Cape Breton University Art Gallery
Curated by Suzanne A. Crowdis
June 8-August 25, 2007
I would like to thank Briony Carros, Executive Director of Visual Arts Nova Scotia, for extending the opportunity to participate in this exciting celebration of VANS’s thirtieth anniversary. I also wish to acknowledge the other curators involved in the Undercurrents project, Bruce Campbell (StFX Art Gallery) and Ingrid Jenkner (Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery), for their camaraderie and encouragement. To the participating artists who generously gave their time, thoughts and, on occasion, food and lodging, I send my gratitude. Your creativity and dedication drives and inspires me.
Cape Breton University Art Gallery
When When I began the challenge of curating an exhibition for Visual Arts Nova Scotia’s thirtieth anniversary — excitedly clicking through a myriad of slides and reading through artist statement after artist statement — I said out loud, “Wow, how lucky is Nova Scotia!” For such a small province, we have an astounding concentration of wonderful artists, working in different ways, with different materials, striving to learn more about the world and to find new ways of communicating and presenting their findings. Nova Scotia is blessed to grow and attract such individuals. InHereOutThere celebrates the contributions of Nova Scotian artists to our understanding of the world, demonstrates our inter-relationships and connectedness, and transcends the limitations of the local and immediate while simultaneously recognizing its beauty and role.
Many artists I meet say that they came to Nova Scotia — or stayed here — because they could get away from the stressors and constraints of big-city life. The isolation of living in a cabin in the mountains, on a cliff near the sea, or any other habitat that provides privacy and distance, invites the actual and perceived time and space necessary for creation. The proximity or immersion in forests, oceans and mountains is such a powerful force that it can’t be a deterrent to inspiration and creative vision. Relative seclusion provides an opportunity to slow down and tune out the extraneous, to examine our inner-selves and move into a more humble, meditative existence.
A dichotic method of working appears in artists, marked by a cycle of looking inward and then outward. This echoes an innate human relationship to the natural world, and perhaps for those on the East Coast, it is borne out of a traditional way of life that combines relative geographic isolation with a reliance on the economies and events of the wider world. Place may also be a factor in this mindset, birthed by the province’s many opportunities for both looking outward and looking inward. Many special places exist, where the sheer magnitude of the environment invites awe and a deep sense of reverence for the wonders of the natural world, encouraging expansive, cosmic questions about life. A question emerges from this push/pull: What came first — the environment or the questions? Does the environment prompt spiritual questions, or do questions about the nature of life and existence send us on a journey through the mysteries of the universe? I would answer yes and yes, but I wonder if it’s naive to think that the two lines of questioning are ever separable. This constant act of cycling through the inner and outer realms — or moving within and without — on this quest for connection and the very human representations of powerful emotion and vulnerability, prompted me to curate this celebratory InHereOutThere.
In his article Aesthetic Experience in Forests, Holmes Rolston III notes that such inner reflection and spiritual awakening — indeed transcendence of the human world — is often triggered by experiences in and with nature. 1 Anyone fortunate enough to have a breathtaking encounter when looking “out there” to the natural environment knows that turning inward is more readily achieved living in such special places. The environment is a source of wonder, and its geography, flora and fauna are the motifs that artists such as Susan Wood, Renate Deppe and Tony Myers use to trigger larger questions, as well as to reflect on, and show respect to, the natural world.
Iris Over Time, They Fade Quickly, Desiccated, and White Vase #1 by Susan Wood are depictions of flora in various life stages. In a realistic and moving way, these pieces present the progression from growth to maturity to decay. Hauntingly, these representations also remind us of the life cycle: They invite us to see correlations between our own journeys in time and space and that of the flowering plants. Similarly, Renate Deppe utilizes seedpods collected from her garden as the recurring motif in her series In Death There is Life; a springboard for contemplating the course of life and the cycle of death and rebirth common to all living things on the planet.
Both Deppe and Myers question human perceptions of the greater world, demonstrating how we are only a small part of a huge universe. They also point to how little we have tapped into the ancient, primordial understanding of the magnitude of the universe and its intricacies. In Three Portrait Collages, Deppe’s figures move fluidly with natural elements, mindfully interweaving human connection and dependency on the environment; the effect is an energetic undulating and mixing of these energies.
Myers’ latest work explores the language of birds and their symbolism as messengers — harbingers of primitive spirituality and signifiers of the human relationship to nature. Nature Boy, Shaman, Sentinel and One Crow Sorrow depict complex interrelationships of humans and animals with nature and the earth. In these pieces, the birds seem to know the secrets of this interconnection and transcendence, while the humans continue to toil, not entirely aware of the breadth of this unity and interdependence. Trees presents us with an immediate screen of a thorny, defensive environment. This dense landscape requires cooperation of humans and forest, and careful navigation to access this space. It refuses to be overtaken and only admits viewers when they understand the harmony of human and tree.
Turning inwards may entail examining the structure and materials of our unique communities, tracing our familial histories, or delving into our psyches or into our personal histories, and unearthing all that those activities entail. The economies of communities, the issues surrounding interconnections and interdependency of people on each other and the environment — including our families and neighbours — become loci for examination by artists such as Audrey Nicoll, Susan Malmstrom and Gillian McCulloch.
Tragedy of the Commons and Digby Fleet are examples from Nicoll’s Value Load — A Tragedy of the Commons. In this series, the artist examines the devastating effects of ignoring environmental fragility in favour of meeting perceived economic and social interests in resource-based economies. By looking at the state of her community, Nicoll questions the reverberations of individual choice on wider environmental phenomena. She demonstrates that looking inwards and outwards are inextricably bound and that the unity and prosperity of humans and their environment go hand in hand.
The influence of human material — of family and foreign cultures — becomes apparent in Hallie Watson and Jim Smith’s drawings and ceramics. Watson’s four pieces are drawn from her Treasure Project series. Everyday objects become expressions of human history, revealing inherited experience, fascination with the past and hope for the future. Jean’s Mother’s First Needlepoint, Paperweight, Ice Bucket and Quail Eggs are accompanied by a story communicating the artist’s experience with each subject and the history of how the subject came into the world. The need for us to demonstrate our existence and leave a mark on the world is often apparent through the objects we collect and pass on to others. These objects’ stories, believes Watson, constitute an expression of human character, a pronouncement of “I am here!” even after people are gone.
Jim Smith, on the other hand, looks to objects from the Italian Renaissance for his inspiration. Smith’s works, one might say, doubly exemplify the ability to simultaneously honour and transcend the local. Inspired by Italian motifs, Smith creates his ceramics with Nova Scotia earthenware clay from the village of Chester. His art explores cross-cultural influences in the development of ceramic art, putting a contemporary spin on a centuries-old and multicultural tradition of people being inspired by what is “out there.” Through his research into Italian ceramics, Smith developed the arabesque and vine motifs featured in these works; his own version of “ubiquitous motifs that are present in numerous cultures over the millennia that represent perpetual abundance and the continuity of life unfolding in perpetuity.” Smith notes that “this desire for abundance is shared by all people in all places throughout the ages and is still relevant today.”2
Sharing this cross-cultural approach, Janet Pope’s textiles make visual references to floral and bird motifs and design principles found in Islamic and Eastern art. Persian carpets and embroideries are sources of inspiration for works such as Sun Garden.Galaxy Garden and Red Stars draw on Eastern spiritual traditions with their examination of structure within chaos and metaphorical representations of star-filled galaxies and space. Multi-patterns that swarm and spill to the edges, yet still conform to an underlying visual logic, correlating to the chaos and order witnessed on both microcosmic and macrocosmic levels, speaking to the unity of all beings and matter in the universe.
In her photographic series Beyond Words, Susan Malmstrom examines how we share visual language and collective memory and what each of us draws from our own experiences. In Flight Risk, Tortured Metaphor and Shared Sacrifice, miniature universes are constructed around vernacular North American phrases, created with items the artist has collected, including toys, souvenirs, original and family photographs, reproductions and household items. Each phrase and object evokes a specific personal memory and narrative by Malmstrom, but its specificity is transcended when witnessed by other viewers. The narrative suggested by each phrase is recreated with each new viewer and perhaps with each viewing.
With Flight Risk, Tortured Metaphor and Shared Sacrifice, Malmstrom provides opportunities for viewers to examine what the phrases and imagery evoke as triggers of personal history and relationship to the wider world. The works tap into collective memory and shared visual symbolism, and require the viewer’s dialogue with shared and personal meanings. In short, our uniqueness and similarities become apparent when viewed through the lens of Malmstrom’s photographs.
Gillian McCulloch’s My Child, Her Child is a profound representation of the intimate relationship between mother and child and how this bond remains and translates across culture and circumstance. The relative stability of life in Canadian culture versus that of the majority of the world is demonstrated in the contrast of bright and dark and the inversion of the figures. Although daily realities differ, children are still loved and there is powerful desire — even primal force — to protect and care for them. In here and out there, mothers’ love remains.
Claudia Mannion bridges representational landscape and psychological terrain. These small panels, using only the motifs of house and environment, are rife with personal connotation. The inner realm, represented by the house, is situated in harsh counterpoint with the outer realm of the landscape. Mannion says the generic house shape reflects issues relating to family, home, safety and isolation, and notes that the ambiguous picture plane provides a screen on which the viewer can project their own experiences. What is the relationship of the viewer to their home, be it a physical dwelling or experienced place? Where do the viewers situate themselves and how do they connect and feel secure in the world? House with Shadowprovokes feelings of danger and insecurity, while White House, Foggy House,Beyond Simcoe Circle and Pink House seem more optimistic, or at least less menacing and uncertain.
The immediate, instinctual, gestural products of a particular moment in time, worked in acrylic and graphite by Christine Ross, implore us to feel a physical connection to the artist. With her Impetus series, Ross demands the viewer make an immediate, experiential, kinetic connection to the artist. She demonstrates an elemental energy, a universal life force from which the viewer can vicariously share and connect in these drawings. This series also speaks of the primal connection of humans to material for energy and for creativity. Denying any references to the representational, on the surface Impetus Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 are the most “in here” of the works featured in this exhibition, yet they simultaneously speak of human dependence and rely on these interconnections to come alive.
The artwork in InHereOutThere conveys and reveals connectivity on many levels. Physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual connections between humans, plants, animals and the environment are apparent. But I would argue that the most engaging concept that recurs is the quest to find connections, to understand our worlds and our place within them. Our looking in here and out there is the common denominator. We are all searching and questioning the world around us and trying to navigate and understand our place in it. Some of the artists in this exhibition look to animals, plants, communities, objects or motifs. Others look inwards — to feelings and energies. Though they all look — in their own fashion — to the primal cosmic forces at work in the universe and our kinetic, intuitive bodies (macro and micro-cosmic).
1. Holmes Rolston, III, Aesthetic Experience in Forests, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Spring 1998): 163-166.
2. Jim Smith in an email to Suzanne A. Crowdis, April 02, 2007.