Layers of Paint & Meaning

Dipped poppies suspended from the ceiling
Art piece strikes a sharp contrast

Looking at Eric Cameron’s sculptural paintings (or painterly sculptures depending on your perspective), one might be lulled into offering the criticism commonly lodged against seemingly “simplistic” art: “My child could do that.”

That could be true if your kid had more than half a century of experience as a practicing artist, participated in nearly 200 group and solo exhibitions, won numerous awards including the 1994 Gershon Iskowitz Prize and the 2004 Governor General’s Award, and been a revered academic and professor in the process. Oh, it’s also worth mentioning that the fruit of your loins would need to be scary smart, and possess a degree of introspection that at times borders on being all-consuming.

Cameron’s new work, which appears at the TrepanierBaer gallery alongside pieces by the renowned artists Christian Eckart and Stephane La Rue in the exhibition The Durable Idiom, serves as a departure from his long-standing Thick Paintings series.

Conceived more than three decades ago, the Thick Paintings are everyday objects coated in layers of gesso. It was while these creations were being shown overseas in France that Cameron decided it was time to move on.

“Oddly enough, the date of the Paris exhibition was as near as I could gauge, pretty well exactly 30 years after I’d started. And even for someone as obsessive as me, I decided 30 years was maybe enough.”

Although in some sense similar to the Thick Paintings – the current pieces are still commonplace objects (in this case 100 plastic Remembrance Day poppies) covered in layers of paint – the process is different. Instead of applying gesso by hand, each poppy is suspended on a long string of fishing line and dipped into paint. No effort is made to control the movement of the paint on the poppy, and the results are more erratic and unpredictable than those seen with the Thick Paintings.

When completed, the work resembles a series of brightly coloured and ill-formed tops or stalactites (those mineral formations that hang from cave ceilings). Recounting his initial experience with the dipping process, Cameron says, “And suddenly I found all sorts of strange effects happening there, and I think this was the point where I recognized this as being something that fitted on a very serious level in my art.”

These random outcomes are both a source of joy and frustration for the artist. “One of the things that’s irritating in this process is when I suddenly find that I’m dipping a piece and it’s producing something that looks very exciting and very promising, and I get all excited about it and the next time I dip it the paint has obliterated everything.”

Cameron can’t say why he picked poppies, but once they were selected, the title for the work, Thanatos, emerged. Thanatos refers to the classical Greek personification of death and is the label applied to Freud’s concept of a death wish (oh and another thing, your little bundle of joy must be able to include weighty concepts into casual conversation in a way that is easily understood and never supercilious).

The usage of Thanatos partially stems from an event 12 years ago when Cameron found himself “sinking into a warm blanket of darkness,” thinking, “I might be dying.” Either suffering from a mild stroke, or afflicted with an inner ear infection (diagnoses differ depending on which of his doctors he talks to), Cameron was unable to work for three months.

And while he is aware that his response was irrational, the experience of believing he might be dying while “feeling it was an agreeable experience” lifted any fear of his own mortality.

Thoughts of death are in sharp contrast to the bright, colourful forms that hang suspended from Trepanier Baer’s ceiling, a fact noticed by Yves Trepanier. “The overall theme, I think, for Eric might be a contemplation of the end of life, and yet the colours and the grouping (of the dipped pieces) together like this suggest actually life itself … it’s charming and enchanting.” Even the names of some of the paints that the poppies are dipped in offer sharp relief to the transience of life: Moroccan Gold, Sweet Sorbet, Enchanted Jade, Pizzazz Yellow.

Although mentioned tongue-in-cheek, the names only serve to add another dimension of complexity to an already complex body of work. So if your child can do this, create a series of pieces that are intricate in both form and underlying concept, then congratulations, you are in possession of a full-blown prodigy. Either that, or the little darling is a 75-year-old English painter named Eric Cameron.

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