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Charlotte Townsend-Gault

NSCAD MFA Graduating Exhibitions [Peter Legris, Suzanne Swannie, Celeste Roberge, Harry Symons, Courtney Anderson, Rose Adams, Jim Drobnick, and Lorene Bourgeois]
Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, April 1986

Vanguard, Vol. 15 #4, September 1986.
[ 1,412 words ]


Given the reputation of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, the infiltration of many spheres of the Canadian art community by its graduates, and its well-known visiting artists programme, it is perhaps more important to attend to the work of its graduating MFA students, exhibited at the end of the year in a series of six-day shows, rather than to its myth or the fortunes of its alumnae. It is work that may be taken as some kind of synthesis of what senior students bring to their experience at the college with what they take from it.

At first the work seemed very diverse, but on closer inspection there was a common theme: how to begin? how to make and show meaningful work? The question is accompanied by a general suspicion of received wisdom and a deconstructing of everything in sight. The tactical problems of production dominated concerns with the products, installation, object or imagery. This may seem like a retreat, especially in an environment heavy with a history of vigilance over just these issues. Yet the work was neither callow nor ingenuous; it was, rather, highly controlled, with little evidence of loose experiment, nothing of the splurge of pastiche angst. This group has been criticised in some quarters for being boring, apolitical (in comparison with the the graduating classes of recent years). This is because 'political issues' have been replaced by a diligent, even moralistic, search for a position from which to address concerns, political or other, for ways in which life and art could interact meaningfully.

This is process art inasmuch as the process of self-exploration is part of the work. Each of these artists, differently, suggested that the dominance of process over image arises out of absolute uncertainty, and that the necessary first step, which has not always seemed so necessary, is to locate the self. This autobiographical quest may owe something to feminist practice. It may not be unrelated to the fact that during the last year the college has been preoccupied with internal politics, providing unexpected insights into various aesthetic positions held therein, even if at the expense of some wider issues.

It would be reasonable to infer from the paintings and painted photo-collages of Peter Legris — small, tightly rendered, with their vocabulary of tree, fence, lighthouse, skyscraper and aeroplane, set in static and somehow wistful relationships — that they spring from a distressed intellect, a melancholia. Legris struggles with the relationship between his work and the avant-garde. He tackles this head-on in a critique of Peter Burger's distinction between the historic and 'neo' avant-garde, arguing that, following the acknowledgement of material determinants, an acknowledgement of social determinants is the logical development for art rather than the rupture that Burger diagnoses.

Legris concludes that attempts to undermine the autonomy of art, to engender a more direct relationship to praxis are futile / questionable. Legris reads Burger as attempting to order art out of existence, and he protests, since art is all he has to make existence bearable.

Suzanne Swannie's contribution to the group is unique in that it deals confidently with her own art historical precedents. Trained as a weaver, she acknowledges roots in Bauhaus ideas, in the work of Anni Albers, Leonora Tawney and Sol Lewitt. The masses and expanses of pressed organdie squares with threads drawn according to a formula, a tissue of minimal and serial elements, are an exquisite variant on the theme of the relationship between mass and line, the vertical and horizontal elements becoming a root metaphor for the need to integrate art and life.

Celeste Roberge's musings in Geographies show evidence of solid reading. Intelligent and illuminating, they in no way supplant the physical experience of her sculptures. Her small floor works, head- / egg-shaped in solid, heavy metal or iron-bound bundles of wire wool or pebbles, scarcely able to contain the forces they lock up, are self-evidently the result of experiment with those natural forces beyond human control. Roberge's largest work, Geography's Body, a human with the same exoskeletal construction restraining the inorganic substance (wire wool, which gives the illusion of very organic bundles and coils of innards) contemplates a hollow globe.

Although Harry Symons paints paintings, traditional autonomous objects, he declares himself willing to accommodate the needs and preferences of his viewers. His canvasses were displayed, un-stretched and unframed, tacked to the wall as they would be in his studio, some on top of each other so that they had to be lifted to see underneath. These vigorous paintings of people in interiors, in expressionist vein, show an uncommon sense of composition not often found, or sought, in contemporary painting.

After years of objections to galleries on almost every possible ground —objections which have been, in part, responsible for the shape, or lack of it, that art has taken over the last 20 years — people who make paintings, for whom galleries were initially designed, can still demur, can still cast around for alternative ways of showing, of escaping the predicament. Symons and Courtney Anderson both attempted to make studio installations out of their gallery shows. Part of Rose Adams's show actually took place in her studio, linked, by an organic motif, to the rest of it in the gallery downstairs. Anderson achieved something of the studied seediness of a Lower East Side gallery in a re-make of his studio: beaten-up furniture, burnt toast, artless display of work — piled against the wall, on shelves, tables, etc. His images, in enamel on masonite, made redolent by being left alone in space where the horizon suggests infinity, get some endorsement from Surrealism and Tim Zuck. But the yellow lizard, the turquoise plane, the pink seahorse floating on their strongly complementary backgrounds have an integrity of their own.

Jim Drobnick's thoroughly provocative installation featured the outlines of gigantic male figures, upside down, extended along the gallery walls, presences that belied the arbitrary precision of the puzzles — join the dots; how was this box constructed? The puzzles were formulated with a precision unknown in the problems posed by life. This is as much as to say that it is not in the nature of the problems but in the way they are tackled that the real self would appear. The real, male, self is the subject of Drobnick's work. He succeeds in his ambitious attempt to make us see, again, what a problem that is. Along with Rose Adams's Reflections of the Garden, Drobnick and Lorene Bourgeois demand the kind of critical apperception which may, au fond, be the essence of NSCAD. Coming to Nova Scotia from France, Bourgeois has also made the transference on another level. Accustomed to cathedrals and finding dockyards, she has produced, in Au Lieu de la Nef, a meditation on the related ideas that cluster around the ship / church equation, an equation that goes far beyond their common Latin roots. She has seen the ship as a monument upon which spiritual aspirations and hopes of prosperity can focus. In her statement she stresses that her exploration of this phenomenon was as important to her as anything that ended up in the gallery. Her installation orients the gallery to illumine the parallel between the architectural elements of the nave and the ribs of a ship. The paintings, in gouache on rag paper, one of the components of the installation, are at once illusionistic and flat. They are invested with an other-worldly quality which a pragmatic rendition of things of this world can sometimes achieve, and are convincing enough for us to be able to imagine with the artist the dialectical process of coming to terms with the forms of an alien culture. The church, the boat, some art, are interventions between human and non-human reality: 'While trying to define a space which everyone here took for granted, I came across a universe which I myself had never questioned.' This insight supplies a text apposite to the work of all her graduating colleagues.


Vanguard, Vol. 15 #4, September 1986.


Text: © Charlotte Townsend-Gault. All rights reserved.

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