caitlin reid: beautiful phobia

Soapbox Gallery, Brisbane
5 - 27 July 2002

Fire has a certain magnetism, something within the flickering to which people, for some unbeknown reason, are compulsively drawn. We are fascinated by its latent creative, as well as its destructive, powers-the flame a constant reminder that Prometheus' heavenly steal, although harnessed, is always beyond complete control. Equally evocative is the trace of smoke that soars and then dissipates.

Looking into a smoke-filled canvas by Caitlin Reid is like looking for shape in a clouded sky or a meaningful form in the shadows and cracks of a wall. The eyes and mind wander seeking definition, resolution and closure. Or like Narcissus, they gaze into the translucent surface of the murky depths, seeking the self.

In the exhibition, Beautiful Phobia, Reid continues to explore fire as an aesthetic medium. The viewer, through a process of transference, shares in her beautiful, but nonetheless obsessive, phobia. The smoke canvases extend upon Reid's former installation practice; from building miniature match-work constructions it took only a small conceptual step to start playing with fire. Initially burning matches, then turning to candles, Reid has been able to create an idiosyncratic style.

In this exhibition the artist moves from the controlled, smoked-in silhouette of a female figure to more random, uninhibited excursions on the picture plane. The transparent feminine form is a residue of Reid's work of the early nineties. It continues to inhabit her visual lexicon-an authorial recognition of the past in an ever-evolving practice. Created with the use of a template, the image, though, seems a little contrived. It is in the more abstract interplay of the other works that the 'beauty' of Reid's phobia is truly manifested.

These works reference the automatic paintings of surrealism, particularly the fumage drawings of Wolfgang Paalen. The abstract expressionist Yves Klein also revisited the technique of singeing paper in his exploration of action painting during the sixties. More recently, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang has turned the art of working with soot into 'happenings' in his performances with gunpowder, paper and fire. Reid, however, has a more lyrical approach to the medium. Her eloquent, ephemeral images are built up through a repetitive process of layering. The performance is not public but rather a private dance between the artist and the canvas.

In the large non-representational canvases Reid vacillates between figuration and abstraction. Our line of sight shifts from a canvas with an amorphous head-like shape where the striations of soot echo the natural course of smoke or the loose tendrils of hair to a softer, oval image, which gravitates against the white support. Next we plunge into an open vortex that gives little relief for the eye, before encountering a tighter, mirror image of the first fluid form. The automatic action of the surface soot invites further free associations. We become captivated by the cadences of the candle and the delicate, free-flowing paths the artist has traced within each image.

The abstract expressionistic nature of the works is, however, deceptive. Upon closer inspection, the viewer realises that the seemingly spontaneous and random gestures are an allusion. Each image reveals Reid's understanding of the proprieties of her volatile medium-its potential as well as its limitations. Patterns appear through the hazy clouds. It is this tension between form and formlessness that captivates and intrigues. Reid repeatedly traverses the precipice between controlled reason and the nebulous drift of the unconscious mind.

The tension is more evident in the artist's smaller canvases, where she openly negotiates the nexus between the two. In these works Reid merges abstract expressionism and geometric abstraction, capturing the scorched shadows within the symmetry of the grid. The organic contours of the billowing smoke give way to more formal, human constructs in the artist's call to order. In these canvases she moves from square to rectangle to square again, modulating the size and shape. The gridded pattern references the effect of framing in the aesthetic process. Reid resumes her formal analysis with abstract compositions based on he circle and square. The vertiginous spiral of the vortex makes a reappearance, although here again confined within the former shapes,

There is something meditative about Reid’s smoke canvases. It is easy to interpret them as nothing more than formalist exercise or the quiet self-confessions of a pyromaniacal mind. But the artist never attempts to destroy or bum through the picture plane. This is not a disavowal but a rather an acceptance and reinterpretation of the art object and the aesthetic process – a new slant on the practice of drawing in charcoal. In the exhibition Beautiful Phobia we see the artist’s engagement with the universal search for form and meaning.