Medium coins the message of Mathieu Lefèvre 'Make It Big' retrospective

Three curators at Centre Clark decided to consult a medium to help them figure out how to mount an exhibition about the late Mathieu Lefèvre. The artist told the medium to "make it big," and that's exactly what the curators did.

30-year-old Montreal artist was killed in 2011 while riding his bicycle in New York City

This self-portrait by the artist is one of the first pieces in a new retrospective at the Centre Clark celebrating the prolific, humorous creations of the late Mathieu Lefèvre. (Jeanette Kelly/CBC)

Montreal's artist-run Centre Clark is celebrating one of its members, the late Mathieu Lefèvre, in a new exhibition called Make It Big.

Lefèvre was killed in a bicycle accident in New York City in 2011 when he was hit by a truck. He was 30.

The title of the retrospective, Make It Big, was suggested to the curators when they consulted medium Mimi Bonhomme to ask what Lefèvre would like to see in this posthumous exhibition. (Jeanette Kelly/CBC)

The exhibition, which bears the subtitle More Shit on the Wall, shows the young artist's prolific, irreverent practice. It fills the whole gallery space, from a Jackson Pollack-inspired desk "painted" with chewing gum on the underside to a painting collage with the words "I don't understand art about art."

Hear Jeanette Kelly discussing Make It Big on CBC Montreal's Daybreak at 6:40 a.m.

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Channelling Lefèvre's spirit

Visitors can climb into a wood cabin to watch a video of medium Mimi Bonhomme channelling Lefèvre​'s spirit.

Curators Roxanne Arsenault, Nicolas Mavrikakis and Manon Tourigny consulted Bonhomme when trying to decide how to approach the exhibition.

"We can't really do this normally with posthumous shows but in this case, because Mathieu was always playing with the limit of what was right and what was wrong and playing with the idea of death a lot, we decided this was okay," Arsenault said.

A video of medium Mimi Bonhomme channelling Mathieu Lefèvre for curators Nicolas Mavrikakis and Roxanne Arsenault is part of the retrospective on Lefevre's work now on at Centre Clark. (Centre Clark)

The medium apparently talked with Lefèvre and told the curators 'not to overthink the show, but to make it ours, to make it big'.

"And that became the title of our show, Make It Big."     

Visitors also get to step into a re-creation of his New York studio, complete with a pair of running shoes left under his desk with one of his favourite punk anthems playing on his CD player.

A series of photos show the artist's own arms inked with images of works by Picasso and Matisse, showing his desire to understand fame in the art world.

This is one of a series of photos of tattoos celebrating artists that influenced Lefèvre's work. He had works by Picasso and Matisse and Watteau's name inked on his own arms. (Jeanette Kelly/CBC)

Lefèvre's legacy

Lefèvre's mother Erika Lefèvre says the exhibition brings back sad moments but she feels it's part of their legacy to make sure her son's work is shown.

The exhibition includes a sculpture of a body lying in front of a tombstone and a Last Will and Testament written in 2007 in which Lefèvre leaves his work to the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art.

Given his early death, it can seem eery to look at those works now.  But Erika Lefèvre feels her son had a precocious understanding of the limits of our lives and a desire to push those limits in a humorous way.

"Mathieu was a great entertainer. He made his art entertaining. So even if the theme of death can make you sad, there's always an amusing little smile in the world. Life is not only the dark side."

"He liked to push the limits. He enjoyed life more than the average person. He had a vibrant, sociable, extroverted personality.  I think he realized very young that life is a continuum and eventually there would be death," she says.

This work is typical of Lefèvre's humourous approach to understanding contemporary art and questioning what it means. (Jeanette Kelly/CBC )

Respectfully irreverent 

The curators of the exhibition have been careful to both be respectful — the exhibition includes his ashes in a funeral urn and a plaster cast of one of his hands — but also make the exhibition playful.

"This exhibition from the get-go has been very bittersweet. Mathieu was a friend to a lot of us and working on this we were thinking we should be very sad," said Arsenault. 

"But at the same time Mathieu was always transgressing these lines of what you could or could not say. So that became a rule for us as curators: 'Is this too much? If so, let's do it.'"

Mathieu Lefèvre pulled Juicy Fruit gum to look like a drip painting by Jackson Pollack and stuck it under a student desk, one of the pranks for which the artist was famous. (Jeanette Kelly/CBC)

Stories and sketchbook drawings

Lefèvre's close friend and former roommate, Harley Smart, is printing a book where friends, family and loved-ones recount stories of the artist's life.  

Smart will also print a collection of drawings and notes selected from Lefèvre's many sketchbooks.

The exhibition also marks the Montreal launch of catalogue of Lefèvre's works compiled  by his parents that's called I Don't Understand Art About Art.  

Issue 113 of ESPACE art actuel has also dedicated its front cover and a special insert to the memory of Mathieu Lefèvre.  

Mathieu Lefèvre Make It Big is at the Centre Clark in Montreal through June 18, 2016.