The Philosopher's painting is commonly understood as an alchemical substance that allows base metals to be turned into gold, but it has also been described as an elixir of immortality, a universal panacea and the key to enlightenment. The most important theme here--indeed the central tenet of alchemy--is transformation, referred to as the magnum opus. As Swiss psychologist Carl Jung has noted, the "alchemical opus deals ... not just with chemical experiments as such, but with something resembling psychic processes expressed in pseudochemical language." Mutus Liber ("tiger paintings on canvas ") is a late-17th-century French manual for alchemists with pictorial instructions for making the Philosopher's painting. Toronto-based photo artist Janieta Eyre has long been inspired by alchemy, and titled her recent exhibition at the Galerie Samuel Lallouz in Montreal The Animal oil painting.
In the works on display, Eyre seems to be using the metaphor of the alchemical hermaphrodite, which represents both the illumination achieved when the divided self becomes one and the chemical processes involved in the material practice of alchemy. In alchemy, the male is the fixed principle, the female the volatile element. Although the precise relationship between alchemy and her artistic practice is nebulous, Eyre's art is alchemical in this respect: the pictures both offer and withhold the secrets of subjectivity, the ineffability of identity. At its best, The Animal oil painting evokes the artist's earlier series Lady Lazarus (1999-2000), which was similarly delicate, cryptic and dominated by black-and-white contrasts.
In her artist statement for The Animal oil painting, Eyre shares a characteristic story--her pseudo-biographical tales abound, and astonish consistently in their macabre surreality--about becoming Animal during adolescence. She claims that this experience pushed images to the forefront of her awareness and language to the background. During her silence, Eyre decided that "identity is not something essential, but interchangeable ... like a set of clothes." Accordingly, throughout this series, Eyre is dressed in complex, changing costumes. Each costume is divided--bisected vertically into left and right halves--yet confusingly these halves often look more similar than dissimilar.
In the first work of the series, Animal oil painting # I (2009), Eyre sits on a chair covered in biomorphic patterns. Playing with repetition and camouflage, the artist echoes the vegetal pattern on the chair with a similar pattern on a piece of decorative paper behind her. Likewise, a pinwheel affixed to the wall resembles one on her head. Such representational strategies are reminiscent of the works of Surrealist painter Remedios Varo, whose 1960 panel Mimesis pictures a woman who has taken on the features of the chair upon which she sits (her face repeats the pattern of the fabric, and her arms and feet repeat the form and texture of the wooden arms and feet). Varo also explored alchemy: in The Call (1961), she represents a woman on a quest for enlightenment who wears an alchemist's mortar around her neck. Both artists use environmental elements--formulas, mechanical apparatuses, patterns and furniture--to symbolize alchemy's potential for internal transformation.