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DENNIS GILL: GHOSTS

[This text was first published in 1993-4 in Dennis Gill Now and Then as two versions of a catalogue for an exhibition at Saint Mary's University Art Gallery, Halifax.]

In this exhibition Gill shows past works, some as old as twelve years, along with what he calls ”ghosts,” recently-made gyproc and plywood versions of selected past works. Gyproc is also called “wallboard”; it is a sandwich with paper as the bread, and a plaster filling. It can be cut with a matt knife, but Gill uses a saw. It is finished with gyproc “mud” and black gyproc screws. There are practical limits to Gill’s ghosting technique, to what can be made in a straightforward way with gyproc and plywood. In only one piece in this exhibition has he reconstructed a past work in the original materials: Here and There, (1980). Everything else is either the original work, a ghosted version, or both He has not taken measurements to make his “ghosts”; in many cases this would have been impossible, because the “originals” (a term Gill dislikes) no longer exist.

In 1975, Gill made a lithograph of a rafter’s square, or carpenter’s square, a dark “L” shape on a buff-coloured ground. It is the earliest work in this exhibition. Under the “L” shape Gill included a caption, a quotation from Tony Smith:”Craftsmanship and art are much closer than most artists are willing to admit but...where does the distinction take place?” (Rafter’s Square has not been ghosted.) Gill printed it in two colours, grey and brown, so as to obscure the square’s measurement marks, as if to muddy the issue of craft and art by “illustrating” the difficulties of measuring the difference. Rafter’s Square is a tool of working life, like the gyproc and plywood of Gill’s ghosts, but it is only suggestive of Gill’s life.

Clock, however, is autobiographical. Ron Shuebrook describes it in an article about a 1980 group show at Mercer Union in Toronto:

Gill was, in fact, born and grew up in this historical [Halifax] landmark. This Clock was hung on a welded steel shelf above eye level that forced the viewer to look up at it. This compelled the viewer to assume a vantage point similar to the position that most pedestrians must assume when they look up at the steep hill to the actual clock on the Citadel. Gill used a variety of materials to indicate the parts of the Clock, including a cast concrete first storey, a machined and cast iron tower, and a copper dome. The engineered look of its components was determined by the reputed design of the building being attributed to an engineer rather than to an architect...” (Shuebrook, 20)

Gill tells me that the ball at the top of his Clock was part of an installation work by the American artist Dennis Oppenheim, whose conceptual art and sculpture has interested him for some time. The original Town Clock is a locally venerated building, and its Georgian-era neoclassicism is much loved in Halifax. Gill’s work is rarely autobiographical in this way: this one is hermetic, because its specifics cannot be connected to Gill’s birth and upbringing without clues, hence Shuebrook having called it “quirky” in his review.

Gill’s work has often been about sculpture itself, and sculptural processes and tools. Early on he aligned his work with work that investigated the “ground zero” basics of art. The 1980 work Sculptor’s Orb is an example, with its hammer head and anvil form, as is Here and There, a mold with the cast of its own making.

In the ‘80s, Gill began to introduce much other content in the work. For example, heart shapes in several works are an abstract, codified sign for love and emotion. Sometimes, as in Vanity Mirror, Gill plays with perceptual illusions as if to make a parallel with emotional misperceptions. Some work recalls that of his colleague, John Greer, and a host of other artists who have expanded the materials and methods of art since the late ‘50s, in neo-dada, pop, and conceptualism. Popular imagery was very often used in a reductive, schematic way. The attitude was cool, analytical and very urban.

These roots don’t fully account for the rural, the “natural” or biological orientation of Gill’s more recent works like the hearts in slate, or In The Heat of The Moment, or his untitled walking stick with snake skin (which I will call Walking Stick).

These works have been given a mythological twist in recent writing by Robin Metcalfe. I find this approach unsatisfying because mythological content in art, and hence mythological ”analyses” cannot be directly believed.

At the beginning of the century physics was the science that fascinated artists, because they believed it. More recently, feminist critiques of biological determinism and environmental concerns have made biology the site of cultural debate, and contemporary artists like Gill have made a contribution, shifting their ground from the blank slate basics of physics to the taxonomies of pluralistic disciplines like biology. I mistrust talk about new “paradigms” developing, but I do see a shift of focus by some artists and in some work which I’d like to characterize as “biological,” (rather than say, “post-modern”).

When Duchamp made his own physics, he imagined humans as mechanical, not biological. The Three Standard Stoppages were a proposal for his own standard meters. Duchamp used chance to formulate his personal physics, and he speculated on the physics of various dimensions. Gill’s Walking Stick form is derived from the shadow of his bent walking stick as it was cast on his kitchen floor. One could easily relate this act to Duchamp’s theorizing about an n-dimensional body casting an n-1 dimensional shadow. Gill made a template from a shadow in a way similar to Duchamp’s projection of images into the Large Glass.

But when asked, Gill says a “shadow is to a shape as a snake skin is to the snake’s form”. He made a snake skin - a tubular form in the shape of a walking stick shadow with fibatape put around Styrofoam with three coats of fiberglass resin painted on. Afterward, he melted the Styrofoam with gasoline to make the form hollow. A residue inside this “skin” can be seen as a record of what is no longer present: according to the artist it looks like the intact real snake skin he once saw in the woods of Northern New Brunswick.

Walking Stick makes the measure of its form not a standard meter as Duchamp did in play with the Three Standard Stoppages, but a whole biological form, a shed snake skin, a whole snake except for a hollow inside. I read Walking Stick as a visual pun on biological and sculptural reproduction, an important precursor of Gill’s ghosts, the still-born children of Gill’s original sculptures. The minimalist-looking “ghost” is enriched by knowledge of the original. Like a real shed snake skin, the complexities of the original sculpture are absent in the ghost: only a schematic form remains. Seeing one of Gill’s ghosts without its “original” might bring to mind minimalist sculpture, Malevich’s architectons, or an art deco architectural form, but in the company of a work like Walking Stick, one’s viewing is different.

The 1980s work Here and There, is about the the simple physics of casting, but the hidden light source which shines out from under the mold toward its cast suggests to me, that the simple physics of casting has been wittily augmented by the artist by “sight,” a light source for its asexual “reproduction”! The sexual energy and punning of the snakes in In The Heat of The Moment; the stylized representations of valentines in the slate work which includes the text “and they lived happily ever after”; the vanity mirrors; demonstrate a shift in Gill’s art from the elemental world of sculpture as the expression of the basics of physics, or perhaps ‘pataphysics in the tradition of Duchamp, to sculpture about biological life. Instead of the irreducible principles of the physics of sculpture being demonstrated, we see play with the pluralistic taxonomies of biology.

Bibliography

de Duve, Theirry (ed.). The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp. Cambridge: NSCAD & MIT Press (see "Objects of Modern Skepticism," 243-276 by Herbert Molderings) 1991

Danto, Arthur C. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, A Philosophy of Art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981

Kelly, Gemey. Dennis Gill, In the Heat of the Moment There is No Reason. Halifax: Dalhousie Art Gallery, 1987

MacKeeman, Karl. “Printmaking in Nova Scotia” Toronto: Artmagazine, March/April 1977, 18-22.

Metcalfe, Robin. Subject/Matter. Halifax: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1992

Shuebrook, Ron “Empathetic Witness, Halifax N.S.,” Vanguard magazine, February 1981. 16-22

Spalding, Jeffrey.et al. Robin Peck:1971-1991 Burnaby: Burnaby Art Gallery, 1991.

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