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Features / May 23, 2017

The Defiant Beauty of Elaine Cameron-Weir at the New Museum

Red Deer–born artist Elaine Cameron-Weir has made her museum solo show debut in New York with assemblages that are at once seductive and unsettling
Elaine Cameron-Weir, “viscera has questions about itself” (installation view), 2017. Courtesy the New Museum. Elaine Cameron-Weir, “viscera has questions about itself” (installation view), 2017. Courtesy the New Museum.

“Water was our first armor before our skin.
Then came the bristle of sunshine.
And a thickening of blood into oil
or syrup in the lower veins.”
—Fanny Howe

A sweet, dark odour hung softly in the air at Elaine Cameron-Weir’s Bushwick studio when I visited last month, something that smelled like licorice or caramelized meat. That scent has since spread to the New Museum on the Lower East Side, where her debut museum solo show, “viscera has questions about itself,” is on display. There, in two parallel lead vessels on the floor, elongated laboratory heaters hold columns of cast metal troughs, like stacked vertebrae. They look like spines split open for examination. The smell comes from a thick thread of labdanum resin held in the troughs: the spinal fluid? The heaters rest on beds of sand, as if they might be remnants of an archeological dig and we are looking back in time at two spines buried side by side.

A prodigy, but calm and unpretentious, Cameron-Weir was born in 1985 in Red Deer, Alberta. For the past nine years, she has lived in New York City, having graduated from New York University’s MFA program in 2010 after completing her BFA in 2007 at the Alberta College of Art and Design. A series of cast aluminum plates rest along the wall of her studio, and their marbled texture reminds me of topography.

“I like metal because it stays,” Cameron-Weir explains. “I use a lot of ephemera, like smell, and it’s nice to have an anchor.” The plates were built last summer with her father, her first welding teacher, out of scrap metal scavenged from her home province’s oil industry.

In recent years, Cameron-Weir has spent a lot of time in New York’s public libraries, reading widely on topics ranging from alchemy to early Renaissance orthopedics.

“I like the language of scientific texts,” she says. “I like how they sound, even when I don’t have any idea where the research is going, exactly.”

This cobbling together of disparate sources is tangible in Cameron-Weir’s sculptures, as is a curiosity and humility before the materials she works with.

“It is as though her aim as an artist is not simply to make art, but to ask larger questions about authorship and objecthood—and one of the ways she does this is by regarding the works she has made as though they had made themselves,” the New Museum’s assistant curator, Natalie Bell, writes via email. Cameron-Weir’s assemblages might belong to an otherworldly past or future, but they appear eerily at ease here.

The first time I saw Cameron-Weir’s sculptures was at the 2016 Montreal Biennial. There, three of her colossal and shimmering snakeskin sculptures were suspended from the ceiling, each one strung up on a pulley, its weight counterbalanced by a sandbag. Each skin is about 10 feet long, assembled from plasma-cut copper scales coated in enamel. The scales are a pale, waxy yellow, smooth as the inside of a seashell, with strands of oxidized blue and rough, ashy edges.

Elaine Cameron-WeirElaine Cameron-Weir, “viscera has questions about itself” (installation view), 2017. Courtesy the New Museum.

When snakes shed their skin, they shed it whole: head, eye-caps, and all. But Cameron-Weir’s snakes are headless and more gorgeous than grotesque—like empty armour hung out to dry. Jenny Holzer writes, “The appearance of the serpent signifies all is lost. He is a symbol of our failure and our fate.” That may be true here, far from Eden, but these snakeskins are defiantly beautiful, too. Like overgrown jewellery. The newest snake is hanging at the New Museum like a guard; it is the first piece you have to pass to reach the others.

At the back of the room, a palm-sized heating mantle holds and warms a second batch of labdanum resin that looks like blood. A laboratory clamp holds the mantle on a metal column. At the head of the column, Cameron-Weir has placed a smooth metal helmet with an open jaw; it’s a “dental phantom,” an instrument made for a dentistry student to practice taking apart, and reconstructing, the mouth.

There are two columns, echoing the pair of spines on the floor, and the second holds a thread of hospital-blue neon around which a lab coat is draped with its wrists tied. The coat was sewn by the artist, from a cream-colored silk WWII parachute. “Using a tool to alter another tool is the beginning of artificial intelligence,” writes Canadian poet Charles Dewdney. Cameron-Weir’s ghostly anthropomorphic structures flirt with breath, blood and life, echoing this sensibility.

The day we met, Cameron-Weir was still finishing a piece for the New Museum show. It was a new coat made of chain mail, with two cast pewter breastplates and a belly plate. “I’d been looking at Islamic armour at the Met,” she said, explaining her choice of material. The coat looked high fashion, and she described it as “luxuriously disco.” Despite its weight, that day it did look deceptively soft and light. It reminded me of Colombian artist Doris Salcedo’s silk blouses, which seem delicate and beautiful, until you look close enough to notice their woven silk is loaded with sewing needles.

At the New Museum, the coat piece is transformed. Facing the entrance to the building, it hangs suspended in the middle of the gallery. The show’s title piece, spotting it is like coming upon a ghost, or a hanging. Up close, I see the artist’s final touches: she has given it a spinal column to match all the other pieces; she has cut into the material and sewn new lines with metal sutures and sinew. Now it looks rough and brutal as attention is drawn to the body’s most vulnerable parts.

#elainecameronweir ????✔???? #friezeny @friezenewyork @friezeartfair

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For this year’s Frieze Art Fair, concurrent with the New Museum exhibition’s opening weekend, Cameron-Weir built an outdoor sculpture in the form of an air-raid shelter. The finished bunker is disarmingly white and domed like a snow house. In the face of escalating military tensions, and threats, Cameron-Weir explained, “I just wanted to make this hole in the ground”—a place to go when it’s time to find cover. At Frieze, it hinted at shelter from imminent warfare, and shelter from the main tent. Heavy rainfall leading up to the fair flooded the floor to create a black puddle the artist welcomed as an addition to the piece. Rhyming with the pools of labdanum at the New Museum, the dark water inside exposes the inadequacy of our armature.

The unsettling pleasure in viewing Cameron-Weir’s work stems from the way the artist is able to strike so many notes at once. Like the ironclad bodies that walk past each other in late Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz’s widely photographed Chicago art piece Agora, each of Cameron-Weir’s sculptures operates on its own terms. Each structure is masterfully crafted, ominous and illuminating. Every component rings with its own associations, invitations to our subconscious to rise to the surface.

Georgia Phillips-Amos is a writer based in Montreal and New York. Her art criticism has appeared in Border CrossingsBOMB, the Brooklyn RailC Magazine and the Village Voice.

“viscera has questions about itself” continues at the New Museum until September 3, 2017.