No, this has nothing to do with Aleister Crowley and his ilk dabbling in the ridiculous “black arts,” but has, instead, everything to do with real science. “Occultations” are a part of the realm of astronomy and astrophysics, and refer to the passing of one heavenly body in front of another, the former obscuring, blocking, hiding, “occulting” the latter. There’s much science to be had in such events, bucket-loads of learning about the workings of our universe that occurs because of them. Occultations provide, and, interestingly, they can provide within other contexts as well. It’s the aesthetic that concerns me, here.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude might come to mind first when thinking of artists in some way employing occultation as a primary aesthetic factor. To wrap a thing – the bridge that is the Pont Neuf in Paris, for example, or the building that is Reichstag in Berlin – is to clearly engage in occultation, and to perhaps reveal something new about a thing that might be taken for granted, that has, over the course of time, come to be little more than proverbial wallpaper. Occultation of the sort Christo and Jeanne-Claude have pioneered can allow us to see something anew, see past the overly familiar and discern other aspects of a thing. That’s one direction.
There are at least a couple of Holocaust memorials in Germany that employ occultation in some sort of permanent way. Jochan and Esther Gerz’s Monument against Fascism, erected in 1986 in Hamburg, is a twelve-meter high column of aluminum and lead that was, over the course of several years, slowly lowered into the ground until it entirely disappeared and was covered over with stone; and Horst Hoheisel’s “negative-form” monument built smack in the center of City Hall Square in Kassel comprising a large, inverted pyramid that was lowered into the ground until its base was flush with its surroundings. The artefact has been disappeared, essentially. There and experientially knowable at a distance, but physically inaccessible. This is occultation in an extreme form, rendered as the aesthetic equivalent of blotting out the Sun, and thus agonizingly effective as the monuments these pieces are. (Detailed information about both projects can be found in James E. Young’s The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning published by Yale University Press in 1993.)
I bring up all of this because of an exhibition at Oakville Galleries just outside of Toronto (www.oakvillegalleries.com) running through the end of 2016 devoted to the work of the late American artist Judith Scott. Scott, who was deaf and born with Down syndrome, spent a lot of her life institutionalized. Rescued by her twin sister, as an adult she encountered art through the programs offered at the Creative Growth Art Centre in Oakland, California, and began to produce a body of exceptional work encompassing forms of occlusion. She worked in textiles and employed wrapping techniques, using selected colours of yarn, thread and fabric to entwine found objects (and not merely singular things, but often accumulations of things) and thus subvert their utile purposes or visual intentions. The cumulative works (they have no individual titles) often reveal much of their interior, found structure – a plastic disk here, a long medical hose there, all of it held in tension – both physical and aesthetic – by her windings of yarn, thread, and fabric. There are myriad worlds, here, complex and multi-leveled. In Scott’s work, occlusion can be partial and it can be complete, as it is with some pieces in which singular objects are totally entwined and encompassed beyond recognition and assigned significiation, and so achieve both abstraction and a mysterious otherness. Colour is fundamental to this process, yet in one work, done while briefly lacking access to her regular source of found materials, she created a shockingly monochromatic sculpture of torn bits of paper towels, for all the world like some mummified object.
And Scott’s singular venture into monchromatism brings me to the work of a Canadian artist. He’s a painter, actually: Eric Cameron. (Some of his work can be seen on his dealer’s website: www.trepanierbaer.com.) An expatriate Brit, he came to Canada in 1969 and taught for a number of years through the early 1980s at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax before heading off to the University of Calgary, where he still teaches. It was while at NSCAD, in the heady days of conceptualism that gripped the college in the late 1960s and put it on the international map, that he began his ongoing series of Thick Paintings in which he would painstakingly apply a layer of acrylic gesso or paint to an object each and every day for years at a time, allowing the accumulations of layers –the process – to utterly transform the host object into something – well, something with a quality of absolutely “otherness.”
Some works, like Edwin’s Egg (comprising 5,212 total applications of gesso and acrylic, which Cameron carefully tallied), Lettuce (10,052) or Mathilda’s Chestnut (5,397) carry through the generally roundish shape of the host object, but Cameron’s is the occlusion of abstraction. In a work like Chloe’s Raw Sugar , several thousand layers of gesso and paint have accreted to form a sculptural abstraction, something perhaps vaguely resembling a geological model but which, in any event, has no stringent visual references hobbling it to its origins. Transcendence achieved.
Many of Cameron’s thick paintings date back to the late 1970s, but the installation work Thanatos is from 2011. He took 100 Remembrance Day poppies such as might be pinned on the lapels of one’s coat, and coated them with accreting layers of latex paint. Gravity has its decided way with these pieces; they tend to have long, stalactite-like elements hanging down from the heavily paint-encrusted poppies suspended on monofilament from a gallery ceiling. Some are seemingly more heavily coated than others, and the whole of the work comprises sculpturally obese shapes hanging in rows. And abstraction is paramount; the central poppy of each work is long-since entombed, its shape obliterated, its referent denied and disabled.
There and known, perhaps, but unseeable, ever occulted. A blood-red flower – or its simulacrum – at the heart of art.
By Gil McElroy