Firmly Rooted in Cultivar
The recent work of Thierry Delva
[First published as a catalogue essay for an exhibition that Eyland curated at the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery 23 November-16 December 1990. Below this essay is an artist's statement by Delva also published in the catalogue.]
Thierry Delva's story is an unusual one. He immigrates to Canada from Belgium and attends an internationally acclaimed art college (Nova Scotia College of Art & Design). In college, he makes work which has to do with natural forces and alchemical transformations, all safely academic in nature. He decides to become a stone mason as a way of supporting his art, and takes up studio space in a former Hell's Angels clubhouse in Halifax. He begins to take his masonry working methods into his studio. He goes on to chisel his way into Nova Scotia's art history.
This is Delva's first exhibition of his masonry sculpture, and also his first solo show in a public gallery. The work consists of twelve sandstone sculptures. The sandstone comes from quarries Wallace, Nova Scotia and Mary's Point, New Brunswick. Wallace stone is gray and hard, while Mary's Point stone is slightly softer, and red-tinged.
The one large column-like work in this exhibition is composed of four pieces of stone; seven smaller column-like pieces are comprised of two stone pieces each, as are the four pilaster-like works. The stones are 'stacked', that is, they are made of pieces which are doweled and carefully fitted together. Square shafts are cut with saws, but other work is done by hand with a mallet and chisel. As one might expect, Delva's work is slowly conceived and labour intensive.
Iconographically, Delva's large column has strong affinities with Art Deco; the roots of the smaller columns display a medieval quality of direct carving, while the unfinished, or quarry-worked backs of many of the sculptures suggest minimalist art. The play with neoclassical plant forms of Nova Scotia masonry constitutes, as is discussed below, another art historical reference. Calling this work 'pastiche' is merely calling attention to its grounding in the post-modern aesthetics of 1980s art, an aesthetics which permits every kind of appropriation and reference.
The works do not really look as if they are intended to support anything, and yet all of the pieces are 'columns': sculptural first and architectural second. So the terms 'column-like', and 'pilaster-like' might be more appropriate than 'columns' and 'pilasters': these stones are not destined eventually to become in any way 'attached' to architecture but will continue to be free-standing sculpture.
Unlike architecture, Delva's work is addressed at or below eye level as opposed to thirty feet up the side of a building. You are able to move around the work without the perspective that is forced on you as you stand in front of a building facade. Also, some of these works are much more highly finished than their architectural cousins in stone masonry construction, where elements are finished only as much as they need to be for viewing from the ground. The work makes architectural references without actually being architectural detailing.
As happens with free-standing sculpture, a viewer measures her own body in relation to the work as she moves around it, sizing it up and sizing up herself. A viewer's moving shadow falls over the sculpture and the static shadows of the colonnade. Some thinking about the work in terms of animate and inanimate objects is likely to happen. In what sense are these leaves 'alive'? The texture of the work is evidence of the stone having been cut, not cast. The silence and immobility of the sculpture become important. A play of light, a cold touch, the dense solidity of the plant forms - we do not pay such close attention to building masonry.
Delva's connection to the tradition of masonry building in Nova Scotia is strong, having trained and worked as a mason throughout the restoration of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and Nova Scotia's Province House (government buildings constructed during Nova Scotia's colonial period in the 19th Century). His high art education in sculpture and practical training and experience in architectural restoration converge in these sculptures as he manneristically twists elements derived directly from the walls of the buildings he has helped to restore.
Much of the imagery in his work, the plant forms, leaves and stems, is not derived from direct observation of nature, but from architectural embellishment. References to a theme of vegetative growth and 'cultivation' are strong in Delva's representations of representations of nature. But Delva's 'architectural details' are highly distorted: leaves of a column capital are disproportionately enlarged, unfolded, and twisted, and volutes (a spiral masonry scroll on a capital) are turned inward. All sorts of play happens.
I know of no artist who is doing anything quite like Delva's sculpture, however balmy the climate for such work has been since the early 1980s. Traditional forms and practices and regional content have been taken up by formerly avant-garde artists everywhere in the last decade. Many of these artists deliberately thumb their noses at the internationalist aspirations of what is seen as an avant-garde art establishment. Other artists, helped by advances in communications technologies, have developed international (inter-regional) networks of like-minded artists. (None of the artists I discuss below should properly be seen as having influenced Delva's recent work: it is the artistic climate that more often steers artists toward aligned solutions to problems.)
Associative connections can be made between Delva's work and the sculpture of Nova Scotian artists like Dennis Gill and John Greer, but these connections can be exaggerated. John Greer has made sculpture related to ancient sculptural representations of temples and plant forms, and Dennis Gill has worked in series of colonnades.
The Italian artist Giuseppe Penone also creates art about vegetation ('ephemera fossilized', as Francine Dagenais put it in a 1984 Vanguard article). Penone's columns begin with a piece of timber which he carefully restores to its tree-like form by whittling away at knots to expose tiny limbs. Delva is intrigued by the work of the young Japanese artist Shieo Toya, who cuts into, paints and stains timber.
Recent German art called 'architecturalism' may come to mind in the contemplation of Delva's work, although perhaps only to readers of international art magazines. "Architecturalism" takes cues from architectural elements and/or the current architectural debate in Germany. (These artists include sculptors George Herold, Isa Genzken and Hubert Kiecol.) The 'architecturalists' explore themes of 'construction' while carrying a national debt-load of guilt about 1930s and 40s National Socialism and its neoclassical art. The central metaphor which operates in some contemporary German work is rebuilding, or the impossibility of 'rebuilding', any kind of German culture, much less a 'national' German culture. Architecture turns into subverted emblems of power in much of this work.
The subversion of neoclassical architectural motifs in the work of Delva can also be read as an artistic meditation about power. His transformation of elements of Canada's official colonial architecture opens out for inspection the wider subject of the history of British colonialism and the place of architecture in that history. The work transforms aspects of an architecture which surveys what was once Micmac land, an architecture which is a built expression of colonial relations between Native peoples and European settlers, an architecture which expresses either benign or malevolent authority, depending on who experiences it.
A questionable history of colonialism is not the only dark historical association traceable through Delva's art. One is also reminded that edifices like Nova Scotia's Province House need restoration and restorers at least in part because atmospheric pollution is potent enough to blacken and melt stone.
Perhaps neither of these associations should interest a viewer as much as a more positive theme of cultivated growth which most often forms a first response to Delva's work, but because the work is rooted in the history of Nova Scotia, a history which is accessible in a unique way to viewers of Delva's work who live here, associative leaps happen which can liberate the work from the grip which art history can so 'naturally' assume in the presence of art.
Dagenais, Francine, "Ephemera Fossilized, Giuseppe Penone" Vancouver: Vanguard, March 1984, pp. 10-13
Eyland, Cliff, "Dennis Gill", Vancouver: Vanguard, February/March, 1988 p.34
Gookin, Kirby, "A Phoenix Built from the Ashes, Architectural Themes in Contemporary German Sculpture", New York: Arts Magazine, March 1990, pp. 84-88
Messler, Norbert "The Artist as Builder, On Architecturalism in German Art", London: Artscribe, January-February 1990, pp. 50-55
Noguchi, Isamu, "The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum", New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987
Shanes, Eric, "Constantin Brancusi", New York: Abbeville Press, 1989
Sparling, Mary, "Great Expectations The European Vision in Nova Scotia 1749-1848", Halifax, The Art Gallery, Mount Saint Vincent University, 1980
Toya, Shigeo, (reproduction of) Woods II, Albuquerque: Artspace, September/October 1990, p.53
Warland, E.G., "Modern Practical Masonry", London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd., 1953
Woodham, J.M., "Twentieth-Century Ornament", New York: Rizzoli, 1990
Wylie, Liz, "John Greer Reconciliation" (catalogue to an exhibition), Lethbridge: Southern Alberta Art Gallery, 1990
Artist's Statement by Thierry Delva
At the beginning of 1986 I was accepted as an apprentice into the Stone Mason Restoration Program in Nova Scotia. Some parallels could be drawn between the training I received and the academic art school training of the past. Essential to both kinds of training is the activity of copying existing work, although in my case the human figure, or its copying, was not an issue. I consider this to be a blessing.
Brancusi, who received academic training at the Bucharest School of the Arts, showed Noguchi (his pupil during the 1920s) how to square a piece of limestone. Squaring a stone is the first thing you are taught as a stone mason apprentice.
During the four year apprenticeship I made little work of my own. The program was very involving and I was starting to acquire a degree of technical skill in working stone. The question of whether or not to incorporate the fruits of this training into my own work was inevitable. However, learning how to work stone didn't seem to be a good enough reason to use it in my own sculpture. My usual working method is to develop a concept and then have that concept dictate the choice of materials I use in the work. In this body of work, the materials and the concept evolved together very closely.
I worked on the restoration of Province house and what is now the building which houses the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Both are neoclassical buildings and are therefore concerned with a certain balance, proportion and scale. As a restoration stone mason you don't look at the building as a whole, but you work on details, on small areas and parts. You get a unique look at the building, unlike that of the passer-by or even the architect. You see the building as it is not meant to be seen.
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia building has an enormous array of carvings of foliage, flowers, fruit and even vegetables on it. It seemed to me that, at least on the column capitals, it was the repetition and uniformity of the leaves that kept the design as a whole within the realm of the idealness of its neoclassical architectural style. Hence the reference in the title of this exhibition to 'cultivar', which is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as: "A horticulturally or agriculturally derived variety of a plant, as distinguished from a natural variety."
I look upon the leaf carvings on the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia building as having come into existence through a similar process of 'cultivar'. They have been 'cultivated' so as to enable repetition and uniformity. In my work, I used the leaf carving from the building as if it were "a natural variety" of plant (in reference to the dictionary definition of "cultivar"). I took the leaf carving from the building and transformed it on the way down into sculpture. I took the masonry details away from their architectural function and placed them on ground level in a sculptural context, allowing for viewer interaction with the work.