Alchemy is a subject and a practice with a murky, checkered reputation that exists on the threshold of credibility. If a unifying commitment can be said to exist within this field, it is to the idea that the alchemist derives new knowledge by combining unlikely elements to yield improbable conclusions. It is in this loose, methodological sense that Edgar Arceneaux’s interest in alchemy resides. Arceneaux is driven by an unusual intellectual restlessness which over time has led him to explore discredited systems of knowledge, not to revive those systems or argue for their modern validity, but to establish new, hybrid methods of inquiry. The artist proceeds from the assumption that all systems of belief are partial and contingent, a position that allows him to select ideas and recombine them at will. Astrology also plays a prominent role in this exhibition, as does painting, a medium which in some contemporary circles – conceptual art circles, specifically – is understood as a compromised and dated mode of expression.
The paintings in this show, entitled ‘Correlations and Isomorphisms’, read less as experiments than as archetypal visions rendered by an artist in the grip of an experimental impulse. Dark, macabre and gothic, paintings like Eyes floating in the abyss (all works 2008) recall the morbid-mystical visions of William Blake and feel self-consciously anachronistic. Though it would be difficult to codify a dominant strain in contemporary painting, Arceneaux’s works seem to have at least one foot in a parallel universe. Bearing quasi-mystic titles like Ophiuchus constellation is the 13th sign of the zodiac or Ophiuchus constellation is Laocoon’s Serpent, and displaying a consistent interest in archetypal imagery that recalls the unfashionable theories of Carl Jung, Arceneaux seems intent on exploring the capacity of an outmoded medium to capture outmoded ideas.
The most compelling work in the show, however, was the video-based installation titled Circle Disk Rotation. As low-tech as it is high concept, one had the sense that Arceneaux gathered the most stripped-down, unvarnished elements available in order to foreground mechanism and concept over finish and affect. The artist as pre-modern autodidact dabbling whimsically in postmodern technology seemed the conceit, but the mechanism was nonetheless intricate. Suspended in the centre of the gallery was a cardboard disk comprised of two roughly identical semicircular forms taped together crudely with masking tape. Every morning before the gallery opened, a video camera on the far end of the gallery space recorded the slow rotation of the cardboard disk for a given period of time. When the gallery doors opened, the camera was shut off and footage recorded the previous morning was projected onto the rotating disk and the white wall behind it. This meant that the indistinct images playing across the rotating disk were in fact stationary views of the same rotating disk recorded from the opposite side of the room the preceding day.
Green-lit and ambient, Circle Disk Rotation was amply seductive, but the installation bore no relation to the dazzling, hi-tech/no-concept entertainment-as-art bonanzas so often encountered. Instead, Arcenaux’s intricately conceived, modestly executed installation was expressly embedded in its own space and time, its mechanism a self-renewing, stock-taking system measuring and revising its own conditions every day independent of its maker. What constituted this installation at the conclusion of the exhibition – whether a work of mute observation or of sharp critique – is a matter of fate on one hand and of system on the other; in other words, an alchemy of video.