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“What is Athabasca?” Paintings by Mira Cantor at Kingston Gallery



"Athabasca is an ice field," the artist Mira Cantor explains. " Water flows down from the field in both eastern and western directions, eventually ending up in both oceans."1 In the painting Athabasca (2012) a strong gestural stroke bisects the scene. The vertical white mark and its shadows vanish in a swirl of grays and blues, while the black and gray mountain itself begins to drip into a blue lake. The flow appears to erode the mountain. Its left side is almost completely covered with white froth, and a row of ice forms, like tiny stalagmites, floats along the edge of the blue lake, dripping into the froth. Could it be possible that the waves below will continue to rise until they overtake the mountain? The landscape before us is in the midst of irreversible change. However, the mountain range holds firm against the luminous blues of the sky. Mira Cantor matured in the era of American Expressionism and the stain artists. Powerful gestures of paint combined with uncontrolled drips reveal her unique synthesis of artists she admires. "I grew up with de Kooning," she says, "and learned from Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler as well as earlier American modernists."2

The force of Athabasca raises the question, " What ideas drive Cantor's process?" When Cantor talks about the nine dramatic paintings in her exhibition at Kingston Gallery, the emotions in her quiet, low voice range from despair to hope of survival for the human race in the face of global warming. Cantor has physically and emotionally experienced the subjects she paints. While on a Fulbright exchange, 1994-95, in Alexandria, Egypt, she had a breakthrough and returned to painting after a successful career of collaborative installations. Life between the sea and land exposed her to constantly shifting color and light, and her abstract paintings of this period are metaphors for the grid of the Arab house and mosque. Understanding the contradictions of a restrictive culture and connecting with people representing the diversity of Alexandria, she initiated an oral history of the last Jewish people of Alexandria. Deeply affected by this sense of loss, she became an activist in facilitating emigration out of Egypt.

Cantor is an adventurer, and her travels in the Alps, the Rocky Mountains, and climbing Machu Picchu laid the foundation for her growing attentiveness to the symbiotic relationship between man and nature. Energized by the majestic forms of mountains, she describes these creations of nature as sublime. During a 2010 residency in Banff, Canada, she felt claustrophobic because of the way mountaintops seem to lean forward. In Avalanche (2012) she painted her sense of disorientation because she couldn’t see the horizon. And then it occurred to her that if you looked at the mountain differently, if you were to cut through the mountain, you would fall off. It was at Banff that she was confronted by global warming with the attendant melting of the ice fields. She had been following the phenomenon through scientific articles, but at Banff she watched the mountainous landscape of our planet slowly submerging in water.

Mira Cantor
Slippery Slope, 2012
48 x 36 inches
Oil on canvas

The mountain in the painting Slippery Slope (2012) looms before us, so tall its peak extends beyond the edge of the canvas. A thin black crevice cuts straight down into the stone. Will the snow-covered peak break away? Acid rain is falling down on the other side of the mountain. Or are these painterly effects indicative of new vegetative life, sprouting upward from the bottom of the canvas? Cantor states that "layering different viscosities of oil paint from drips to thick passages of color, metaphorically addresses environmental change."3 She silently and visually warns us but allows accidental movements of the paint itself to tell an important part of the story.

Slippery Slope is the beginning of the Avalanche (2012) with the melting snow exposing crevices lying in deep black shadow. The silhouette of the mountain in Avalanche is etched in white snow, while on the ridge to the right the snow has already melted. Blue water drips everywhere, and a pond bubbles below. Perhaps hot springs? Will it erupt into a geyser and shoot into the dark blue sky with one last gasp? This iconography represents inevitable and uncontrollable global warming.

The current volume of American Indian features a regular column called "Living in the Anthropocene". Recent programs at the Smithsonian "help define this new geological era in which humans, who are shaping the earth, must now recognize and respond responsibly to the changes they have wrought."4 Cantor says, "We’ll have to learn to live on water." We must and we will. There are a growing number of designers dealing creatively with environmental issues. As land becomes scarce, the T.R. Hamzah and Yeang firm has designed vertical gardens in Malaysia. The environmental activist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000) reconciles humans with nature through his organic forms for living in Waldspirale, 1998-2000, in Darmstadt. In the Netherlands, the Ooms Bouwmaatschappij company has constructed intriguing houses which float on water.

Mira Cantor
Meltwater, 2013
60 x 52 inches
Acrylic on canvas

During the last ten summers Cantor has led Northeastern University’s Dialogue program in Ireland. She is captivated by the untouched landscape with megalithic tombs and the pagan culture originally enacted upon it. She takes her students on long walks across the Burren in County Clare. This distinctive glacio-karst landscape is the best example of the effects of the last glacial period. The limestone pavements contain cracks known as grikes. When it rains the water seeps into the porous limestone and creates rivers, while inside the grikes alpine and tropical flowers commingle. In this constantly shifting weather pattern from rainy to sunny one becomes immersed in an almost mystical land, and artistic ideas flow due to the privileged solitude. Meltwater (2013) represents Cantor’s transcendental experience in Ireland. One can imagine how the sharp-edged cliff resists the greenish flow. The images across the flat surface recall prehistoric cave paintings except that the rows are too neat. Meltwater may well be an arial view of the Burren with its flat silhouette bounded by Galway Bay and the Atlantic. On what seems to be barren land, we see the grikes bursting with vegetation between the limestone paths. Cantor’s paintings are, gratefully, not complete abstractions. They invite us to ponder the vulnerability of earth and recognize the tragedy of losing it.

"Meltwater" and Cantor’s previous series ["Silver Lake" (2005), and "White Paintings" (2008)] reveal her kinship to American landscape painters. Thomas Cole (1801-1848) created a native landscape vision which emphasized America’s unique natural heritage.5 In The Course of Empire (1832), Cole interpreted the extinction of glorious nations. Cole described Old Age in the Voyage of Life cycle (1840): "The stream of life has now reached the Ocean to which all life is tending."6 With her passionate concern for sustainable life, Cantor continues in Cole’s legacy of cherishing the preciousness of nature. Cantor says that, in addition to the weather, she also thinks about death, which we cannot escape. "I want to know my world and alert people to it… And change will happen. The ice is melting. In a painting I can stop time."7 The monumentality of Cantor’s minimalist forms is awe inspiring. The technical aspects of her painting style make palpable the slow transformation of our planet’s environment. A dynamic synergy between Cantor’s sweeping gestures, her control of the defined edges, and the way she allows the paint to function independently are what make the Meltwater series so compelling and demanding. When confronted with her work, we are immediately engaged with the profound implications of what we see.



[1] Conversation with author, Dec. 12, 2013.
[2] Op. cit.
[3] "Meltwater" brochure.
[4] Tim Johnson, "The Power of Museum Programs," American Indian (Winter 2013), p. 13.
[5] Earl A. Powell, Thomas Cole (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990); Louis Legrand Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1964), passim.
[6] Noble, op. cit., p. 216.
[7] Kingston Gallery talk, Dec. 11, 2013.

Mira Cantor Meltwater is on view at Kingston Gallery until December 29th, 2013.
For more information, visit the gallery's website.

Meltwater is fittingly paired with two exhibits: Fragments, sculptures by Carmelo Midili of recycled canvases, and Inhabitants, by Mary Lang, known for her photographs of water and landscapes.

The author is grateful to Mira Cantor for sharing her work so generously.

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Milda Richardson is a new contributor to Big, Red & Shiny.

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