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Back-Door Beauty: Gerald Ferguson’s Paintings

"Back-door Beauty" by Gary Michael Dault, Spring 2008, pp. 72-77

The word “frottage” possesses a semi-comic, essentially ignoble meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “an abnormal desire for contact between the clothed bodies of oneself and another.” But, as Gerald Ferguson points out early on in the text he wrote to accompany his survey exhibition “Frottage Works 1994–2006,” which was mounted at the Dalhousie Art Gallery in Halifax last spring, it is more widely used, obviously, as a term for (as the OED would have it) “the technique or process of taking a rubbing from an uneven surface to form the basis for a work of art.”

Ferguson notes that his first encounter with frottage came “in grade one when the teacher gave us crayons and paper and had us do a rubbing of our desk top”; as he goes on to say, “we are all familiar with rubbings taken from old grave stones.” We are all doubtless familiar as well, as Ferguson also notes, with the frottage experiments of the Surrealists, principally Max Ernst, who found in the process his own way of contributing to and yet personalizing André Breton’s program for the generation of “psychic automatism” (“Frottage,” noted Ernst, “is nothing other than a technical means of intensifying the hallucinatory faculties of the spirit in such a way that ‘visions’ automatically appear, a means of ridding oneself of one’s blindness”).

Ferguson’s subsequent protestation that he is, of course, “not interested in Surrealism” can take its place as one of the charming understatements of recent Canadian art history. Indeed, I cannot imagine anyone who might be more horrified than Ferguson at the possibility of the frottage act being the catalyst for any spontaneous quickening of unbidden “visions.” For him, frottage is simply a useful tool for picture-making. As he puts it, with his trademark directness, in the catalogue for the Dalhousie show, “for the past fifteen years I have made impressions on canvas using a house-painting roller loaded with paint passed over a variety of common materials.”

So Ferguson’s relentless cleaving to frottage does not open the gates to the unconscious or encourage the swarming-up from the canvas of a stream of imagistic monsters born from the sleep of reason. On the contrary, it pretty firmly shuts the door on all normative painterly decisions about composition, colour, texture, composition, symbolism, metaphor and most other preoccupations that attend the conventional modernist role of the artist as the privileged purveyor of an intuitive creativity shepherded by a genius recourse to tact and taste. For Ferguson, frottage is simply an effective means of proceeding through picture-making; as James Patten has put it, a “systematic yet variable process” by which paintings can come to themselves, assisted by an artist whose task is to satisfy certain minimum conditions necessary for the production of “impressions on canvas.” Frottage is a distancing device. And if there’s any artmaking procedure sweeter to Gerald Ferguson than distancing, I don’t know what it is.

Paradoxically, Ferguson’s 15-year sojourn in frottage has produced hundreds upon hundreds of beautiful paintings. “Beautiful” and “beauty,” of course, are prickly, high-maintenance words that everyone would now rather avoid entirely or at least consign to the self-conscious world of knowing, raised-eyebrow italics and nervous quotation marks. Which is one reason, I suppose, that Ferguson has had a continuing, amused affinity for a double-sided, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too phrase he once used in an email to the curator and writer Diana Nemiroff, and which I have repeated three or four times in various reviews of Ferguson’s exhibitions: his paintings, he says, do allow for a certain “beauty through the back door.” That is, through the tradesmen’s entrance.

Ferguson’s distaste for and animadversions upon the exclusive hot licks and privileged exquisiteness of modernist painting (and beyond) and his distancing himself from them have been lifelong.1 Born in Cincinnati in 1937 and educated at Ohio University, Ferguson was in 1968 invited by Garry Neill Kennedy to the Nova Scotia College of Art, where he continued to teach until 2006. During the 37-year trajectory of his teaching—wherein he stubbornly, persuasively tilled the fields of the kind of conceptual art for which the college became primarily known—Ferguson maintained an enviably productive studio practice.

In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Ferguson was making what the Dalhousie Art Gallery curator Susan Gibson Garvey has handily referred to as “literal, task-oriented paintings” made up of rows of dots or circles drawn onto canvas through an industrial template with a felt-tip pen. In 1979, he created his even-now-infamous pile of 1,000,000 Pennies (it is now owned by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia) and, in 1984, exhibited a suite of Nova Scotia Landscapes, an almost over-tasty group of paintings actually made by a New Brunswick artist named Gerard Collins, who was hired by Ferguson to transform a collection of trite postcard views into “unique” works of art. As Ferguson noted ruefully to the exhibition’s curator, Linda Milrod, “You felt cheated—maybe even guilty—for liking them.”

The desubjectified landscapes were followed by a series of beautiful stencilled paintings (1989–92) that trod so lightly and yet so pointedly through the flower beds of art history (in strategic imagistic raids of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, for example), and by works resembling Nova Scotia folk art, of which Ferguson is a collector and scholar (his Theorem paintings, fish and lobster paintings and so on). The apotheosis of the stencilling act came with his epic 1,000,000 Grapes project from 1996–97. This stupefying series consisted of one hundred 48-by-48-inch canvases featuring 10,000 grapes per canvas—painted into place using a stencil of 40 grapes repeatedly rolled over with black acrylic enamel.

It had all been about attaining distance. Dotting on grids, ordering up pennies from the Royal Canadian Mint, farming out the painting act to another painter, stencilling—it was all a way (to paraphrase Hamlet’s Polonius) of employing indirection to “find directions out.” To back off, somewhat—but only somewhat— from the personally expressive act.2

Ferguson’s intense and continuing use of frottage as a method for making paintings seems to have had its origin in a single experience; in 1992, he frottaged a single 18th-century cast-iron fireback into a constructed painting. This led to the gridded Fireback Paintings of 1994–95, which in turn led to a further group of paintings called Informal Fireback Paintings (1997–98), for which the artist frottaged a single fireback per work, but moved it restlessly to different locations within the canvas for each frottaging (“The paintings looked like some strange form of Cubism,” Ferguson wrote, “with overlapping faceted planes in a shallow space”).

The fireback works were followed by the Clothesline Paintings (1999–2000), which were made by frottaging varying lengths of plastic-coated wire clothesline (from 50 feet up to a mile’s worth of the stuff), the graceful curves of the resulting line often overlapping, producing Pollock-like whorls—a romantic reading everywhere denied by the rigour of their planning and making. By making stencils congruent with some of the spaces created by the criss-crossed lines and rolling these back into the gaping spaces, “filling” them with black paint (the way some people fill in the loops in letters when they’re doodling), Ferguson then made his Miró-like series Clothesline Abstraction (2000). The difficulty with this work, he felt, was that it was simultaneously too pretty (beauty was knocking at the front door) and too allusive. He found himself composing (you can feel the distasteful shudder locked in the word). “The last thing I wanted to do,” he wrote, “was subvert what I thought was a subversive way of doing ‘abstract’ paintings. The world did not need any more dirty versions of Matisse, Miró, Arp, early de Kooning or Gorky.”

After a brief dalliance with the frottaging of dowel rods, Ferguson turned to using garden hose, a move that resulted in a series of paintings in which varying lengths of hose coiled around a central void (“like a donut or a rubber tire”). In 2000 and 2001, there were Rope Paintings (with horizontally arranged lengths of rope) and Rod and Rope Paintings—into which Ferguson introduced, with some misgivings, stained coloured grounds (as he puts it, “I have long adhered to Ad Reinhardt’s dictum that colour blinds”). The colour, as it turned out, was a momentary ploy. Colour and rigour pull in opposite directions.

Ferguson made one more pass at colour, though—or, rather, colour made a pass at him—in 2002. While attempting to make frottage use of a quantity of welded steel chain given to him by a friend, he found that the chain impressions looked, on their own, too much like lines of small dashes running through the canvas— an effect that reminded him of his paintings from the late 1960s. The solution to the problem—and to the problem of getting colour into his paintings by the back door—lay in his coming across a supply of used house-painter’s drop cloths. These were, of course, randomly and splotchily prepainted. There was lots of colour here and Ferguson didn’t have to raise a finger to produce it. By frottaging his chains onto these colourful drop cloths, by submerging the dashes made by the chains in these precoloured canvas fields, he in no time had a suite of paintings—some of them as large as ten feet square—that, as he puts it, “had the look of School of Paris abstract painting from the 1950s, which I thought was hilarious.” What was equally hilarious was that when the paintings were first shown, at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery in Halifax in the autumn of 2003, they were mostly taken to be what they initially looked like: big, excitingly composed, romantic, dashingly coloured, beautiful abstract paintings. Some viewers congratulated him on his “chromatic sensitivity.” However, as Ferguson noted, the works’ combination of “borrowed or found support and my minimal intervention seemed to many like cheating.” As he noted in an email to me a year before the exhibition (for which I was to write the catalogue essay), “It’s logical and hilarious, a way to sneak in color without all those stupid decisions. Systematic production meets Ab Ex…As with all things in art with me, I sit around waiting for a dumb idea.” “Dumb idea,” as I noted in the essay, is code for “brilliant idea.”

The frottaging continued with a quick succession of powerful and highly successful bodies of work: the messy, beautiful Door Mat Paintings (2003–04)—for which the artist stepped in black paint and courteously wiped the paint off the canvas with his feet (“This too is a frottage process, albeit a sticky and slippery one”)— and, directly thereafter, the Fence Paintings of 2004–05 (involving the frottaging of various kinds of fencing material) and the Drain Cover Paintings and Ash Can Paintings from 2005 and 2006.

The Ferguson frottages I saw most recently (in June 2007, at Toronto’s Wynick/Tuck Gallery) were collectively called The Artists Studio, a series completed in 2002 but not hitherto exhibited. These works seemed richly summarizing to me. By frottaging his studio’s ceiling, its floor and the inside and outside of its door, Ferguson not only neatly (and palpably) referenced the long tradition of the artist and his studio in Western art (in his notes, Ferguson cites myriad fecund and historically emblematic artist-studio relationships, from Rembrandt through Courbet, Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Brancusi and Pollock), but also employed his now superbly nuanced and reflexive frottage system of picture-making to simultaneously demythologize the studio as a subject and—as a poignant revisitation of his grade-one task of frottaging his classroom desktop—create an environmental, walk-in response, late in his long career, to the nature of his own identity and place in the world. With The Artists Studio, Ferguson was “literally recording my place of work.” And everything that might mean.

This is a feature article from the Spring 2008 issue of Canadian Art.


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