In Laura Findlay’s new exhibition, “Tuff,” mountains rise and fall with volcanic potential. In Chimney a towering plume of red-orange smoke spews out of a blue-black cornice that’s sharply opaque against a background of hazy peaks and swirling clouds, tinted the same peach as the sky. Beside it, Everything After the Lake is a font of lava launching upwards, bright negative white exploding out of a yellow lake. They are images of geology running at its fastest pace, of island-forming, mountain-cracking forces that make tectonic movements visible to human eyes and remake landscapes from rivers of flowing plastic rock. The antithesis of sedimentary accumulation, these erupting landscapes make it possible to witness geologic time by setting the earth in motion under our feet. Findlay’s volcanic paintings, with their fountains of lava and vents of smoke, the caldera of Helen’s Mouth—sharp edges ringing the shadow where the mountain’s top used to be—and the Plinian mushroom cloud of Magic Mountain begin their work on the viewer with a refutation of permanence, an attempt to grapple with unstoppable force.
Mountains loom large in the cultural imagination, and in the West they are especially linked to powerful shifts in aesthetics, from the Italian poet Plutarch, who climbed out of the Middle Ages with an account of taking the view from the top of Mont Ventoux in 1336, to John Ruskin, who found the romantic sublime in The Emotional Truth of Mountains in the 19th century. Volcanoes live a parallel life. They are constantly in a process of becoming, building, imploding into themselves—they are mountains of uncertainty. In an earlier series, Findlay looked to the ruins of Pompeii, to the shadow of Vesuvius, which consumed the Roman town in 79 CE. But here she pictures not the aftermath of the volcano but its ominous possibilities. “A volcano is not a mountain like others,” writes the poet and classics scholar Anne Carson in Autobiography of Red. “Raising a camera to one’s face has effects no one can calculate in advance.”
On the Internet, where Findlay finds the images on which she bases her paintings, volcanos are eminently seeable: a search for the massive font of fire that shot up 540 metres during the 1969 Mauna Ulu eruption in Hawaii yields dozens of results. Just about every volcano on earth has a webcam trained on it; they broadcast images of smoking summits, and the effects of this watching are subtle and cumulative. The data aggregates, even if predictions remain elusive. Drawing on these grainy moments of anticipation and more spectacular images, Findlay begins to craft a tenuous allegory of becoming, one that undermines and undoes the wholeness that those kinds of stories engender in their sweeping movements, heavy with meaning.
The paintings in “Tuff” aren’t based on single images. The mountain range in the background and the one in the foreground of Lascar are scenes from two different places, the painting a composite, a fiction of tectonic shift. Even works that seem, in title or form, to point somewhere more specific—the remarkable, photogenic fountains of Hawaii or the broken tip of Mount St. Helens—are undone by the liberties Findlay takes in the colours she uses to render the skies that surround them (matte violet in Spew) and the fire that comes out of them (acid green in Fountain), in the ways she repeats features from painting to painting, in how she isolates each massive form from any features that would place it concretely somewhere. By building scenes that place, in relation to each other, landscapes separated by continents of space, Findlay starts to create a secondary kind of motion in her work, one that makes the unstable, unpredictable events at the heart of the series even more so, throwing continents and moments together to make new worlds. This layering of scenes is repeated in a layering of pigment that she applies and then removes, using solvents to create ethereal transparencies and rich opacities that mimic the intensities of the land and smoke and fire they represent. Large and small, the paintings loom large and invite intimacy.
There is wonder in these mountains and a catastrophic birth. Restive earth without a human presence, they are a reminder of unsettled being and a retort to the vanity of control of the self, of the environment, of the image. They are the promise of other worlds. In UFO II and Lascar light streaks straight upwards from a caldera and across the canvas and are blips watched for and interpreted, by some at least, as alien spacecraft, UFOs. Pursued by watchers in comments sections and dark corners of the Internet, they are the stuff of speculation and conspiracy, objects that trouble the border between our world and another. Set against the shadowy high horizons and bursts of flame in Findlay’s series of paintings, they reclaim their spontaneous ambiguity. Whether fireflies or lightning bolts, they’re still visitors from another world. They are the promise of renewal, of ominous potential, of uncalculated events. ❚
“Tuff” was exhibited at Arsenal Contemporary, Toronto, from January 26 to March 30, 2019, and at Division Gallery, Montreal, from July 13 to September 7, 2019.
Ruth Jones is a Toronto-based writer, editor and curator, and co-editor in chief of The Site Magazine.