By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, May 2019
“River that must turn full after I stop dying”
-- Louis Zukofsky, “A” (1)
The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.
-- T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (2)
The furious markings of Marc-Antoine Nadeau are those of an artist intent on seizing all that comes under his purview that is deemed worthy and rendering what he sees incandescent and instantly recognizable – and unavoidably human. A gifted abstractionist in a former life, he is an artist in loving fealty to the ground plane of representation and the rule of natural law. He successfully eludes the overtures of taxonomy by dilating on his own lived experience, gleaning what he has learned from abstraction and leavening it with an intuitive rendering of the essence of things seen. This, together with a remarkable technical virtuosity, separates him out. When he is on the water, as he often is, he channels its several voices with authentic clarity and unassuming grace.
Whether engraver, sculptor, painter – whatever hat he is wearing at any given moment -- it is Nadeau’s peerless status as a mythopoeic mark-maker that always holds sway. The casual authority of his hand is such that his marks move like quicksilver across the surfaces of his imagined cartographies, and the delicacy of his handling of chromatic nuance and line is inordinately fine.
His lifelong love affair with the St. Lawrence River comes through everywhere in his work. Nadeau deftly embroiders with each mark, as though with spider’s silk, a mythology of the waterways that reaches far back in time, far back into the living history of this land. His deft application of pigment and graphite has a sense of the seizing of a given moment, securing it from the relentless onslaught of time, lightning-quick, so as to preserve it as though in liquid amber. His work reveals as much about the exigencies of process as it does the tumult of the river. There is something preternatural about the thrust and precision of each mark, chromatic choice and placement, and he effortlessly captures movement as well as the temporal dimension. Each feint and parry of his hand on the support somehow articulates and preserves all that is in mind to say within the ambit of the artist’s sight. The tumultuous fray yields to his touch, but he does not presume he is above it so much as repletely in its grasp, and the river water remains sullen, unsullied, untamed, intractable, beyond human harness or measure.
Inordinately agile, the gestural presence of the artist’s embodied hand rules here as readily and well as in any abstraction, whether circumscribing a vortex, essaying cloud layers or wresting a vision from the deep waters. Nadeau aligns himself with the strong current, and casts his optic like a fishing lure into the torrent to see what it might catch just below the surface.
The sensuous, anfractuous imprimatur of the water, like the epidermis of some vast living creature, an embodied deity of immeasurable proportions, is translated into a resonant, endlessly captivating semiotic array. The men at work above the waterline in ships are depicted in a schematic frenzy of activity.
The quicksilver-like fluidity and tenor of Nadeau’s unique inventory of marks is remarkable. Complemented by a palette that is delectable in its mien, those marks dance in a field of pure light. They are aqueous and atmospheric at once, and always enticing. Like the colours you see when you open your eyes underwater, looking up, they resemble haloes of light instantiated from above, the radiance of a higher order. The chromatic smudges blossom like bioluminescent flowers on the face of the deep.
Pigment here is marker and boundary, container and content. It gives form to the watery expanse as a guarantor of spatial definition as definitively as the drawn line does to the human figure, wrestling with oars, nets and spears. Staccato-like marks are anchored in chromatic sunbursts, which form celestial and terrestrial webs, and are buoyed up rather than weighted down by them.
Full of reverie and reverence for the natural world, his work sparks the same in viewers. If you grew up on or near the water, Nadeau’s poetic apprehension of how we negotiate it as environmental flux and field of dreams is particularly impressive. The intensity of the memories and emotions his work brings on is one that is almost hedonistic and primal, as the mind casts itself back to early experiences and sensations and thoughts long since thought lost.
Nadeau may be a humble river scribe, but his inscriptions are less pedantic narrative than explosively lived. In his element (and we have no doubt that it is his element), he communes with the river gods and communicates what he has learned from them with rare immediacy – and a bracing measure of elan.
It is tempting to interpret him as a sort of perceptual cartographer, in which the maps are written on the inside of his own body, on the veins that circulate life’s blood beneath the skin, and so the language of embodiment is the true latitude and longitude of his practice. The diaristic vein we can often trace in his work confirms this, which is not a record of quotidian facts laid bare but of old and deeper lineages exposed, a sort of vision quest at the heart of things, ongoing, unstoppable -- and inviolable. The edginess of the linear element in his work is akin to the annotations of an autobiographical consciousness, specifying the nature of the challenge in nervous jottings, the scope of the encounter, the remembered haptic array, the sense of drama and extremity, the apotheosis.
Many of his paintings and watercolours reveal that he is a dedicated sailor and the endless litany of boats and other river-going vessels are treated with daunting verisimilitude. None of them are ever depicted as static. The restless sense of movement is felt in spidery lines and chromatic high points, as when the wind blows the water white and black, and in the schematized figures of those able protagonists now at the mercy of the elements, seeking safe harbour, a way homewards.
In certain paintings, the artist integrates pages of a sketchbook that depict a garden-variety of ships. It is almost as if he wants to bolster the represented scene with these vignettes as a way of further authenticating the work. Ships, locomotives racing at perilous speed across endless vistas, human figures in motion, never at rest…It is as though Nadeau is obsessed with an idea of speed undreamt of by Paul Virilio. He has said: "I like speed made with means of being human; that of the skater, the swimmer, the rower, a speed that comes from strength, concentration, style, perseverance; that of the boat resulting from the conjunction of man with the boat, the wind, the water and the current; that of the mind which is not born only of reason, but of the soul…” His meditation on the vicissitudes of acceleration is a central theme of his work.
It is no exaggeration on my part to suggest that Nadeau is a latter day Thomas Cole (1801-1848). A leading luminary of the Hudson River School, Cole identified in the American landscape the timeless authority of the land itself. (Although Nadeau also shares a good measure of the restless energies and aesthetics of Cole’s followers like Frederic Edwin Church and John Frederick Kensett as well.) I was reminded of this when I thought back to the works in "Thomas Cole: Landscape Into History," mounted at the Brooklyn Museum over 20 years ago. Nadeau may or may not share Cole’s Romantic ideal but his treatment of our Canadian waterways comes uncannily close to the mark.
What has been called the ‘operatic turbulence’ of Cole’s river paintings makes him a fine antecedent. Consider Nadeau’s Chasing the ‘Atalante’ and then look at Cole’s View of L'Esperance on the Schoharie River (1826-27), with its sky dense with roiling clouds, and the suggestion of an incipient storm, and Nadeau’s textured sky riven with dark and ominous passages and turbulent waters below. There is an abiding sense of disturbance in both works, executed almost two hundred years apart. Indeed, the sense of perturbation is such that it brings with it an implicit recognition that man is altogether at the mercy of Nature. Nadeau’s observational propensities find a telling antecedent in Cole’s optical acuity and “home-grown realist's hand”, and his phenomenal intermeshing of the realistic and the fantastical. (3)
Nadeau builds a living mythology of the river, deeply rooted in his own lived experience. The unending dynamism of the river as it snakes its way in and through a given landscape is a metaphor for a profound inner journey. We are complicit in this voyage of discovery. Nadeau’s mythology, like the best Greek myths, is essentially rooted in the Real. An observer of acute sensitivities, he knows full well that the river has many gods, as the poet said, many gods and many voices. He is well poised to harvest a mythology from the river basin, the waterways and the causeways and the insistent whispering of the deep waters. His radiant palimpsests of signs convince us that this mythology, this spiritual patrimony, if you will, is somehow locked into our own bone marrow and thus also belongs to us. WM
(1) Louis Zukofsky, “A” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).
(2) T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages” in Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co, 1943).
(3) Holland Cotter, “A Volatile Master Who Made Nature's Splendour His Religion” (Page C1 of the National edition of The New York Times, January 13, 1995).
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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.