Jeweled Artifice – Artist Spotlight on Leila Cartier

     As the new year begins and we are still gripped by the global pandemic, do you ever dream of getting away to a deserted island? Maybe your fantasy is not just about any old deserted island, but one where you are surrounded by controlled, man-made beauty at every turn, away from the vagaries of nature and virus, and immersed solely in comfort and pleasure. Imagine being surrounded by mounds of glittering faceted jewels, exotic perfumes, exquisite textiles, and synthetic splendor at every turn. You are bathed in an aura of sensuality and indulgence, along with ample immersion in music, literature, art. You are completely alone in this artificial world of excess, this illusory world of your own making. No one intrudes upon your hermetically sealed environment, which is devoid of even glimmers of the natural world. You can play, romp around and indulge in the pure pursuit of aesthetic pleasure. Would you be happy? Would you feel that something- perhaps other people, birds, clouds, life’s complexities- were missing, or would you thrive in this magical world of artifice, consumption, and decadence? This imaginary scenario mirrors the premise of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 1884 novel entitled Against Nature. Huysmans’ book is the story of a man who is so fed up with the modern world that he moves to a mansion in the country and creates his own sensual fantasy world. He fills his world with so much beauty that it almost ruins his life. This late nineteenth century novel exemplifies an aesthetic movement that (believe it or not) is called Decadent Literature. In France, it included the works of Huysmans, Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire, while Oscar Wilde was central to England’s Decadent Literature culture. In fact, Huysmans’ book, Against Nature, was felt to be the ‘poisonous’ book that entices Dorian Gray in Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). [1]

     So how would we define Decadence in literature and why is it relevant (besides the fact that Huysmans’ book echoes dreams of a pleasure-filled, virus-free deserted island)? Decadent literature is about profound refinement and sensuality. It addresses themes such as the “valuing of artificiality over nature, an interest in perversity and paradox, and transgressive modes of sexuality.” [2] As eloquently noted by Gena Vazquez: “Decadence was the literature of a modern society marinated in licentiousness and sophistication.” [3] In Decadent books such as Huysmans,’ we are prompted to reflect on the role of beauty and art in our lives. Is its purpose merely to provide pleasure? Is that pleasure alone enough to provide emotional sustenance, a question seemingly posed by the protagonist in Huysmans’ novel? By transforming reality into a creative, distinctive vision, art seems to generate a life of its own. So then does it gain primacy over nature? Does life become art? Oscar Wilde famously questioned art’s relation to life in his book The Decay of Lying (1891), where he pronounced that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” One interpretation is that art changes our perception of the world; it makes us see the world through a fresh, imaginative lens that in turn affects how we live our lives. Against Nature seems to spur multiple other questions: what really is valuable, enduring and meaningful, what is the role of artifice in our lives, what are the joys and dangers of excessive consumption, among others. In her dazzling works on paper, InLiquid artist Leila Cartier seems to make visible many of these themes of Decadent literature, while posing other questions.

Violet, by Leila Cartier

     Leila Cartier’s Counterfeit Forest Series, inspired by Huysmans’ novel, depicts enormous trees encrusted with multiple colorful gems. Each one of these exquisitely detailed works is different. Yet they all are filled with glittering, exquisite, lavish jewels, placed so that they resemble leaves or flowers. But the gems aren’t real. They’re not even counterfeit jewels but instead magazine photos of jewels. And it isn’t really standard paper but instead is made from stone. The works seem to question the apparent value of perfect, alluring artificiality vs the imperfection of nature. Here we have not just an artificial tree, but an enormous constructed artifice of an artificial tree, studded with jewels that look real (but could be counterfeit) and are actually cut from a magazine. The title Counterfeit Forest plays on these layers of artificiality. It seems reminiscent of Huysmans’ man-made paradise- a jewel-studded vacuum where other humans and nature are shunned but pleasure prevails. As Cartier states: “[The] collage work is primarily constructed using hand-cut images of jewelry found in magazines and adhered to paper made from stone. The result suggests a disparity between the expectation of permanence and value versus fragility and worthlessness.” Violet is composed of delicate rings and all manner of purple and cream- colored stones. Like other works in this series, it is enormous, 60”x40,” a size that completely engulfs the visual field, as would a large tree or a world filled with beauty. Similarly, Green captures the image of a tree swaying in the summer wind, elegantly bent to one side. The layers of artifice in these works are dizzying and provocative: each of these collages are striking, precious pieces of art conveying valueless, artificial trees filled with worthless paper images of precious stones that may indeed be counterfeit and worthless. And is a tree dripping with (real, or counterfeit) jewels more precious than a windblown natural tree? There is even a layer of irony in the artist’s last name, rivaled only by my medical school neurology professor named Dr. Brainard. We are stuck in a vortex swirling with contrasting, layered definitions of value and artifice, as prompted in Decadent literature.

Green, by Leila Cartier

     Similarly, the Scarab on Tile Series looks like gem studded broaches, yet there are again layers of artifice. June Bug and Cicada are among several meticulously detailed images of jewel covered creatures. A scarab is a beetle common in the Mediterranean region, regarded as sacred in ancient Egypt. It’s a symbol of immortality and transformation in its use in funerary art. Here the sacred beetle is shown not as an immortal amulet sprinkled with gems but as merely an image of gems on a fragile piece of ersatz paper. As such, there is no immortality here, but fragility and impermanence. The beginning of a Decadent poem by Alfred Douglas (1870-1945), not coincidentally a lover of Oscar Wilde, entitled “Impression de Nuit: London,” captures the spirit of Cartier’s works on paper: “See what a mass of gems the city wears/ Upon her broad live bosom ! row on row/ Rubies and emeralds and amethysts glow./ See ! that huge circle like a necklace, stares/ With thousands of bold eyes of heaven,…” In this excerpt, the cosmopolitan city of London is likened to a voluptuous woman, bosom and all, clad in an amalgam of gems. It’s as if a description of the glistening lights of the city aren’t enough to entice the reader; the metaphors of jewels and sensuality seem to be intended to add beauty and gravitas to a mere cityscape. Similarly, does a meager tree or scarab become more worthwhile if caked with jewels? Does this allusion to gems make reality seem richer, more vibrant, or more precious? Rather than describing jewels as glistening like twinkling stars, these poets would probably describe the stars as glistening like gems. Like Wilde’s view that life imitates art, it’s as if the manmade takes precedence. It’s a matter of perceived priority, just as Huysmans’ created fantasy world seemed to take precedence over nature and human interactions.

     There is no question that Leila Cartier’s work is dazzling but also thought provoking. It forces us to grapple with layered definitions of value, permanence, fragility, and art’s role in society. Like the Decadent Movement itself, it’s a cyclone of paradox whipped up into an erudite and stunning artistic package, one that demands further contemplation. Decadence was a new take on the arts, breaking radically from the era of Romanticism that came before it. Like Oscar Wilde’s uncanny assertion that life imitates art, the Decadent movement, and Cartier’s work, turns established notions upside down and gives us alternative ways of seeing the world. And that’s what art is all about, isn’t it?

[1] Carolyn Burdett, “Aesthetics and Decadence,” Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians, March 15, 2014 https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/aestheticism-and-decadence

[2] Burdett, Ibid., 2014.

[3] Gena Vazquez, “Literary Indulgence: A Memoir of My Affair with the Decadent Movement,” June 8.  https://legacyofgena.medium.com/literary-indulgence-fd064cf45cc5

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