THE CADMIUM SUIT
15 APR – 2 MAY 2009
Try for a moment to see Brett East’s paint tubes as classic portraits rather than still life realism. They are the painter’s close friends – some darkly pensive, others prone to wild eccentric outbursts. But each also exudes a sinister beauty that is likely to fascinate us more as our fear of industrial pollution and environmental degradation increases.
Their beauty is more akin to that of a bullet in freeze frame leaving the barrel of a gun, than to a flower at the brief peak of its life cycle. The subject – a tube of paint – the very medium of a painter’s existence, has another aspect to its personality .....it is derived from heavy metal that causes death and deformity.
East’s latest work is a suite of cadmium paintings. Of all the paints that an artist uses, the cadmiums are among the most poisonous. Cadmium, lead and cobalt (which is a basis for his cerulean blue portraits) are known as the ‘heavy metal carcinogens’. Seventh on the US toxic substances and disease registry, cadmium accumulates in the kidneys and its harmful effects can last for up to 30 years....reproductive failure, DNA damage, possible infertility, disruption to the central nervous system and immune system, as well as psychological disorders or cancer. All of which puts another light on the ‘death of painting’ concept, no?
Together with mercury and lead, cadmium is the reason pregnant women are warned against feasting too often on large deep-sea fish or shellfish, which concentrate heavy metals that accumulate in their prey after seeping into oceans from violent sub-sea volcanic activity, or as run-off from zinc and copper smelting. The metal is closely tied to industrial pollution: some three-quarters of production goes into Ni-Cd batteries, while its ability to absorb neutrons sees it used to control nuclear fission.
Society generally wants its painters to recreate objects of natural beauty – to freeze the ephemeral forever; to visualise the sublime. History demonstrates, however, that artists are fascinated instead by the banal, the everyday, or what many regard as ugly and dangerous. In grappling aesthetically with such objects, artists question why we shouldn’t find beauty in the macabre, the threatening or the evil around us.
East does this with the cadmiums, just as he has with his other recent subjects: pharmaceutical ‘pill’ paintings and chemical reactions. At a time when mankind is preoccupied with environmental threats to the future of the planet and its ability to survive the pollution that we create, toxic substances are decidedly un-attractive. Yet East invests the cadmiums with all the toxic power they are capable of, giving them a sinister, haunting beauty. His paintings border on glorifying the very toxins that our civilisation now regards as threatening its future existence. In this way, the artworks question, if not subvert, the dominant voice that would have us rush to re-label everything as either good or bad for the planet.
There is another aspect to the cadmiums. These colours were among the first paints to be developed from minerals. When the red, yellow, orange and green cadmium paints were developed as complex compounds of the lustrous silver-white metal discovered by Fredrich Stromeyer in 1817 they created more permanent colours. And they replaced the need to kill millions of tiny cochineal spiders that lived on a Mexican cactus as a source of red paint, or the greens previously laboriously concentrated from vegetables.
East’s paint tubes are all of this. At the same time they take on the spectre of mysterious, uncontrollable figures in a landscape. Sinister, threatening, powerful figures in an oxygen-depleted wasteland. Poisonous figures capable of exerting pain and death.
But consider their strange beauty.
~ Brian Mahoney