An essay for the exhibition Wide-Eyed Garden by Adam Justice

It takes but a single glimpse for us to realize that Leila Cartier's provocative large-scale, lavishly colored and wildly brushed images foster an air of intrigue that is virtually impossible for us to escape. As alluring as they are masterfully rendered, these paintings bolster a dichotomous sense of otherworldliness and familiarity that tug at our optic nerves then feed on our human consciousness.

Her paintings exhibit inheritances from earlier artistic movements, especially the Fauves of early twentieth-century French modernism, and are poised upon an abundance of philosophical studies on the sublime and contemporary art theory, most notably in regards to color. As a painter, she absorbs her inspiration from a number of likely sources, not excluding art history, but perhaps the two most credited inspirations are literature and science. It seems more a combination of these two discourses which marks the profound causality of Cartier's chosen subjects; not merely science-fiction but literary writings directly derived from the plausibility and establishment of serious scientific endeavor.

The exhibition you see here is comprised of a selection of paintings from series spanning the four most recent years of work by Leila Cartier. Each annual body of work can be related to previous years, but are independent in how they represent the progression of Cartier as a seasoned young painter and an academic.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armour-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed-quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

With these lines, Franz Kafka opened his 1915 novella Metamorphosis by immediately undermining customary introductions and initiating the fateful downward-spiral of the protagonist. The ensuing sequence of predictable events gradually confirms the conclusiveness of Gregor Samsa's premature death. As the story unfolds, Gregor remains confined to his bedroom by his apprehensive family who is disgusted by his horrifying arthropod appearance. Initially, his sister Grete feels pity for Gregor and lovingly cares for him. Her compassion, however, eventually wanes as she begins to judge Gregor based only on his vermin appearance. Grete quickly regards him as a burden and begins to remotely care for him, opening his door only long enough to slip him food and water. This distant affection is only temporary, however, and Gregor is soon abandoned and isolated. As his hopes for escape diminish, Gregor realizes he is inversely growing smaller and is constantly pained by starvation. Additionally, after having been pelted with apples by his fearful father, Gregor suffers from an infection ironically occurring from one of these apples being lodged in his back. The story concludes with a description of a dichotomy between Gregor's lonely death and his sister's blossoming into a beautiful young woman. In his usual style, Kafka crosses literary boundaries by creating a set of unusual and highly unrealistic circumstances which are stripped of historical or practical preconditions and set inside a realistic and mundanely recognizable, yet anonymous, time and place. He then injects an element of relativity into the reader to cause sensations of awkwardness and terror. Metamorphosis is Kafka's surreal account of abandonment and its associated fear that we as a part of the human species can acknowledge and prefer to avoid, yet are prone to experience. Kafka's choice to transform Gregor Samsa into a seemingly vulnerable organism, an insect, rather than a larger and more perseverant creature was certainly intentional. By transforming Gregor into an insect, Kafka encourages us to reevaluate ourselves in relation to not only our fellow man, but more importantly in relation to our position within the greater scheme of nature as an evolutionary process. In doing so, Kafka implants in our unconscious an element of the sublime.

The insect is quite the deceptive paradox because whereas it is physically small and seemingly inconsequential, its impact on natural progress and its tenacity to survive should never be overlooked. After hundreds of thousands of years, we as humans have evolved to find a bit of comfort in our own skin (so to speak) and confidence in the apparent invincibility of our species. As a result, we have abandoned the need for an adrenaline function which may incite a defensive reaction against becoming endangered by a smaller organism that we mistakenly perceive as being evolutionarily less advanced. Yet, in this world inevitably dominated by the unpredictable progress of nature, what if roles were indeed reversed? What if a percentage of the human population woke up one morning to discover they had transformed into insects overnight? How would we react to ourselves and toward one another? Although highly improbable, this Kafkian scenario would certainly result in destroying a portion of our species and possibly endangering those remaining, if not immediately then eventually by means of natural selection.

There is something beautiful in the deceiving qualities of natural selection and adaptation. When Charles Darwin introduced his theory of evolution in 1859, natural selection was one of the most essential processes cited to ensure the prolonging of a particular species. The premise for natural selection is contingent on the favorability of an organism's phenotype, or physical characteristics. The idea is that a favorable phenotype will eventually and ultimately alter a species' genotype, or genetic make-up. The change in an organism's genetic base is a fundamental principle of evolution, thus making natural selection an important, and arguably inevitable, occurrence.

Leila Cartier's most recent series of paintings can be described as a collective dystopia secured within a cocoon of scientific intrigue. Her pursuits in depicting such an environment are indirectly tied to her interests in Kafka's homological tropes and literary exploration of the weak human condition and toward theories of evolution that emphasize how the progress of nature has yet to be harnessed by man. These ideas are present in paintings such as Belle of the Ball (2008) and Tell Us Everything (2008) through the macabre creatures Cartier creates by fusing together human and arthropod forms. These insectoids can be quite intimidating, even appearing regal at times, and always acutely imposing. If their gnarly alien beauty does not kindle a sense of unusual dread in our unconscious, their distinctive auras of overbearing confidence and intelligence certainly succeed. They are the perfect visual paradox because they are us (partially through physical likeness and certainly through personality) and yet they are not us (appearing more insect than human). Cartier presents a formula by which we begin to question our human dominance over other forms of nature that we often times consider as being less significant. In the case of this series of paintings, the insect world quickly ascends the proverbial ladder to challenge our self-assurance as the tyrants of the known natural world. And yet, Cartier brilliantly counteracts the surreal content of her work with the vibrancy of her paint palette. Vivid shades of reds, blues, and greens span the majority of her canvases, usually backed by a more neutral shade of black or grey. She uses brushstrokes and color contrasts to her advantage, allowing lush swipes of shade and tone to contour her painted figures, and then using the stark background as the base from which voluptuous forms erupt.

Other works in this series, including Wink Wink (Orchid Mantis and Fly) (2008) and Wolf Spider (2008), are treated differently but stimulate the same effect. The most prominent forms in these paintings are not hybrid creatures, but larger-than-life insects behaving as insects do, sometimes observant and at other times carnivorous. Taking more of a resemblance to stills from nature documentaries, these paintings lack that human element found in their serial counterparts. Technically, they are similar: large-scale, vibrant colors over neutral backdrops with contouring brushstrokes. These paintings, however, seem a bit quieter and set in 'real-time' which is meant to cause an oscillation between what is real and unreal since some of the insects are so incredible they seem imaginary. The reference to evolution is apparent here, but the presence of an allusion to Kafka is a bit veiled. In these paintings, the transformation is complete and the small insects have finally become the gargantuan survival machines.

There is no question that appearance is a prime interest for Cartier in this most recent body of work. Pictorially, she erects a facade of vibrant colors, enhanced by the physical sizes of the paintings. Once these color barriers are breached, however, the viewer begins to digest the unusual content of the works. In this way, Cartier makes us question the sheer appearance of the painting in relation to its subject-matter, using bright colors to deceive us into thinking that perhaps these paintings depict more blissful subjects. In fact, we discover that the subject-matter is often quite the contrary, evoking more of a sense of unfamiliarity. Additionally, and what has already been touched on, Cartier is questioning our appearances as evolved human beings in relation to holistic nature.

Cartier exhibits an insatiable appetite for extravagant, fluid forms. This is certainly evident in earlier paintings where she seemed more engrossed with the overall abstract design than representationalism. Facets of sharp color or plumes of soft brushstrokes quickly overcome what few figural forms she included in most of her 2007 works. In this way Cartier obliterates the customary boundaries between foreground, middle ground, and background, which results in effectively causing a breakdown of comfortable space between the painted plane and the viewer. We are not only expected to enter the painting, we are essentially forced into doing so.

Exceptions to this are the unusually modest sized paintings of subjects that can be described as contemporary revisions of ancient near eastern legends: birds with human faces. Perhaps predicting and inspiring their later insectoid cousins of 2008, these are more than surreal composite portraits. Although their appearance may give the impression that these creatures are the antagonists to the insects, Cartier intends for them to play a similar role as instigators of discomfort. Their faces are not meant to be as specific as recognizable personalities, but rather as an unnatural element that can be perceived as being universally human. In this way, they are meant to be perceived as facetious 'mocking birds' which gaze back at us and question our ideals. These faces are brazen and wear the inflicting expressions of over-exaggerated human emotion. The rawness and transparency of their emotions cause us to ironically recoil and escape just how compellingly yet artificially human they appear. Their forcefulness to share their embellished emotions is enough to make us want to avoid an interaction with them.

Cartier's shift in palette may also contribute to our reactions to the earlier bird compositions and the later insect portraits. Formal elements like color and overall size of painted works have always been keys in invoking a sense of the sublime in the viewer. This idea can be cited in the mid-eighteenth century when British philosopher Edmund Burke wrote his now famous A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of the Sublime and the Beautiful. According to Burke, the sublime can exist beyond the metaphysical realm of ideas to influence the art viewer by means of aesthetics. In other words, an artist has the power to direct an audience into a sublime notion through formal elements such as line and color, the heightened physical dimensions of an artwork, or through an immensely emotionally charged subject. Cartier is certainly employing Burkian thought, and has learned to harness the ability to use it quite effectively.

In addition to color, abstract form shares equal precedence in another series of paintings from Cartier's other 2007 body of work. They are collectively called the Silent Sirens. Cartier explains that this title ". . . was chosen because whether the paintings are of women or gaudy abstraction, the images depicted are orally uncommunicative, leaving their strained expressions and loud appearance to call out." This series was an introduction out of abstraction for Cartier, which explains why form and color sustain their original dominance. The works were also instinctively conceived as a series, allowing Cartier to gradually introduce compositional equilibrium between representational imagery and formal abstraction. Although mysterious, the subjects of these paintings need no clarification for us to indulge in them. Whereas Cartier's other works may deserve explanation, these simply are, to be jumped into by means of optic sensuousness. No birds or bugs here, just the finite world of lavish color.

The earliest paintings to be exhibited here are from a series begun in 2004 and explored by Cartier until 2006. These earlier works are visually and technically different than her subsequent compositions. They are truly and exclusively abstract, void of any figural forms and include nature only as a reconfigured point of reference. The very contemporary process by which Cartier produced these paintings included capturing blurred images via kinetic digital photography. The digital information was then translated into painted form, transforming the pixel into brushstroke. By doing so, Cartier presents her most successful attempts at utilizing the fluidity and color of the paint to emphasize the two-dimensionality of the painted surface, thus flattening out and freezing what would normally be experienced as one continuous motion in three-dimensional space.

Leila Cartier does not want her paintings to merely be seen. She wants them to move us, reflect us, and tempt the bounds of our aesthetic sensitivities. We find that we are quickly delighted to oblige and give in to her provocation of the sublime and beauty. It is only human nature to react to forces as powerful as nature, reverie, beauty and fear. Within that, Cartier presents the ability to remind us of our shared humanism.

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