inverted thoughts”. I see more subversion than inversion. You work from subtraction to achieve subversion. It is an interesting and sound methodology.

ML: There is something intuitively recognizable about subtractive work. It has a modesty, sincerity, plain honesty that is necessarily disarming. It is – in a word – trustworthy. This trust allows the work to carry the viewer/witness to places they might not otherwise willingly go. Roller coasters must have comfortable seats for people to put up with the bumpy ride.

JC: Maybe it's because I have long been fascinated by, and have collected, early scientific instruments, that I see a blood kinship in your facture with that of the master makers. They were known as makers of 'philosophical instruments'. You, too, make philosophical instruments, even if using them would wreak havoc. Imaginatively, one might well call them therapeutic, even if the therapy is sometimes harsh. The old world of invention has all but disappeared in the contemporary world, but is there wholesale in your work – even now at the level of your very signature.

ML: I think this too has to do with the matter of trust. My investment in the work is made to reassure the witness that their attention is not taken for granted; that they are in the company of a consciousness – or its material residue – that is worthy of their suspension of disbelief. I try to stand in the place of the instrument maker, to channel through my mind and hands every facet of the context, and society from which this object would originate, and in which it would be just one of many similar things. In many pieces, this is where the work converges – on the imagined world of which the work is an artefact. For this reason, there needs to be no limit to its resolution, its being needs to be absolute – its self all the way down to the maker’s mark.

JC: Your work is all about transformative alchemy, like Haida totems. They are Myths of Spirit Transmigration in the Here and Now of our 21st Century experience.

Maskull Lasserre: Coriolis: Installation view at Gallery Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain, 2011. Steel, boulder, hardware, 40'; free-fall; 74 x 31 x 62 inches.Maskull Lasserre: Coriolis: Installation view at Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain, 2011. Steel, boulder, hardware, 40'; free-fall; 74 x 31 x 62 inches.ML: Yes, and I also like the notion of synesthesia, the transience of a stimulus from one sense to another. In many of my works, this is true during their creation, as well as, hopefully, for the witness. In secret carpentry, it was literally the smell of the snake that guided my tool through the wood of the axe handle.

JC: The hectic conflation of music and musical instrument, and potential violence and weapon, in your work gives a whole new meaning to what Lautreamont said.

ML: My work is always halfway between a song and a punch.

JC: Your work betrays a sheer love for the facture. What is it in the making of things that compels you?

ML: Making is a physical act of understanding. It is the whole point and purpose. Through my secret history with the work, its ontology is constituted for the viewer to then decode. Once the work is finished, our relevance to eachother comes to an end. It is there for another mind to discover and dwell upon if interest strikes.

JC: You played the violin for 14 years. You boxed for many years. How have these activities influenced the work?

ML: I did not realize the significance of my time playing the violin to my work, ironically, until I started boxing. Somehow, these two acts brought each other into balance. They share enough physical symmetries of choreography, rhythm and endurance to make their differences really interesting. They somehow constitute the poles that mark the territory that my work now navigates.

JC: Vanitas. Death. Your work summons a huge ossuary out of the unlikeliest juxtapositions… and yet, therein lies the unlikeliest of epiphanies.

ML: There is no meaning that exists outside the mind. There is only "what is". Everything else lives and dies with each of us. My work is a stone that I throw across that divide, and by so doing try to measure its depth and its breadth.

JC: The work betrays an unusual fascination with the animal kingdom.

Maskull Lasserre: Six-shot Six-string, 2010: Wood, strings, hardware, flocking, 357 calibre revolver; 26 x 13 x 16 inches.Maskull Lasserre: Six-shot Six-string, 2010: Wood, strings, hardware, flocking, 357 calibre revolver; 26 x 13 x 16 inches.ML: The animal kingdom seems to be the one to which we all must ultimately pay allegiance. The veneers of civilization, society, technology and language distract us from our animal nature, but don't actually transcend it. It is always there, just beneath the surface, revealed by the first shortage of food – or by my carving tool.

JC: Can you talk about the intention behind the work where you dropped a massive boulder onto one of your welded steel pianos?

ML: Dropping a 1,000-pound boulder onto a carefully fabricated steel piano was a bit of an indulgence. The relinquishing – the decisive act required to complete the work to fate (or physics) – was a way of redeeming its artificiality and returning it something natural. The authority of nature, and of things beyond the arbitrary whim of human intent, is something that allures me. This would be the second part of my explanation in response to your observation about my fascination with the animal kingdom. To borrow this authority from the form, material or process of nature might be a way I lend my work a kind of legitimacy that may or may not be lacking in pieces that harken from the human mind, or hand alone.

JC: Your work has tremendous visceral impact. But then, it rewards the most careful and ardent contemplation.

ML: My hope is really to offer a bottomless depth of resolution to the viewer who is willing to follow me into the work. I hope that each work offers, at each level, an integrity of origin and purpose; that the edge of its illusion is perpetually pushed beyond the grasp of the witness, and that they can play in the space that is opened up in this world by an object that comes from another.

Lasserre's work remains on view at the Museum of Art and Design in New York until August and at the South Eastern Centre for Contemporary Art in North Carolina until September. A solo show of his work runs at the Galerie Musee Quebecor in Montreal until June 15. A solo show takes place at Pierre-François Ouellette's satellite gallery, Centre Space, in Toronto in the fall of 2012.

James D. CampbellJames D. Campbell is a writer on art and a curator based in Montreal. He is the author of well over 100 catalogues and books on art and artists. Recent and upcoming publications include monographs on painters Paul Bureau, Michel Daigneault and Mirana Zuger. Campbell also contributes frequently to many art magazines, including Frieze, Border Crossings, Canadian Art and others.