GERALD FERGUSON STILL LIFES at the Art Gallery Mount Saint Vincent University and
GERALD FERGUSON SILHOUETTES at the Nova Scotia Photo Co-op Gallery
[First published as "The Alliterative Art of Gerald Ferguson" in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island's Arts Atlantic 43, Spring/Summer, 1992, p.9.]
Snatches of Cezanne, Marsden Hartley, Nova Scotia folk painting, Dufy and even rococo wall paper motifs could be picked out of Gerald Ferguson's recent Halifax exhibition of still life paintings at the Art Gallery at Mount Saint Vincent University. These 'alliterative' paintings include stencil impressions of lobsters, bowls, fish, fruit and glasses with details painted free hand. "The immediate reference... is Theorem painting: the still lifes in Folk Art that are derived from the stencil decoration of furniture," writes Ferguson in the Mount Saint Vincent catalogue. Also, the tracery of 'transparency' or 'palimpsest' painting popularized in the eighties by Sigmar Polke and David Salle (in the spirit of Picabia) flickers across Ferguson's filigreed tours de force.
(As a figure of speech, alliteration can suggest a number of emotions, including pathos. Some sort of alliterative vocabulary of pathos - a pathos of phonic mnemonics - is apposite to both the use of stencils to make repeated images of parts of the alphabet in the early seventies painting, and the use of stencils in making still lifes and silhouettes in the more recent work. The word 'alliteration' is being used here 'metaphorically', if you catch my drift. Read on...)
In another recent exhibition, this one at the Nova Scotia Photo Co-op in Halifax, Ferguson displayed silhouette portraits, mostly on unstretched canvas under sheets of plexiglas. (The show was accompanied by an engaging catalogue essay by Marcus Miller.) The silhouettes derive from the wide practice of pre-photographic cut-out portraiture of the late 1700's and earlier. These works, slightly more austere and solemn than the Still Lifes paintings, include memento mori portraits of: Dennis (Young), Susanna (Heller), Glen (Mckinnon), Gerry (Collins) - several of Ferguson's friends. Stretched canvasses include the following images: a bouquet inside a flounder, a skull, a vase of flowers inside a silhouette of a woman with an adjacent panel of lobster silhouettes...
For comic relief, The Ascension of Susy makes an appearance. This picture shows Ferguson's recently deceased dog being paid homage by other pooches. Augmenting a self-portrait called Self-portrait with Corinthian Capital, is a picture of a tusked boar from a book of design motifs. This 'tough, wiry little bugger' is the symbol of Florence and (we speculate) Ferguson himself, ever the tenacious art fighter.
Fighting Ferguson was born in the USA in 1937, and came to Canada in 1968 to teach at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where he and a few others under the presidency of Garry Neill Kennedy ignited a mini-revolution in Canadian visual art. Ferguson is wrapped up in the recent history of the Halifax art school, and must figure prominently in attempts to make sense of NSCAD's contribution to the Canadian and international art discourse.
Like many other of the 'best and brightest' who left the United States in the sixties and seventies, Ferguson was not exactly
'assimilated' into Nova Scotian or Maritime or Canadian culture.
Ferguson's engagement in the local and 'long-distance' scene since 1968 has touched on every aspect of the problems of Nova Scotian historical and contemporary visual art except feminism. As a whole (of course an imaginary 'whole') Ferguson's activity grapples with where he is and who he is as much as what art is and what art does. As a teacher/artist, he molded and continues to influence many of this country's leading contemporary visual artists. As a collector, he was involved in the first significant exhibitions of Nova Scotian Folk art in the seventies. As a curator, Ferguson's exhibition of the Nova Scotia work of the American Modernist painter Marsden Hartley not only illuminated a lost episode in the life of the important American modernist, but also, I think, metaphorically defined Ferguson's own place in the history of Nova Scotia culture.
An examination of the first twenty years of his art and commentary about it contains little that anticipates the radical change of direction Ferguson's art has taken since the cusp of the eighties. Not only has the use of stencils changed markedly, but in works like One Million Pennies (1980, comprised of one million actual pennies piled on the floor of the Glenbow Museum), the assisted landscape paintings made by hiring painter Gerry Collins as an assistant, and later, Ferguson's still life, landscape and seascape paintings of his own hand, Ferguson began committing himself to a kind of imagery unthinkable ten years before.
But Ferguson's new work does not necessarily cast the artist in a completely new light. Given Ferguson's background, his latest period of work might seem to be an extreme expression of artistic crisis as a prominent artist risks credibility as he questions an orthodoxy he is seen to be partly responsible for constructing and maintaining. In fact, Ferguson's painting has developed through a series of crisis, the greatest crisis being post-modernism itself, or to put it negatively (and more accurately), the perceived collapse in modernist artistic values over the last twenty years, a collapse which (paradoxically) it could be argued, was precipitated partly by the bare-bones examination of art basics of the minimalist movement associated with Ferguson's early works. If one is looking for a kind of 'consistency' here, it may only be grasped in Ferguson's practice of deliberately working himself in and out of corners over the years as he moves in and out of periods of work.
I've made a pun on the word 'period', because 'periods' once appeared in Ferguson's painting of the early seventies:. The dots that hover over the stems of lower case 'i's were once a dominant motif; other paintings depicted upper case 'I's. That work was part of a long sequence of paintings, books and prints about the alphabet which began in the late 1960's. The 'dot' paintings were made using a plasterer's beading as a spray paint stencil. The recent use of a lobster template from the Clearwater fish company to make rococo-looking still-lifes has its methodological precedents in these 'dot' works, however bizarre the difference in iconography.
To attempt to neatly link up the iconic 'I' of the early painting; the metaphorical "I" in (what I think is) Ferguson's identification with Hartley; and the biographical and autobiographical "I" of the jumble of portraits of friends and himself in the silhouette paintings may strain tenuous connections within the totality of Ferguson's oeuvre, described by Dennis Young in 1977 as employing a "...range of media...wider than that of almost any artist of his time." (Gerald Ferguson Paintings, The Dalhousie Art Gallery, 1977, p. 5.) Linking up these 'I's also entertains the presumption that there is a single, unified personality out there somewhere: 'Ferguson' - a fiction behind the facts -something no post-structuralist critic would dare attempt to identify.
Ferguson's old stencil work is so different from the new stencil work that one or two links may be worth talking about, if only to highlight the contrasts.
Warhol was the foundation through which Ferguson's earlier ideas about seriality developed (silk-screen stencils and sprayed-through stencils do have their affinities). However, says Ferguson, he never 'bought' the basics of Pop Art, (for example, I would suspect, its commercialism and high art hatred). It was Warhol's methodology and off-register indifference relative to prevailing 'academy' notions about painting which Ferguson found interesting.
Ferguson's use of a spray/stencil technique periodically within twenty years of various kinds of production could be seen to demonstrate either the limit of the possibilities of radical transformation within a technical means, or a perverse self-mockery, part of an artist's utter rejection of the early work, or both. I don't think either characterization would be correct, strictly speaking. An earlier work like Ferguson's book The Standard Corpus of Present Day English Language Usage, arranged by word length and alphabetized within word length, 1970 and the recent stencil paintings have little in common. One would be hesitant to say that the earlier work involving letters and words somehow 'lead' eventually to the current stencil painting.
Artists do not need precedents in their own work to justify a change. However, for us, it may be reassuring to look with hindsight at whatever straws we may grasp for a sense of continuity. An observation made by Eric Cameron in 1975 seems valid, or even prophetic, today:
But for all the systematic subtlety of the strategy, he recognizes that the things he uses, whether words or walls or etching plates, are drawn out of the broader context of the world at large and one of those tangential shifts of emphasis may at any time bring us face to face with the most emotionally charged of real life issues: the irrationality of linguistic taboo [in reference to Ferguson's use of the word 'fuck' in an early tape] or the social competitiveness of self-gratification [a reference to a performance piece which involved performers clapping for themselves]. At that point he always turns back, but recurrences are sufficiently frequent to endow the work as a whole with a sense of latent metaphor...-- Studio International (Vol. 189 No. 974, Mar/April 1975 pp 124-128)At one point around 1979 Ferguson simply decided not to 'turn back'. 'Latent metaphor' came out of the closet and the work became accessible in an extraordinary way. (As mentioned) the new stencil paintings retain a certain austerity about them like the earlier work, however loaded the imagery and flashy the brush work. In a way, these paintings are just as tastefully iconoclastic as his task-oriented word art of the early seventies.
Unfortunately, Ferguson's early 'alliterative' paintings have never been scrutinized in a comprehensive exhibition. Such an exhibition would enrich the viewing of the recent work.