Essay: Gary Michael Dault

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Doris McCarthy

Lunar Caustic, 72 x 96", oil, wax and pigment on canvas on board, 2011


It's odd about titles, how privately they are generated and how public they can become. *Lunar Caustic,* for example, is the title of Nicole Collins' enormous, brilliantly torrential, flagship painting (or so I think of it) of her latest exhibition, The Reconstruction, a work so simultaneously miasmic and oceanic (toxic and healing, accusative and redemptive) that it is troubling and exalting in equal measure.

The term Lunar Caustic is probably best known as an antique medical name for Silver Nitrate—which, when formed into sticks, was traditionally used to cauterize wounds. As such, it must have seemed entirely appropriate to novelist Malcolm Lowry as the title of the short novel—which was to have been only a segment of his unfinished epic, The Voyage That Never Ends—about his "deliberate pilgrimage" to New York's Bellevue Hospital in 1934. The novel is peopled by characters Lowry conceived of as "caryatids of human anguish," holding up the world from below.

How much of Nicolle Collins lies in all this? Collins tells me she has not (yet) read Lunar Caustic, but it is not too wide of the mark to see her work, to see her procedures in the pursuit of painting, as chemical and perhaps even alchemical in nature.

I think of her bubbling pot of melted wax—a witchy image familiar to all users of encaustic (hot wax with pigment added)—as a powerful emblem of her fervent belief that painting is eruptive, convulsive, transformative. The encaustic idea, in use since the portraits of the Fayum Mummy in Egypt from around 200 A.D., amplifies and underscores Collins' explorations of an art that can be about reclamation, about the resubstantiation of a few evanescent human truths, about the reification of certain programmatic ideas that appear to lie within the ornate, hectic realms of romanticism (distressed colour, disruptions of surface, a neo-gothic heroism born of the Big Gesture, the participatory allure of facture) but which lie, in actuality, in the rather more mundane process of getting on with your life.

I like Collins' terseness. I wrote in my notebook her description of her preparations for painting: "melt wax, add colourant." Colourant? What sang-froid for the maker of such pictorial upheaval! Collins is also the only artist I know who can apply certain outré, mordantly amusing ideas to a serious discussion of painting practice: for example she will speak merrily (and no doubt ironically) of painting, for example—painting which, as a genre, as a discipline, is eternally dying—as "the vampire of the artworld, the undead, the unclean, that which will not die."

But there is, in these recent paintings, a tumult of loss, vanishing, a certain tendency on her part to look back, to make do, to gather together resources, to carry on, to move forward against the undertow of memory and pain. I know (because she told me) what modalities of anguish lie behind and quicken her magnificent large-scale paintings, Lunar Caustic (which gleams coldly like the belly of a fish) and Thermonous (which is a portal to Stygian darkness), an anguish she does not wish to talk about in public or at large. The point to stress is that these two mighty paintings are not about sadness but, rather, about strength. "I was thinking about the resilience of painting," she says to me, during a recent studio visit. I see now that I mistakenly wrote in my notes, "I was thinking about the pestilence of painting." That works too.

Collins talks a good deal about picking up pieces and about taking paintings apart ("with the intention of putting them back together again"). Her process of reassemblage and consequent revaluation involves being what she terms "a sustainist," using the things you have (wax, oils, aluminum leaf, silver foil, etc,) to brutalize the present with the delicacies of the past.

I was thinking about her titles—Transducer, Trace, Testament, Spirits Flown, Incarnate, Incantation, Gravity, and (most curious of all) Revelator. That which reveals? And I was thinking, despite the massive, eroded, tectonic, rough and slaggy feel of her paintings, what a realist she is. Her paintings are not primarily about The Materials at all. Rather, they are about a peculiar, rather fearful kind of reconstruction that tears the earth apart in the search for being.


Gary Michael Dault
Napanee, Ontario
October 25, 2011


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