If you needed a tidy way to characterize the blazing new landscapes by veteran Toronto-based painter, Alex Cameron -- now at Toronto's Bau-Xi Gallery -- you could venture to call them "fauve" or "fauvist." You remember the Fauves (the term means "wild beasts")? The group, active, mostly in France, for only a couple of years (1905-1907), consisted of stellar painters such as Matisse, Braque, Derain and Vlaminck, all of whom then painted landscapes in hot, convulsive colours (red trees, yellow seas, purple skies) that were gleefully designed to singe the retina and upset the public.
You could make a case for Alex Cameron's having incarnated himself as The Last Fauvist. I say this not because he has any desire to outrage the viewer, but because he delights, as the Fauves did, in constructing his landscape paintings from gobs and sheets and stabbings of unlikely, eyeball-searing colour. The Fauves were the inheritors of van Gogh's declaration that instead of trying to render what he saw before him, he would proceed to use colour, as he confessed to his brother, Theo, "in a completely arbitrary way in order to express myself powerfully." Alex Cameron works that way too.
Given his subject matter -- the mountains and forests of the Rocky Mountains, the wilderness-fringed inlets and ocean shores of Newfoundland -- you might have expected him to busy himself extending the now deeply entrenched landscape tradition of the Group of Seven. But no. Cameron, who comes out of a long history of abstract painting, bends the landscape differently to his painterly will, both capturing what lies before him (as the Group did), and constructing it from scratch -- out of pigment (as they did not).
"I love paint," Cameron pointed out to me last week over coffee, and, if you place yourself about six inches from any one of his new canvases (the ideal viewing distance for any painting), you'll see that this is a hefty understatement on the artist's part. Take a look at his painting Dream On Dream On, reproduced here. The foreground is a heaving, pulsating tangle of pinks, fleshes and grey-blues. His spindly, arrowhead trees, so regular they look gridded, are made of rapid daubs of colour (all kinds of colour, not just tree colour) so that they hang through the painting like glass-bead curtains.
The huge birch tree at the left is a sort of portage in icing-white, cutting up into the rest of the painting so that the massive, assertive trunk becomes something like the Tree of Life in the first of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus: "O pure transcendence! . . . O tall tree in the ear!" Except that Cameron's birch is a tall tree in the eye.
And so Cameron proceeds, daubing, slashing and slathering his way through the landscape of the far west and of the far east. None of Cameron's colour here is naturalistic and, given the hectic nature of his handling of it, there is a constant freneticism that allows no chance to pause and reflect.
But if it's a wild ride you're after -- a Fauve fandango -- then Cameron is your man.
Gary Michael Dault