NEWTON'S PRISM: LAYER PAINTING: 6-28 February 2003
Public opening and reception: Thursday 6 February at 3 PM.
Talk by Doug Lewis Wednesday 12 February at NOON.
Talk by Eric Cameron Thursday 13 February at NOON.
Talk by Cliff Eyland Wednesday 26 February at 7 PM.
Curated by Cliff Eyland.ERIC CAMERON
Eric Cameron's "Thick Paintings" were begun in 1979 just as the original Nova Scotia College of Art & Design painters were moving away from layer painting, but before many of the younger artists in this exhibition had begun to reinvestigate the genre. Hence his work neatly bisects the imaginary time line suggested by this show.
The following two articles were written in the 1980s.
THE OBJECT OF PAINT--ERIC CAMERON
(First published in Vanguard magazine in September 1983.)
Eric Cameron uses strategies of accumulation, palimpsest and plurality of means that have become identified with as typically 'allegorical' or 'Postmodernist' by writers like Craig Owens. Cameron, however, believes his art to be rooted in a Modernist tradition and sensibility. One clue to that sensibility is a theme from Poussin that has figured heavily in Cameron's work since the early seventies. In his 1981 Art Gallery of Nova Scotia show Cameron put the words Et in Arcadia Id in large letters on the gallery wall. The phrase is an altered version of a tomb inscription in a Poussin painting which reads: Et in Arcadia Ego. Cameron's play on words is a sly allusion to Freudian theory, which holds mythology to be subordinate to the psychoses. Ego, the mythologizing entity, is replaced by Id, ego's primal precursor in Freud's schema of the mind. The kind of vegetative reading that references to myth encourage in some Postmodernist work is cut off in Cameron's spliced phrase.
Over the past few years, Cameron's installations have included video monitors, mirrors and the occasional pot of grass. In his painted pieces a rose, a shoe, or a 'gift' or some household article is buried under hundreds of layers of pure gesso alternated with gesso mixed with a small portion of black paint. Three of these pieces were exhibited recently at Halifax's Eye Level Gallery. The following interview is an edited version of a taped conversation I had with Cameron on March 14, 1982.
Cliff Eyland: When did you start putting paint on objects?
E.C. Around about the beginning of May '79...either late April or early May '79...Painting on other than regular art bases had been something that I had done with my students as a teaching project because I had felt that it made people less inhibited not using standard materials. There were other things you could do just moving it a little bit out of the intimidating presence of the medium Titian had used. It would allow people to be more spontaneous in coming to grips with the problem of applying paint...
In one of the projects I did with people working on other materials, I'd ask people to paint pieces of fruit with the markings that were on the fruit and that generally went down very well. There was one woman who didn't like the idea - she painted fruit white and painted several layers on an apple, [NOTE: this student may have been Gemey Kelly - C.E. 2002] and I must admit that I had her in mind when I started my own object paintings.
Then, of course there have been several people around the college (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) who have done layer paintings. I think the first of these for whom layering was an issue in itself was Jeff Spalding, who was a graduate student when he started doing it. But before Jeff, Patrick Kelly did paintings which entailed layering but didn't focus on layering as the main aspect. Then, of course, there've been a lot of people doing layered painting at the college since then. So there were those different threads to it...
C.E. The obsessiveness of your layered paintings seems incredible...the idea of putting over four hundred coats of paint on an object...
E.C. I guess it gets obsessive when you think of it like that but when you actually see the object, aside from one or two were you can see the layers showing through, all you see is the top coat...it's just an object, you don't see the layers.
The one that has the most layers on it has 2986 layers: that's a lettuce which, of course, doesn't have a lettuce inside anymore because the lettuce will have disintegrated absolutely and totally. It's almost eleven by eleven inches in each direction. It's quite heavy and you would never guess in a million years it had started from a lettuce unless you were told. It really has superseded that base totally and become something whose forms have to do with the way paint itself grows...
C.E. I think of them as painting the 'readymade' to death.
E.C. Well, that's a good definition...The layer paintings start off with something. The first coat of paint on the thick paintings casts it in gesso and it suddenly loses its detail. The alarm clock suddenly loses its ability to tell the time but it has the form of an alarm clock; as you go on painting it eventually develops the form which becomes ever more remote from the starting point and becomes increasingly only itself...
C.E. What about impressionistic things people might infer from your paintings, like analogies to snow or sediment?
E.C. There's a place in Yorkshire, again it goes back to an English context because a lot of the specifics of my work, I think, do go back to English things - we used to go to a place in Knaresborough called Mother Shipton's Well, a limestone cave near a limestone spring and people would hang dolls - all sorts of things - under this water and they would become encased in stone. Oddly enough it produced very smooth, rounded forms and my anticipation when I first started doing the thick paintings was that they would grow to be ultimately spherical. I expected that simply by putting paint on gradually as one went over and over again, that everything would turn into a perfect sphere which seemed to be what ought to happen on the analogy with the objects from Mother Shipton's Well: but it just didn't work out like that. Maybe the shaking of my hand...maybe psychological pressures as well as the physical pressures and the properties of the paint being different from the properties of limestone distillation of water...
So it was like natural processes, and what I think I'm about is engaging the natural process. If there is an interface between human activity and the final context of nature, then what I'm doing is sacrificing my own control in the hope of engaging with the largest possible forces that operate through me.
C.E. How 'natural' is the kind of control that a Van Eyck would bring to painting, by contrast?
E.C. That would be the very antithesis, wouldn't it? The notion of process within which I'm working opposes the notion of the highest refinement of technique within which Van Eyck is working. Paint can achieve an ultimate refinement in terms of control of the medium itself and also in terms of its ability to recreate the world according to the artist's will.
I think there's a different relationship between man and nature implied in Van Eyck's paintings and in my thick paintings and that's a characteristic of the difference between Renaissance and modern art, a difference as well going back to Classical antiquity. I suppose it's one of the standard contrasts between Classicism and Romanticism and in this context. Van Eyck could well be wrapped up with the Classicists for purpose of the analogy. Man and human will and human consciousness had a central place in the world view of Classical antiquity and Romanticism inverts that...inverts the relationship between man and nature. Nature then becomes a huge force against which man is tiny by comparison.
You look at sculptures on the Parthenon which do have bits of landscape...they have bits of rocks showing through here and there but the human figure dwarfs the natural elements to an enormous extent. You look at Turner's landscape paintings and there is an inverse of that. I think one of the things that's happened with Modern art is that the dwarfing of man by the forces that surround him which ultimately I think you would call nature, whether they are social, mechanistic or whatever because they all emerge out of nature - if nature didn't contain the potential none of these things would be there. The forces have become so much greater that it has become impossible to create even an image in which one can believe: which can epitomize the scale of the contrast. What one can do is simply to harness an aspect of these forces themselves in order to sample the relationship, not to encompass the totality of a world view that is the art of Classical antiquity.
The art of the Renaissance presents a world view in which man is dominant, the art of Romanticism presents a world view in which nature is dominant, the art of modern man cannot present a world view at all...
(The following article was published in Arts Atlantic magazine in 1984.)
Scene: the basement of artist Eric Cameron's south end Halifax home. A low, paint-spattered gangway of plinths sits covered in plastic sheeting. Many, perhaps thirty variously shaped objects lie on the plinths. One object resembles a small, white asteroid, another work looks like a fish, a flatfish. They are dimly lit. Upstairs are three more white objects on a dining room table. What are they?
Cameron's house has the tasteful interior of a place you might own if you had a good job. It contains pleasantly arranged antiques and art objects. Front windows overlook a wooded area. Occasionally, the suburban quiet is punctuated by the scree sound of a tea kettle.
Cameron has a good job as head of the graduate department at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Among his writings, perhaps the best known is his 1974 piece about Lawrence Weiner, [Footnote 1] the conceptual artist. Cameron has also written about artists Mac Adams, [Footnote 2] Gerald Ferguson [Footnote 3] and Garry Neill Kennedy, [Footnote 4] to name a few. Regarding his plastic work, Cameron has described himself as " a very old fashioned artist, a painter at heart .'' [Footnote 5] Cameron works around a disciplined routine of painting, writing, academic and family duties.
He has not always made painting/objects (or objects made of paint): these unusual works date from 1979 onwards, when he began painting layer upon layer of gesso over household items These same objects, with few additions, make up an evolving body of work, as gesso layers are added every day. Despite interests in installation, video and sculptural work, Cameron's shows have usually included some painted or graphic material. At one time he made checkerboard paintings with masking tape as a blocking material, going over canvas surfaces in anticipation of human error, in the application of regular lines of paint which crisscrossed each other Other work involved painted newspapers. Some installations incorporated pots of grass (The reference here was to St. Paul's "flesh is grass" dictum and Cameron's erstwhile efforts at growing lawns in real life.)
Some of Cameron's published writings contain hints and explications of his own art-making. Significant are his Italo Scanga piece, [Footnote 6] his Lawrence Weiner article and an as yet unpublished work called To justify the inevitability of its particular forms. The article on Italo Scanga betrays Cameron's lingering interest in religion with talk about Scanga's use of kitsch religious imagery. The Lawrence Weiner piece is a virtual synopsis of the avant-garde milieu in which Cameron matured. Finally, his most recent written work, To justify ..., fully articulates the ideas behind his own "thick paintings".
Cameron brings what might variously be called an old-world or English education to his work. Whether he is lecturing on art history or talking casually about his own art, references tend to broaden the listener's temporal perspective. Cameron might introduce Clement Greenberg, Greek tragedy and Giotto almost simultaneously: names that move one out of the collapsed time of art magazines and into the mythical and geological time typical of art history surveys. These surveys (i.e. Janson's History of Art) tend to press artifacts together the way dirt squeezes the pottery of one age against the bronze of the next. Two countervailing ideas come into play at the archaeological site and the art history survey: history is continuous and includes us, history is d discontinuous and inaccessible. Cameron consistently argues for an art of continuity based on references to art history and criticism within a Modernist discourse.
Cameron's ideas about the function and purpose of art uphold a high-art/low-art distinction or rather, a high art/every other kind of art distinction. From this art-as-art point of view, largely founded on the writings and work of Ad Reinhardt and the criticism of Clement Greenberg, Cameron outlines the teleological position of his art:
The visual logic of the process is of crucial significance. This is where any claim of my art to justify the inevitability of its particular forms must primarily rest that the forms reveal the dynamics of the process that has generated them and, moreover. that the logic of that process is seen to be rooted in the physical properties of the materials, and in the nature of their reaction to being handled in a particular way... hopefully (the work) may register as more than a diagrammatic illustration of a procedural concept but may come to epitomize a mode of being in the world.[Footnote 7]
The "inevitability of forms" idea derives from Clement Greenberg, [Footnote 8] who would see, if we may use the example, the ascendance of abstract painting as inevitably proceeding from the encroachment of photography on painting's preserve; abstract painting becomes situated in a sphere of competence.
Cameron's hope in the power of art as the epitome of anything is not ubiquitous. Ideas about epitomes in art, of universal aesthetic values, the Kantian ideas, have fallen on hard times recently. What Kant envisaged as universal aesthetic assent seems to have little application now. As many latter-day critics suggest (i.e. Adrian Piper), what was once universal is now seated only in the minds of white, male, Western intellectuals, in the form of beliefs about Modernism.
But why isn't this limited "ethnic" point of view treated as such instead of being elevated by adherents and naysayers into a fictional monolith? If Modernism is as ethnic in its orientation as, for example, expatriate Iranian art, what could inspire the invocations against it which permeate our art magazines? It seems clear. What must remain irretrievable by Modernism after its demotion will be its presumption of universality in the guise of a beleaguered avant-garde, an avant-garde predicated on empiricist, scientistic or hegemonic grounds. Nevertheless, and this is of course a contradiction, these are the only grounds Western males seem to have. I do not know how self-consciously Cameron is working through this contradiction, or whether he is working it through at all.
References to archaeology seem inescapable in the presence of Cameron's work. In his painted objects hundreds of layers of white gesso alternate with gray gesso on things like vegetables and lamps. Their density is surprising. Picking up Cameron's Lettuce is like lifting a small piece of concrete. Under thousands of paint layers a disintegrated lettuce has left a hollow like the empty casts of Pompeiians. Sometimes the object/subject of Cameron's layering process leaves no vestige of its original form.
Cameron records each successive layer of paint as a mark on a yellow legal pad, as if he were counting off the days of a jail sentence. His doggedness seemed to connect with the pessimism of an artist like Giacometti, but of all the suggestions I made to him about his work, this one was flatly denied. For Cameron, the work is about procedural correctness, an idea about limits and the rules by which limits are tested.
The American Frank Stella is an example of an artist whose early process work followed a logic similar to Cameron's. In Stella's old work, the limit of the canvas edge became the inward-turning rationale through which a painting was constructed, the constructive rules presupposing the 'frontier" of the edge in every brush stroke. In Stella's painting the conquered frame was succeeded by new framing edges in new paintings. Cameron, however, is able to count his successive framing edges in each layer of paint until the process arbitrarily stops when the readymade painting/sculpture is sold.
Cameron has many works in progress: a beer bottle (1,757 half-coats of paint as of November 1983), a cup, saucer and spoon (1,472 half-coats), an egg, a shoe, a newspaper, a chair. Every day, new paint layers are applied with one or another of three brush sizes.
Some works involved technical difficulties. While a mackerel (which he has named in Greek) was being painted it began to ooze out of Its encasement; finally, after diligent effort. it became smothered in paint. Its growth continues. The chair is painted in tedious stages first one half then, after tilting, the other half
Some works take on unexpected forms. His pair of shoes in paint (so far 1,273 half-coats) looks from the top like a baboon head. His painted alarm clock resembles the kind of swinging half moon blade associated with dungeons. Like much abstract and process work, Cameron's pieces avail themselves of many readings from which the artist remains aloof.
Cameron's work has affinities with the art of several people associated at one time or another with the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Most of these artists had given up layered paint techniques before 1979, when Cameron began to paint his objects. In Garry Neill Kennedy's earlier work, hundreds of layers of paint were applied to a stretched canvas. Each layer was brought up just short of the edge of a previous layer leaving a thin line of underpainting visible Kennedy's last piece in which layered paint was an issue involved work with gallery walls. A chip from a wall at Eye Level Gallery was photographed end-on and enlarged so that layers of paint and wallpaper could be identified The chip was used as a guide, a colour guide, which Kennedy used to repaint the interior of the gallery Kennedy moved out of this work by stages into an autobiographical work which parodies his own position as president of an art college.
Bruce Campbell made several paint molds as an undergraduate at NSCAD. They were small wooden boxes which he filled with layer upon layer of paint. (It is unlikely that Cameron was aware of this late 70s work.) After applying several hundred layers, Campbell broke the boxes to reveal striped cubes of solid colour. In one sense Campbell's cubes can be seen to outstrip Cameron at his own game -they are pure paint; but whereas Campbell threw away his framing edge (the wooden mold) after the work was complete, Cameron's framing edge is the paint itself. Since the paint mold project, Campbell has moved on to many kinds of work, from media installations tofigurative painting to street theatre.
Jeff Spalding, at one time Cameron's student, remains a formative influence of the thick paintings. According to Cameron's description of his early work, Spalding painted layer upon layer of thin glaze on canvas, alternating complementary colours in the creation of a dense black painting no thicker than the weave of the canvas. The result was an exquisite black monochrome. In his recent work, Spalding continues a dialogue with surfaces in checkerboard paintings which, tongue-in-cheek, resemble tablecloths.
One of Cameron's articles describes a series of teaching pro objects which he conducted in the early 70s. Rejecting his advice to paint a piece of fruit like the markings that were on it, a student painted a red apple white. In a photograph of the result, published in Leonardoin 1972 [Footnote 9] the white apple reads defiantly as a portent of Cameron's own enigmatic direction.
1. Eric Cameron, Lawrence Weiner: the books," Studio International vol. 187, No. 962 (Jan. l974), pp. 28
2. Eric Cameron, "Mac Adams," Artforum (Oct. 1976, pp. 46-48.
3. Eric Cameron, "System and Sensibility the Art of Gerald Ferguson," Studio No. 189 (March 1975), pp. 124-8.
4. Eric Cameron ''Garry Kennedy: Painting Painting Itself, '' Artforum (May 1977) pp. 50-51.
5. Eric Cameron, "Two Audio-Visual Constructs," Vancouver Art Gallery (Jan 19, 1978).
6. Eric Cameron, "Italo Scanga: Torn Loyalties," Artforum (Jan 1977), pp. 51 53.
7. Eric Cameron, "To Justify the Inevitability of Its Particular Forms"unpublished manuscript (1983) p. 20.
8. Clement Greenberg, "Avant Garde and Kitsch," Partisan Review 6, (Fall 1939) pp. 34-49.
9. Eric Cameron, "Collective Art: Some Teaching Projects at the University of Guelph, Canada," Leonardo, Vol. 5, Pergamon Press (1972), pp. 289-295.
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