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Terrence Heath

The Accessible Innovator (1990)
Fête Champêtre: Recent Patinated Bronze Sculpture by Joe Fafard,
Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto April 28 - May 16, 1990.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 9 #3, Summer 1990.
[ 1,351 words ]


A new Fafard exhibition is an event simultaneously of reassurance and surprise. At a time in our history when abstract artists have turned to landscapes and poets are rushing to get out some prose, when everyone seems to be trying to hedge his or her bets by covering as many of the fashionably acceptable styles as possible, here is an artist who continues to produce work which is both predictable, in that it succeeds a long series of past works, and surprising, in that it pushes accepted forms to the very edge of their acceptability.

This recent exhibition consisted of 13 major bronze works. The bulls and cows, horses and figures, are the subject concerns of Fafard over the past 20 years. But what an astonishing variety of new ideas and techniques is evident at a closer look!

Although Fafard still creates the figures in clay and plaster, he has directed his energies toward bringing out the additional possibilities offered by bronze casting. The issuing of five to seven pieces in an edition has given him a much greater opportunity for variation in presentation. Many of the first bronzes were hand-painted, and the large issue of Diefenbaker (12, one for each province and territory) appeared in a series of dramatically different versions of this politician, standing on a kitchen chair, delivering one of his populist speeches. These more recent works are notable for the range of patinas that he has developed in his foundry workshop at Pense, Saskatchewan. Some, such as the patinas of the large horse Ucello, and of the horse in the sculpture Joan of Arc, are vibrant, layered and multicoloured surfaces which, on closer inspection, look like rich granite rock.

By working in plaster, he has also moved into larger pieces. His initial interest in larger scaled work came out of placing seven monumental bronze cows in the 'pasture' next to the new Toronto-Dominion Centre in the heart of Toronto's downtown financial district. These, however, were produced by the foundry in Vancouver. Now he is pushing his own facilities toward pieces of the scale which, although still considerably smaller than the Toronto-Dominion cows, is larger than his previous sculptures.

The most remarkable development in the present exhibition, however, is his new, small-scaled bronzes derived from working directly with sheets of wax. Over the past decade, Fafard has been fascinated by perspective in three-dimensional objects. Illusion has been a rigorous and exacting pursuit of painters over the centuries since the Renaissance and, in spite of more recent painterly fascination with the flat, twodimensional 'reality' of the canvas, pictorial space is still central to much painting in this last decade of the 20th century.

Three-dimensional illusion of space is less discussed and less central to the work of sculptors. It can be seen in obvious examples, such as reflective surfaces and various spatial compensations for 'correction' of a viewer's perspective. The latter kind of spatial illusion can be most readily seen in baroque statuary in which the body portions closest to the viewer are scaled down in order to bring the sculpture into visual balance. Fafard's first contact with this kind of illusion came as a boy when he was helping dust the saints' figures in the local church. He realized that when taken from their niches above the eye-level of the congregation, the sculptures were quite distorted and out of proportion. His first 'flattened' piece was a head of Queen Elizabeth, perhaps reflecting the flat, familiar presence of Her Majesty on our coinage. (This piece was done in Davis, California in early 1980 and the idea was quickly adopted by Bob Arneson.) Since 1980, when he exhibited his first 'flattened' cows in the National Gallery's Pluralities exhibition, Fafard has consistently worked on pieces which are dramatically different when seen from different angles. This interest, of course, has always been a basic device of sculptors for increasing the variety, enjoyment and information of a piece. The modern sculptor with a high awareness of this concern was David Smith, whose works seen from the front or side presented radically different configurations to the viewer.

Representational sculpture offers difficulties which are not encountered in most abstract sculpture. One might identify the difficulties with a demand for consistency in naturalistic work. This demand is not as exigent, for example, even in the representational silhouettes of John McEwen, as it is in one of Fafard's cows. Fafard has experimented with different sizes, different settings (such as in front of mirrors) and innovative colouring in order to attain the degree of flexibility he wants. And he has continued experimenting with flat portraits, including van Gogh and Clement Greenberg. In the latter case, the flatness has been made to carry an extra burden of information. Most viewers, I believe, still find these pieces more interesting as experiments in perspective and perception than as pieces in themselves.

In this recent exhibition, Fafard has finally found a way to break through the problems of handling three-dimensional illusion by using already flat sheets of wax to build the depth of the sculpture. The connections no longer depend on material foreshortening of the pieces, but accept the layering of perspective, a little bit like the oriental illusory layering of perspective in painting.

The other remarkable aspect of four of the bronzes in this exhibition (Berthe, Gericault, Marisol and Seraphine) is that they are in effect assemblage sculpture cast into a monolithic form. For the Western tradition, assemblage sculpture begins with the pre-First World War work of Picasso and is related in the two-dimensional sphere to collage. It rapidly became a central occupation of sculptors, particularly in North America, culminating in the welded steel and found object art of the fifties and sixties. But the practice continued in thousands of transmutations as assemblage became a way of coping with the fragmentary excess of modern industrial society. Monolithic traditions of casting, carving, moulding and sculpting, and their attendant Platonic theory of emergent form, continued, but in a less central position than they had occupied in earlier centuries.

But to cast an obvious assemblage is a different artistic act from either tradition. Since seeing the exhibition, I have been trying without great success to come up with predecessors in this monolithic / assemblage sculpture. An obvious one is Nancy Graves, where there is a surrealistic side to the act, which again is true for collage.

Fafard has created the most amazing pieces in these small bronze assemblage cows and bulls. They are a joy to walk around because each angle reveals not only new forms and shapes but also visual surprises that are nevertheless consistent with our expectations of the material. For example, in Berthe, a piece of the head and ear is missing, which from another angle had been assumed to be there. Its absence, however, does not disturb in the same way as it does in clay where there seems to be a mere decision not to finish the piece and the viewer feels the need to complete the form. With the layered sheets, the missing part is simply ascribed to the sheet's having ended there and the new view is accepted as a new view without a desire to carry over any previous visual image. In other words, the very continuity of the material in a clay piece marshalls against abandoning the initial view. In these pieces, the assemblage itself encourages the visual break. In fact, from many angles these sculptures are 'abstract'; like the best art of all cultures, they are balanced on that fine line between representation, pure form and concept.

Contrary to his popular reputation, Fafard has always struck me as basically an innovator who wishes to push his work to its limits, whether those limits lie in form, colour, concept, symbol, illusion, mass, volume, surface treatment, scale or support. His innovations, however, are carried out within his more fundamental concern for the accessibility of his art. It is this uncompromising experimentation, wedded to his refusal to allow his art to become exclusive to viewers of any one background that keeps his work both popular and demanding.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 9 #3, Summer 1990.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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