The angel that Melanie Authier wrestles with when she goes into her Ottawa studio has sublime wings. She has been carrying on that tussle for years and it has produced an increasing number of riveting, sensuous and intelligent paintings. Authier is a very smart painter who locates herself in the centre of a compositional problem out of which she is obliged to paint. “I’m always working towards creating complications and spatial conundrums. I think of the paintings as being a proposition, an invitation to the viewer to navigate and meander within these imaginary spaces.”

Basin, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 84 inches. All images courtesy Georgia Scherman Projects, Toronto.

Because her paintings are inventions and not renderings of an existing landscape, she has been reluctant to accept her work having been labelled sublime in the classic Romantic sense. The application that interests her has more to do with beauty than terror and in this regard she is less in thrall to Edmund Burke than to the first century AD exaltations of Longinus (with touches of Dave Hickey and some of the stickiness of Bill Beckley added on). “The sublime was always held in higher regard than beauty and for me that was frustrating because I was trying to strike a chord where they could coexist. I was especially interested in the contrast between the two and in investigating the precariousness of beauty. The other aspect of the sublime that attracted me was the idea of chaos and disorientation because it spoke to my preoccupation with deep space, and the idea of infinite space. I was obsessed with trying to maximize the amount of space I could get in any given work.”

Face Eater, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 84 inches.

It is an obsession that has not diminished. Paintings like Basin and If Black is White, White is Black are gorgeous conundrums. Basin combines the atmospheric transparency of Chinese scroll painting with the ballast of a dense meteorite; on the right-hand side it cascades up into space in a white rush and on the left seems to be undergoing an absolute dissolve. If Black is White, White is Black embodies the intersecting slipstreams of its naming; shadows and radiant white spaces commingle to form a painting with a tumultuous structure and rhythm. The dance here is between geometric zones and gestural areas that can become quite complex. “I play with the characteristics that one would associate with the sublime,” she says, “but my interest is in recalibrating them with all the other elements of my visual language.”

There is another famous wrestling match in history that Melanie Authier may be closer to than an angelic encounter, although it gets her into the same space. As long as Antaeus touched the earth, he was invincible, but smart Hercules held him in the air and did away with him. Authier won’t let her paintings touch the earth either; they are remarkable inventions and she holds them fast in her airy reaches. ❚