| Joan Lowndes|
Modalities of West Coast Sculpture
[Gary Lee-Nova, Michael Morris, Tom Burrows, Dennis Vance, D'Arcy Henderson, Liz Magor, Sherry Grauer, Gathie Falk, Richard Prince, Allan McWilliams, Setsuko Piroche, Robert Polinsky, Michael Dunn, E. R. Turner and Anton Smith
artscanada #190/191, autumn 1974.
[ 3,374 words ]
'Sculptural energy is the mountain,' Gaudier Brzeska once wrote. But in this most mountainous of Canada's provinces sculptural energy is diffuse, intermittent. Few private galleries show sculpture because it doesn't sell. Municipal, corporate and private patronage is minimal. The best exposure is provided by civic galleries that, however, because of their limited budgets, seldom purchase. A notable exception, permanently installed in the entrance to the Vancouver Art Gallery, is that profound meditation on birth and death by Richard Turner — an artist who, after several years of sculptural inactivity, is himself struggling towards rebirth.
Perhaps it is surprising under the circumstances that sculpture survives at all. Federal institutions have supplied much needed encouragement. The Canada Council through its grants has sustained a number of lonely exponents while Art Bank has also helped. The National Gallery recently conferred its accolade on Dennis Vance (Wave #2), Gathie Falk (Eighteen Pairs of Red Shoes with Roses, Eight Red Boots) and Sherry Grauer (Point Grey Swallows). The federal Department of Public Works has given commissions to such artists as George Norris, Tom Burrows, Gathie Falk, Dennis Vance, Glenn Lewis and Pat Marshall (now living in London, Ontario).
A similar fine art policy announced last spring by the provincial Department of Public Works may bring into being some imaginative works incipient in drawings and prototypes. The news of the first commissionings is heartening; this could be a turningpoint. What follows is in no way intended as a survey, but rather a look at the many modalities sculpture assumes on the West Coast.
A number of years ago Gary Lee-Nova and Michael Morris undertook joint research into colour, using painted bars of spectrums and greyscales which functioned both as treasuring sticks and amplifiers of any visual situation. They were, in essence, portable perceptual tools. The illuminations they provided were fed through slides, photos and film, resulting in constantly changing definitions.
Now however these artists have taken different routes, Lee-Nova striving for the permanent artifact while Morris makes and unmakes countless colour bar improvisations each summer at Robert's Creek (about a two and a half hour drive [and ferry ride] up the coast from Vancouver). Both artists have been awarded Canada Council senior grants for 1974-75.
In 1971 Lee-Nova was commissioned by local architect Ian Davidson to construct a spectrographic bar and a greyscale bar of heroic proportions, able to hold their own in a collection which includes major pieces by Judd, Smithson and Flavin. The spectrographic bar is seven feet long, one foot wide and four and a half inches deep. The greyscale bar is six feet long, eight inches wide and the same depth.
To protect them against our climate Lee-Nova has laid over the plywood a laminated sheet of fiberglass, eight coats of primer and sealer, six coats of cellofinish resin, three coats of primer, eight coats of pigment and three coats of clear epoxy: a testament to his relentless perfectionism and will to stability.
Leaning against the trees in Davidson's garden, the bars will rechart colour, texture, depth of field. In all atmospheric conditions they will impart a fresh mode of perception strong enough to supplant habit. Lee-Nova's hope is that he may pursue to the end his analysis of an intellectually defined structure, so that he can be released into a new cycle of creativity characterized by 'a totally spontaneous form of vision and thought, such as to be a universality.'
Morris, who will have a show next spring at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, has a repertory of 3,000 small bars. One thousand are to work with, the others for floor pieces. The bars are painted in high gloss enamel, seven inches long, one and five-eighths inches wide and three-quarters of an inch deep.
They are of three types: polychromatic bars corresponding to the spectrum; monochromatic bars divided into nine horizontal sections ranging from the most vivid shade to the palest; and greyscale bars. With their help Morris indulges in creative play. He may construct ziggurats, make stripe arrangements, place the bars on mirrors among ferns, float them on lake or stream, make them clamber over rocks or serve as a sundial in a field. All variants are meticulously recorded on slides and film. They are at once painting and sculpture, recalling the luscious colour of Morris's early gouaches and thus reuniting objectmaker and conceptualist.
Lee-Nova and Morris represent a certain group of West Coast artists who are not committed to any one medium: Lee-Nova continues at Visual Alchemy to make films and videotapes; Morris pours his energies into Image Bank, General Idea and the Western Front.
Tom Burrows is similarly diverse. He may use slides as a support for his concepts or juxtapose video and real materials. He has lately been engaged in designing a set for a nascent intermedia performance group called Box 80 and building a house on Hornby Island. 'My house is my sculpture,' he says.
Dennis Vance again is not locked into any single option. Two years ago, when he had his first show at a private gallery, he presented his playfully titled P.O.'s (Precious Objects, iridescent baubles of laminated Plexiglas resting on sateen cushions). He is currently making largescale versions.
At the same time he builds electronic environments. He is working on a space governed by a dual matrix system responsive to outside changes in weather and movement of people as well as to people entering it. Typically, it is a nonprogrammed program capable of regenerating itself. Beneath the participatory aspect lies a serious intent, which is to remind us that everyone who walks by displaces our mental space. Only by becoming aware of our integration into the total energy flow can we experience life at its fullest.
Another multimedia artist is D'Arcy Henderson, who works in that cluster of studios under the Granville bridge known as the Granville Grange. Henderson casts spheres, hemispheres and discs convex on one side in pink, bluegrey or clear resin. Piled into eggshaped containers of white fiberglass, they gleam like translucent fruits on a sideboard.
But it is in the changing light of the outdoors that these modular still lifes become rich prisms. They absorb the blurred, inverse images of mountains, clouds, trees or industrial props outside the studio. A greyblue hemisphere set at right angles to the ground projects onto it irregular spherical shadows, gold within black. Henderson's small sculptures are as much perceptual tools as the colour bars of Lee-Nova and Morris with the difference that instead of affecting their surroundings they are affected by them.
It is through photography that the artist has sought to capture these transformations of identity. No exhibition of his sculpture would be meaningful without colour photos, which have become an important medium for him per se. He was one of the prize winners in the B.C. Photography Annual organized by the gallery at Simon Fraser University.
However he has also cast a giant lens nearly 28 inches in diameter and weighing 160 pounds which, by its very immovability, becomes a gallery icon. As he tends to make his discs bigger and shallower, colourless except insofar as they produce light breakage, so he approaches an area of elusiveness where they are just barely objects.
Environment plays a crucial role in the sculpture of Liz Magor, who uses 'natural hardware' — skulls, bones, teeth and claws — reissued in new skins and containers. A seagull's bones may be preserved in a cotton tool kit, a deer's skull fitted with a chamois mask. Her ambition is to focus on the forms of teeth and claws, casting them about four feet high and set, for example, amidst clumps of salal, in such a way that they appear as growth neatly grafted onto the landscape.
She has already made a start in this direction with four sets of whale's teeth cast in dental plaster, embedded in suede-wrapped mounts. Teeth and claws are what is needed for survival. Magor's work celebrates that continuing fight of wild things, made more uneven today by the encroachments of man on their territory. At a deeper level they join the long tradition of shamanism.
Sherry Grauer is exploring a new imagery that combines fantasy, humour and latent power. She is creating a group of five dogfaced boys reminiscent of sideshow freaks, their heads of styrofoam or automobile putty, their bodies of wire. Light as cages, they can be moved about like garden furniture.
It is about five years since Grauer started using wire, first to suggest figures in low relief, then, as she acquired greater skill in the manipulation of this tough medium, advancing to fully detached figures. Her dogfaced boys, made with one-inch rather than half-inch mesh, are that much more illusory: contoured screens filled with light and landscape. Yet they are excitingly alive. This is because of their convincing volumes, drawn not on but with a grid.
Each body has been carefully devised to match the character of the head. The German shepherd is a tall, goodlooking, confident guy, the leader who says: 'Hey, why don't we...' The bulldog, with short neck and barrel chest, leans forward in a morose, pugnacious pose. The dog of no particular breed, tongue lolling out, is a skinny kid, relaxed, ready for anything. In this latter instance the artist has subtly integrated her media by bringing the wire over the head as ears. In all three apparitions she has succeeded in uniting solid, painted form with transparency.
In contrast to the aforementioned artists are those who, by the nature of their materials, destine their sculpture for indoors. Gathie Falk stands paramount here as defender of the beautiful object, although she has also been involved in performance work. Indeed her present motif springs not from observation of everyday life (piles of fruit, shoes in shop windows) but from her participation in Tom Graff's theater piece, the Canada Family Album. At its conclusion Graff rides a carousel horse and thus it is carousel horses that Falk is making.
She cuts them out of threequarter inch plywood and paints them in oil on both sides with a painterly sensibility. Having begun her career as a painter, she is happy to resume this mode. With her customary thoroughness she will make three groups of 24 horses each. The second group will be executed in three-dimensional pencil after the manner of her masterly Manipulations of Durer's Rabbit; and the third group in a medium yet to be decided.
The horses evoke an archetypal childhood image. Simultaneously, as they are freed from their poles, they leap like a wild herd. Falk, who must study a subject in depth to sustain her variations, has gone to see horses in the fields, read about them in library books and watched the Kentucky Derby on TV. This research has brought gains in intensity. It has not, however, upset the balance of unreal and real nor Falk's sure sense of the decorative detail, here a small flower of a different colour on each saddle. For people's artist Falk, the carousel horses will be a popular and aesthetic triumph.
About Richard Prince there is little to add to the insightful article by Avis Lang Rosenberg (artscanada, Feb/March 1973), except to confirm that this young man continues to produce with zest and disciplined precision. Central to his concern is the small format, for practical reasons and also because he feels that large objects can be arrogant in their intrusion on the viewer's space. His boxes concentrate either on scientific analogues or the stuff of poetry. They may be invitations to consider the tremendous geological forces that shape the destiny of man, or distill the charm of a fairy tale. At all times they welcome the viewer into them.
Allan McWilliams's boxes, quite the contrary, distance the viewer by their enigmatic quality and bevelled plate glass, even bars. One has the feeling of Alice grown too big, peering not into an enchanted garden but a silent, sealed world like a set for theater without people.
In 1970 a Canada Council grant enabled McWilliams to travel in Europe, where Florence made a deep impression on him. His boxes evoke Renaissance squares, some with a De Chirico loneliness. In Reliquary the space is occupied by a bleached root, set with a glittering blue eye that transforms it into a mythical bird. Super-rational elements also glide into Ode to Uncle Alex. The two fingers (monumental in context) are cast from those of a friend, who subsequently had to have a finger amputated. Although caged, they taper upwards against a colour photo of clouds suggestive of freedom, and there is a minuscule escape door.
At the core of McWilliams's sensibility is a dual admiration for the constructs of human intelligence as exemplified in architecture and the perfection of organic form. His hinged walnuts open to reveal inset staircases and windows. Conceived originally as Christmas presents, they remain intimate and delightful.
He has also filed apertures in pastel green eggs laid by a South American species of chicken, fitted them with lead windows from toy trains (the geometric within the organic) and placed them in a real nest. The unconscious has again guided to some degree his patient handling of such fragile materials. He learned that the window signifies fire, hence regeneration, thus reinforcing the already potent symbolism of the egg. Returning to the scale in which he worked initially, McWilliams would like to cast his eggs big in fiberglass for natural settings.
Setsuko Piroche, who came to Vancouver five years ago from Tokyo, abandoned academic painting with her native land. She has accepted the challenge of three-dimensional weaving, shaping figures and animals on her loom, then padding them or inserting hoops.
She began with the classic horse and rider. However, exhilarated by North American youth culture (much in evidence in the performance space of the Vancouver Art Gallery where her work was displayed during August), she has broken into a new freedom of expression. Her Three Musicians are an eccentric trio. Unspun wool frizzes madly on heads and chests. Feathers sprout from head or butt. Chemical dyes produce brilliant colours. Cotton-wrapped wire describes the zany convolutions of a trumpet, and a centaur is swaybacked as a horse in a skit.
In another great leap of the imagination Piroche has devised a way to make monumental sculpture out of padded, lifesize dolls. Woven in horizontal rainbow bars they are suspended from the ceiling on ropes, their colours growing ever fainter as they arch upwards. Independent of the work of Lee-Nova and Morris, this sprang freshly from the joy of seeing a rainbow in the Fraser Valley after the pollution of Tokyo.
Shows organized in honour of the First World Craft Exhibition in Toronto brought further sculptural revelations. Robert Polinsky, in Toward Costume at the Vancouver Art Gallery, proved to be a fiber sculptor of genuine authority. Like Piroche he studied another discipline: pottery, a fact which perhaps enables him to take an unconventional attitude toward weaving.
He prefers materials that have a raw quality, using them as their own structure and yielding to their will. Manilla in particular has seduced him. These tawny tresses, which need neither knotting nor binding, have their own flow. Combed and cut at various lengths, without fussiness, they radiate energy. One sculpture that began as an ellipse of stiffened rope grew until, with its drapery of unspun manilla and fringe of raw silk jute, it resembled the majestic trapping of a palfrey. Polinsky worked at it alternately with a loom piece, so that he was ready to shift from preciseness to looser rhythms. This piece has been purchased for the Artists' Lobby of the new CBC building in Vancouver.
Other sculptures, such as one built around a halter, have been influenced by African ceremonial robes. To his luminous manilla Polinsky adds sparing touches of colour contrast through swatches of unspun camel hair and unspun silk. All his work is distinguished by faithfulness to materials and grandeur of scale.
At the Burnaby Art Gallery Instrument Makers offered the swelling back of the lute, the curves of the guitar, the elegance of the French harpsichord and other stringed and wind instruments as essays in sculptural form. We are at present in the midst of a revival of instrument making throughout Canada, sparked by the desire to hear early music played on historical instruments. The West Coast has been no stranger to this movement.
Indeed it is considered the most important centre in North America for this ancient and exacting art.
The prime goal of the instrument maker must be the production of a pleasing sound. But beyond that he develops a strong personal relationship with the instrument he constructs and which he will sign. He chooses with care the native or exotic woods, brings them through layers of varnish and French polish to a high sheen. He nurses the lovely lines, cultivates rightness of proportion. In the matter of ornamentation he may follow what has become traditional for certain instruments or his own taste. Inlays of abalone or ebony, the rose carving in the soundhole of a lute, the wreathed head of Orpheus on the handle of a Baroque hurdy-gurdy, are so many exquisite details inspired by purely aesthetic considerations.
Fifteen artists were represented in Burnaby, of whom the three most outstanding were Michael Dunn, E. R. Turner and Anton Smith. The former two have executed commissions for the National Museum of Man, Ottawa, while Smith has made for Julian Bream. Their replicas of instruments ranging from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and Baroque periods were recreations rather than copies, as a Chinese painter would so steep himself in the work of a certain master that he could project a living continuum of his style. An example would be Michael Dunn's Baroque guitar, after one made by the French luthier René Vobram in 1641, its original inlay of tortoiseshell and ivory transposed into a dramatic marquettry of yew and yellow cedar.
From such diversity how can one deduce the true nature of West Coast sculpture? Lightness of materials and of the spirit, lyricism, involvement with the landscape, wit, fantasy, surrealism — each mode carried to its furthest limits with a daring which provides its armature of toughness.
But why throw a net of words over what is so free? West Coast sculptors obey no international or regional hegemony. Dealers wish they would produce more. Collectors want them to make 'hard' art. Critics and curators curse their inaccessibility as more and more of them drift away to the Gulf Islands. In a sense these artists do everything wrong. In another perhaps they do everything right to preserve their individuality, provided they have the self-discipline to withstand the test of so much freedom.
bill bissett, poet-priest, invokes the ecstatic liberation of the Pacific Rim:
artscanada #190/191, autumn 1974.
Text: © Joan Lowndes. All rights reserved.
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