Fire Indulgence: The Paintings of Laura Findlay

by Anna Kovler

Mar 8, 2019

Laura Findlay’s latest body of paintings takes the primordial world of volcanoes as its subject matter. Plumes of fire ascend from dark mountains as magma sleeps then awakens under the surface, bursting forth in magnificent colors. At times, the movement of her brush strokes follows the logic of fire and sky, inching upwards in thin washes but then, unexpectedly, another mark moves sideways, making us fixate on the painted surface and the movements of her hand.

 How a painting differs from, enhances, and mutes lived reality is at the crux of these works. Arguably nothing on this planet is as intense as an active volcano. The extreme heat of magma in the earth’s crust, explosions caused by sudden cooling, and the racecar speed of volcanic ash traveling down a mountain toward life below are phenomena beyond human comprehension. Life forms die in a flash near an eruption. Mountains form. Islands form. Massive chunks of earth bend and shift as sulfuric gasses hiss and stain the oceans and skies. At these magnitudes, the only way humans can understand these things is as abstractions, ideas, stories, and images. A human life is about 70 years; the average volcano is millions of years old.

The image of a volcano then - whether it’s a postcard or large painting - is closer to an idea than anything else. It’s therefore a little ironic to paint a volcano. It also brings to mind the generative magic attributed to cave paintings of bison and aurochs in prehistoric caves. Perhaps an image can brew some good luck, or at least tame the threatening beast. Both are speculation. Nonetheless, humans are constantly watching, recording, and monitoring volcanoes, and this is where Findlay seeks out visual material to manipulate, from cameras pointed at volcanoes by scientists. Unlike scientific images though, her paintings are half-imagined, populating the world of dreams and fantasies more than of seismometers and computer screens.

Not everyone who watches volcanoes is a scientist. Findlay is interested in a community of volcano enthusiasts who believe them to be supernatural or extraterrestrial. Sometimes a camera streak or lens flare is taken as proof that fairies, pixies and demons are at work near an active volcano. “People want to see what they want to see,” remarks Findlay, “which I think is faith.”

The special combination of Findlay’s raw washes of paint and such iconic, powerful imagery results in a conversation about paint itself, the image as such, and what it means to look. To paint a volcano is to take it as an object of thought, yet its magnitude can never be contained in thought or image, and it remains inherently mysterious. As meditations on the aesthetic sublime and the earth’s primordial, elemental forces these paintings affirm the prevalence of magic and mystery in our world despite the seeming totality of scientific knowledge.

Laura Findlay’s exhibition Tuff will be on view at Arsenal Contemporary in Toronto From January 26 to March 30, 2019.