Whitehot Magazine

Geneviève Cadieux at 1700 La Poste


 Geneviève Cadieux, Arbre A Laube, 2018, photo by Guy L. Heureux

Geneviève Cadieux
1700 La Poste
Through December 2020

By JAMES D. CAMPBELL September, 2020

Coelorum perrupit claustra.”

-- William Herschel's epitaph [1]

“In the scale of evolution the tree is intermediary between inanimate matter (the earth) and the conscious mind.”  

-- Tom Chetwynd, A Dictionary of Symbols [2]

This luminous selection of works by Geneviève Cadieux, with an emphasis on recent construction, speaks to the thematic specificity of her corpus, its psychological and emotional fundament and its daunting epistemological depth. One such work is Firmament (2020), a glorious invocation of the starry night sky and one of the showstoppers, which was only completed this past March and is seen here for the first time.

Geneviève Cadieux, Firmament, 2020, photo by Guy L. Heureux

Cadieux has always dilated eloquently on the human body as a core subject matter -- understood here as constituting landscape, as in the tree images -- and she goes toe to toe with large-scale painting with brio. Like her compatriot Jeff Wall (whose cinematographic narrative tableaux are, however, very different in tone and intent), Cadieux’s photographic works have size and gravitas and are   more akin to still lifes than history painting. A work such as the aforementioned Firmament (2020) squares off with painting with unrestrained vigour and moxy. In the opinion of this critic, it wins the contest easily -- and decisively.

Apparently, as a student before embarking on her photographic work, Cadieux practiced painting for a short time, methodically exploring its possibilities. Presumably it was her access and subsequent fidelity to the wealth of minute somatic details opened up by the photographic image that led her to pursue photography as her defining medium, and often on a cinematographic scale. It is interesting to reflect on the fact that the artist’s father owned a cinema when she was young, and that she was a ardent devotee of the cinema from that time onwards. It shows in her work. 

Cadieux’s evolution as an artist suggests a constant state of learning and organic growth. She certainly does not see her work as being purely or exclusively photographic. The engagement with painting enlarges its sphere of meaning and her use of a monumental scale invokes sculpture. She has recourse to installation when she wishes a different expression for what is in mind to say. Her work has real ontological wherewithal and compelling theatrical overtones, and a deeply felt and authentic emotional core.  

The inclusion of a few salient works from the 1990s reminds us that her concern with alterity and transcendence and a new language for the expression of pain is a longstanding one and in fact reaches right back to the very inception of her project.  

The remarkable portrait of the artist’s mother, Portrait de famille Mère (1991), from the tripartite series featuring the faces of her sisters and her parents and one of her acknowledged masterworks -- is resonant with what I have called elsewhere “the intimate politics of the family” and psychological states attendant to aging and transformation, human finitude and temporal attrition. [3]

Geneviève Cadieux, Ma Mère, 1991-2020, photo by Guy L. Heureux

Here, she pivots between three interlocking spheres of interest: the human body, the tree and the vast expanse of the heavenly firmament. One might suggest that the tree as Cadieux depicts/transforms it is a remarkable surrogate for the human body. The bole of the tree and its sinuous branches seems less isolated menhir than embodied touchstone.  

On lonely solo vigils in the desert landscape in the region around Santa Fe, New Mexico (where noted Canadian painter and photographer Charles Gagnon also photographed), she took some of her finest images. Specifically, she was drawn to Ghost Ranch, a 21,000-acre retreat and education complex near the village of Abiquiú in Rio Arriba County in north central New Mexico. It was the home and studio of Georgia O'Keeffe who made it the subject of many of her paintings over long years. O’Keefe’s work has always been inspiring for Cadieux, as has the work of Agnes Martin, who was based in Taos and died in 2004, and it is no surprise that she was ineluctably drawn to the landscape in which both artists worked. 

Her several photographs of the chameleon tree: Alone Tree (by day) (2018), Alone Tree (by night) (2017) and Alone Tree (at dawn) (2018), were taken in New Mexico and relate to earlier works, notably Rubis (1993). She reveals subtle variations according to the time of day when they were taken, whether at first light, in daytime, or at night. The latter, an x-ray vision, adds an ambiguous, unsettling and surreal element to the proceedings with its sense of liminal petrification.

Geneviève Cadieux, Arbre La Nuit, 2017, photo by Guy L. Heureux

Geneviève Cadieux, Arbre Le Jour, 2018, photo by Guy L. Heureux

Cadieux further ‘activates’ some of the works with palladium and gold illumination. She ‘enhanced’ Alone Tree (by night) (2017) by adding suitably accented veins to the trunk and branches of the tree, further anthropomorphizing it. The veining calls to mind the Japanese art of Kintsugi (the use of molten silver and gold to repair broken ceramics). The spidery veining in the tree image also reads more as reparation than aesthetic enhancement. [4] 

Ma mère (1991-2020) faces off with the tree in chiasmic dialogue. It is an eloquent sentinel and dialogical figure poised in the landscape, perhaps a surrogate for the viewer.  

Luna (2016) and Firmament (2020) are two of the artist’s strongest works to this date. The former is pure epiphany, as the viewer’s optic is drawn upwards to the bright spectre of the full moon as it reveals itself above a copse of trees. It is experienced as a celestial symbol of hope and renewal as it shines down upon us.  

Geneviève Cadieux, Luna, 2016, photo by Guy L. Heureux

We should look closely at Firmament (2020), a work breath taking in its audacity and readable either as star map or pure abstraction. In the first case, it effortlessly captures the capacious heavenly firmament and the promise of infinity. In the latter case, its scale and pointillism segue with painting as abstract patterning and ornamentation. In either case, the dots do not easily resolve into any coherent pattern and this keeps the optic of the viewer on an unceasing hunt for order throughout the wide expanse. The dots are a proverbial magnet for the embodied eye: an invitation to the dance. Notably, this work was completed in the gallery itself during installation. It is a massive inkjet print of almost heroic ambition, a black mirror inset with dabs and fragments of gold leaf.

The use of gold leaf further reminds us of the works of Medieval painters who often used gilding in a painting (say, on a halo or crown, helmet or mitre). Here, it has an inverse but relatable effect: the myriad points of light of the gold fragments make the matte black backdrop even blacker and more sumptuous and cements the suggestion that each of these gold inflections is in fact intended to represent a tiny star inset like a gold pin in the vast cloaked expanse of the inky black void.  

Portrait of Geneviève Cadieux by Beatrice Flynn

Firmament is perhaps the closest Cadieux has come to painting again without actually employing paint. Adhering the myriad fragments of gold leaf to the surface as though daubing on luminous integers and shattered points of light, Cadieux opens up a proverbial star field for our inspection, and we stand alongside her in solidarity on the threshold, peering into the depths of the cosmos with a sense of startled wonder. The fragments tremble in the ambient air currents of the hall and suggest the gentle respiration of the Outer Dark.

Mention should be made of the marvellous book that accompanies the show. It does justice to Cadieux’s achievement and is true to the spirit of her work. With copious images and fine analytical texts by curators and scholars Ji-Yoon Han and Vincent Bonin, it is the most important publication on this artist’s work that has appeared to date.

In this exhibition, given its high level of formal invention and unassuming grace, Geneviève Cadieux has metaphorically broken through the confines of earth and heaven. She has proven once again that she is a remarkably sensitive poet and able conjuror of intersecting worlds. WM


1. A memorial plaque in memory of Sir William Herschel, astronomer and musician, was installed in the nave of Westminster Abbey on 8th November 1954 and then renewed in cast iron in 1986. The inscription reads: Coelorum Perrupit Claustra 1738 William Herschel 1822 Alibi Sepultus. The Latin translates as: “He broke through the confines of the heavens.”  

2.  Tom Chetwynd, A Dictionary of Symbols (London, Paladin, 1982), p. 402. 

2. James D. Campbell, “The Politics of the Family: Geneviève Cadieux” in Depth Markers: Selected Art Writings 1985-1994 (Toronto: ECW Press, 1995), pp. 348-350.

3. See Blake Gopnik "'Golden Seams: The Japanese Art of Mending Ceramics' at Freer". (The Washington Post, March 3, 2009).  Kintsugi became closely associated with Chawan ceramic vessels used for the chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony). Collectors became so obsessed with this new art form that some were accused of intentionally breaking valuable pottery so that it could be repaired with the gold seams of kintsugi.


James D. Campbell

James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.

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