For most of human history, the boundaries separating science, art and the occult were less than clear. From pottery to poetry, art was often tied to its use in magic, ceremony and ritual.
Modern disciplines like chemistry, astronomy and medicine likewise all have roots in more shadowy endeavours of alchemy, astrology, folk healing and witchcraft.
In La Clinique alchimique, her exhibition at the Maison des artistes, Montreal-based artist Véronique La Perrière M. reflects on these intertwining histories, looking to the past in order to imagine a contemporary situation where they might come together once again.
To do this, La Perrière M. cast herself in a role that's part artist, part anthropologist, part alchemist. Her "findings" take the form of drawing, performance and video, darkly fanciful works that chart connections between the natural world, the unconscious mind, the cosmos and the supernatural.
The exhibition is laid out to resemble something between a Victorian curiosity cabinet and a natural history museum, with various "artifacts" and "specimens" lining the walls in dense clusters. Several document La Perrière M.'s experiments in Klecksgraphy, the 18th-century practice of "reading" inkblot tests that would inspire the psychoanalyst Hermann Rorschach to devise his eponymous diagnostic in the 1920s. La Perrière M. made dozens of inkblots at different Swedish historical sites in an effort, we're told, to commune with long-dead Vikings. These are exhibited alongside black-and-white photographs documenting her "sessions."
The rest of her drawings are more conventional (and less silly), careful, competent and highly detailed pastel and coloured pencil illustrations on black paper.
Works in the ongoing series Jardin des temps recall medieval tapestries or illuminated manuscripts. In one otherworldly bird's-eye view, we look down at a nighttime garden populated by a cast of angels, witches, ghosts and martyrs. In a pair of eerie vignettes, we watch as a faceless figure is rolled up in a Persian carpet. Its intricate pattern spread to other drawings, including the cloak of a hooded ferryman -- presumably Charon, the underworld gatekeeper of Greek mythology.
Other works merge alchemical themes with the esthetics of new-age spirituality and science fiction. Vistas emerge and galaxies swirl inside celestial spheres, while the spectral figure of "cosmic solitude" dissolves into a background of distant stars.
La Perrière M.'s approach is more than a bit theatrical, with crystal-tipped wands and bits of fur interspersed among the framed drawings and documents. The bulk of the main gallery space is filled with Plexiglas vitrines housing a collection of dazzling mineral specimens on loan from local collector Tony Smith. (La Perrière M.'s own drawings of crystal structures end up looking a bit anemic by comparison). La Clinique's witchy ambience can be a bit self-conscious at times, but it's engaging and fun just the same (full disclosure: I was a nerdy teenage Wiccan -- self-conscious, witchy ambience is my favourite ambience).
One breathtaking standout work fully transcends the exhibition's commitment to style and surface, though. Referencing the mythical Greek muse of astronomy, Le souffle d'Uranie ("Urania's Breath") is a gorgeous animated sequence that brings La Perrière M.'s pastel drawings vividly to life. A gently rhythmic procession of heavenly bodies, painstakingly rendered in loose white powder, blow on- and offscreen in diaphanous whorls and eddies. Though the materials and setup seem simple, the effect is astonishing. Over nine spellbinding minutes, La Perrière M. works an elemental transformation that would put any alchemist to shame.
Steven Leyden Cochrane was a nerdy teenage Wiccan in the late '90s.