RED HERRINGS, CLEVER HORSES AND BENEFITS OF THE DOUBT
[First published for an exhibition catalogue for Halifax, Nova Scotia's Dalhousie Art Gallery. The exhibition was called "Uses of the Vernacular in Nova Scotian Art," and was co-curated by Eyland and Susan Gibson Garvey in 1994. A conversation between Gibson Garvey and Eyland follows the essay.]
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In the contemporary art world, "Nova Scotia" is short for "The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design," a centre of advanced art practice. In other circles, Nova Scotia is identified with the work of the Maritime Realist school: both Alex Colville and Tom Forrestall are Nova Scotians. Thirdly, Nova Scotia is well known for its folk artists, painters such as Maud Lewis and Joe Norris and carvers such as Collins Eisenhauer and Eddie Mandaggio. One can choose a Nova Scotian art to suit one's taste. (Footnote 1)
This exhibition is about Nova Scotian contemporary art that uses motifs and methods of the vernacular. Sue Gibson Garvey and I focus on the work of professional artists who have had an art education, but we also include well known examples of Nova Scotian art - paintings, samplers, and sculpture - made since the nineteenth century by artists who were not educated in art schools.
Our use of the term "vernacular" in the title of this exhibition is deliberate, chosen because it seems less misleading than the more familiar term "folk art." J. Russell Harper explains why he uses the term in his book A People's Art, Primitive, Naive, Provincial and Folk Painting in Canada:
In speech, regional expressions are termed a vernacular. It seems equally appropriate to speak of the "vernacular" in connection with an art that expresses local ways of life. (Harper 4)A discussion of folk art is necessary. However hotly the label "folk art" is debated, it can be applied to the nineteenth century artists in this exhibition, as well as some of the more contemporary artists such as Eisenhauer, Lewis, Naugler, Norris, and Sullivan. Both Kyle Jackson and John Neville have been called folk artists, yet the other artists in this show - Gerald Ferguson, Eric Walker; Nancy Edell, Leslie Sampson, Janice Leonard, and Charlie Murphy - are not folk artists by anybody's definition, despite their use of folk or vernacular motifs and methods.
The subject of vernacular and contemporary art, folk art and high art is complicated, but can be related to two questions: how does the art reflect an artist's education, background, and social position; and should it be evaluated accordingly? I will let issues of colour and form, regionalism, feminism, class and cash sort themselves out around these questions.
I shall argue for the right of artists to make their own affiliations in their art, regardless of their background. Several of the art educated artists in this show are not simply making, as might be expected from their training, art historical references when they quote vernacular art. Their commitment to the content of their work runs much deeper than the word "reference" would suggest. Conversely, the "folk" artists in this exhibition make their work to a professional standard, sometimes through the direct influence of art world professionals. Very often the professional and the primitive meet half way.
(Footnote 1) Marine painting and landscape painting are common in Nova Scotia, but get little attention today. The work of deceased marine painters such as William de Garthe and Jack Gray was once strongly associated with Nova Scotia.
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In A People's Art... J. Russell Harper established a coherence and art historical respectability to the Canadian study of vernacular art. Writing in 1974, Harper includes every form of non-professional historical art made within the geographical boundaries of Canada in his book, but he does not give any special emphasis to Nova Scotian vernacular art:
Painting in the vernacular spirit began to be less frequent in the older parts of Canada about the beginning of the 20th Century. ...There are two notable 20th Century exceptions to the trend away from vernacular painting.... An imaginative spark has enlivened painting in some rural francophone communities where convention and propriety have not stifled the soul as they have often done in English-speaking Canada. Likewise, there was an unaffected naturalness among European immigrants who peopled the prairies before and after the first world war. (Harper 9-10)Also writing in 1974, curator and art historian Barry Lord fails to mention Nova Scotian folk art in his book The History of Painting in Canada, although his Marxist leanings gave him reasons to search out such art, which has long been associated with the working classes.
Between them, Harper and Lord make us suspect that the public life of Nova Scotian folk art is recent. (Footnote 2) Even though Maud Lewis, called Nova Scotia's "Grandma Moses," was featured in newspaper articles and on a national television program called "Telescope" in the mid-sixties, interest in Nova Scotian folk art only began to build as a new crop of art professionals came to Garry Neill Kennedy's re-vamped Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1967.
The big curatorial debut of Nova Scotian folk art happened at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 1976, (Footnote 3) long after primitive, indigenous, vernacular and folk art had been represented in European, American and other Canadian collections, not to mention the Nova Scotia Museum. The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia presented folk art as a living Nova Scotian art, not a dead historical phenomenon.
Since then folk art has become one of many species of Nova Scotian contemporary art. Although some Nova Scotian artists call themselves, or are called, folk artists, the term is odd because it suggests a person who maintains a degree of innocence even after being taken on by a dealer and being regarded by everyone - including themselves - as an artist more or less like any other artist. Child artists become adults, uneducated artists go to school, educated artists attempt to de-educate themselves, the insane get cured, the sane become insane, and art professors become primitives. We assume that a folk artist must change by exposure to the art world, and indeed they do, but how?
One may argue against regarding any contemporary artist as a folk artist, but I choose to use the term loosely. Contemporary folk artists choose their influences, choose to become educated artists or not, and to some extent control the meanings of their work. Of course, there are fundamental differences between a "folk" or "primitive" artist and a "professional" artist. John Berger explains:
[The primitive artist] does not use the pictorial grammar of the tradition - hence he is ungrammatical. He has not learned the technical skills which have evolved with the conventions - hence he is clumsy. When he discovers on his own a solution to a pictorial problem, he often uses it many times - hence he is naive. But then [continued, Catalogue page 11...]
(Footnote 2) It can be called an instance of the invention of a tradition. See Eric Hobsbaum's The Invention of Tradition. See also lan McKay's Borderlines article: "Twilight at Peggy's Cove: Towards a Genealogy of 'Maritimicity' in Nova Scotia."
(Footnote 3) Riordon, Bernard et al. Folk Art of Nova Scotia. Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1976.
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one has to ask: why does he refuse the tradition? And the answer is only partly that he was born far away from that tradition. The effort necessary to begin painting or sculpting, in the social context in which he finds himself, is so great that it could well include visiting museums. But it never does, at least in the beginning. Why? Because he knows already that his own lived experience which is forcing him to make art has no place in that tradition. How does he know this without having visited the museums? He knows it because his whole experience is one of being excluded from the exercise of power in his society, and he realizes from the compulsion he now feels, that art too is a kind of power. The will of primitives derives from faith in their own experience and a profound skepticism about society as they have found it. This is true of such an amiable artist as Grandma Moses. (Berger 75)The labels "amateur artist," "folk artist," "outsider artist," "naive artist" and "vernacular artist" may be attached to a large number of people, anyone but the tiny minority of art-educated artists. Today it can be difficult to distinguish "faux" art from folk art, and "amateur" from "professional" art. Class differences between "professionals" and the "primitives" are not always boldly announced in the work.
The demise of traditional academic training in painting and sculpture in post-war art schools diminishes the visible differences between some "faux" naive and some "real" naive painting. The trend away from traditional drawing instruction in North American art schools has resulted in some genuinely naive painting made by some genuinely educated artists. Several of the artists in this exhibition (Neville, Leonard, Walker, Jackson, Sampson)(Footnote 4) attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and [continued, Catalogue page 12...]
(Footnote 4) Charlie Murphy never attended art school, but had the photographer Robert Frank and the artist June Leaf among others, as teachers.
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Design during a period when traditional drawing instruction was not emphasized; one of our artists, Gerald Ferguson, was an art professor then. Drawing was taught, but traditional academic approaches to drawing were down-played. Students who aspired to become painters often learned on their own, and solved problems the way folk artists do. (Footnote 5) The trend away from traditional drawing instruction was fired by intensely theoretical debates about the relevance of drawing to contemporary life and media: it was not a campaign to enfeeble art students. Nevertheless, it resulted in a generation of artists who could hardly be called "academic" in the sense that they know the basics of painting and sculpture as taught in the old academies. Although elements of anti-intellectualism have always vied with the forces of academic accreditation in North American art schools, and many studio faculty members are themselves militant naifs, (of course, as Berger makes clear, a self conscious militant naif cannot be alienated in the way a Maud Lewis or a Grandma Moses was alienated) the demise of drawing instruction was not a surge toward primitivism. Rather, drawing instruction was the victim of a wide enchantment with media like video, photography, performance and offset printing.
Another technique used by these artists is "appropriation," that is, the practice of direct borrowing from high art, low art, and mass-media sources. Like intermedia art, appropriation art also does not depend on traditional technical artistic skills. Many of the professional artists in this exhibition use appropriation techniques - such as stenciling, collage and photography - to quote vernacular art in their own work. (It is a matter of debate whether in some cases the "primitive" artists in this show are also appropriating vernacular art in their work.)
The upshot of my points about art training and appropriation art is that the nineteenth century terms "academic" and "non-academic" - used so frequently in discussions of contemporary folk art - are useless without caveats and digressions, some about the demise of traditional artistic skills and appropriation art, and others, perhaps more important, about the primitive tradition in Modern Art itself.
"Professional primitivism" among artists began two hundred years ago when Romanticism sparked a European fascination with primitivism, innocence and naivete. In Germany Philip Otto Runge painted fantasies of visionary innocence; in France a circle of self-described "primitives" formed under Jacques Louis David; England produced William Blake and Samuel Palmer. The taste for the primitive has long since become deeply embedded in contemporary high art.
In the modern era, colonization and archaeology expanded the terrain of primitivism as it was discovered that human origins went back beyond Classical and Biblical times into a prehistoric age. Professional primitivism - our oxymoron - changed radically by the late nineteenth century.
Since Paul Gauguin's quest for the primitive in Tahiti in the 1890s - and like him - many artists have investigated the primitive by following emotional impulses and by making formal collations. Early this century, Gauguin's work fascinated the young Picasso, and Picasso did some research at the Trocadero ethnographic museum in Paris. Both Picasso's biographer Richardson and the historian Robert Goldwater, among others, note that Picasso and other artists of the Cubist period such as Matisse and Derain, the Blue Rider group, the Dadaists and Cubists, made no rigorous distinctions (for example) between Oceanic and African art.
(Footnote 5) The former Nova Scotia resident Tim Zuck is an example of a sophisticated artist who decided to teach himself painting.
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Picasso and his circle were also not as interested in the distinctions between, for example, the so called "primitivism" of African art and the "primitivism" of a painter such as the douanier Henri Rousseau (Footnote 6) as they were in the formal qualities of the work and general ideas about primitivism. Many contemporary artists continue to make few distinctions among various kinds of "primitive" work, casually lumping the work of the amateur painter down the street with what was once called "ethnographic" art. (Footnote 7)
Ever since Henri Rousseau (Footnote 8) was feted at a satirical banquet of tribute by Picasso and his friends, "folk artists" have been manipulated by artists and curators. (Footnote 9) Some have done very well by their treatment, some have not. The world of folk art operates more or less like the wider art world, with the same unpredictable stakes for the artist.
The atmosphere of contemporary Nova Scotian folk art is misty with bad faith, and full of reverse pretension. High value is put on an artist's lack of education, isolation and ignorance, as if these qualities were requirements for authenticity, and as if authenticity in art were calculable from the data of an artist's background. Lunenburg's annual Nova Scotian Folk Art Festival has become a Salon in which artists must be "naive" to qualify.
Yet many folk artists are experts in the materials they use despite their educational background. Not every person without education can make interesting art; neither does a doctorate in studio painting guarantee art of the remotest interest to anyone. The reverse CV, in which a lack of education is highlighted, falsely implies that too much knowledge can inhibit an artist.
In the Third Annual Folk Art Festival catalogue, Directors Ann Sutherland and Zahnan Amit explain:
The fact that the individual artists were screened by an expert selection committee assures the public that the works of art offered for sale in the festival are genuine folk art pieces. It also helps the festival to avoid the possibility that folk craft and cottage industry items will permeate the festival.
(Footnote 6) Actually he was not a customs man but an employee of the municipal toll services, a gabelou. (Shattuck 46)
(Footnote 7) For a recent discussion of the salvage paradigm the notion that "authentic" traditional cultures must he collected before they disappear see Hal Foster's Discussions in Contemporary Art. For a striking parallel to the situation of Nova Scotian folk art with the art world of contemporary Africa, see Kasfir, African Arts, April 1992. For a discussion of recent issues in the related field of "outsider art" see The New Art Examiner, Summer 1993. See Thomas McEvilley in Art in America, April 1985, for a good discussion of the Museum of Modem Art's "'Primitivism in 20th-Century Art" exhibition of 1984-85.
(Footnote 8) "According to his own statements, he was given advice by the prominent painter Gerome, he refers to another less-known painter Felix Clement, as his 'teacher.' It has remained impossible to determine just how much formal training, if any, he received from these artists. He obtained a copying permit for the Louvre in 1884. In his own eyes, Rousseau had had sound academic instruction; his work shows that he assimilated it in a very limited fashion." (Shattuck 49)
(Footnote 9) "Gauguin told him once that he had been awarded a government commission for a painting. Rousseau went happily to the appropriate office to find out the details and was sent scornfully away." (Shattuck 59)
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At the 1993 Festival, (Footnote 10) artists' brochures echoed the festival organizers' criteria. (Footnote 11) For example, a handout at a memorial booth dedicated to the recently deceased artist Donald Sabean (1947-93) asserts that the artist was "truly naive in every respect":
His art came to the attention of fellow [folk] artist Stephen Outhouse in 1989, when he found him drawing little pictures in coloured crayon on the hacks of cereal boxes. After being encouraged to change his medium to enamel paint on prepared boards, he was accepted to participate in the 1991 Folk Art Festival. By the time the 1992 Festival came around there was no doubt that Donald was a folk artist in the true sense, or that the work he was producing at that time was of superior quality.
(Footnote 10) The Daily News reported that 1,200 visitors spent $15,700 during the one-day festival (Aug. 13, 1993 p.27).
(Footnote 11) One of the artists in our exhibition, Kyle Jackson, who has attended art school, had his work accepted in the first Folk Art Festival, but never since.
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From the moment in the late sixties and early seventies when Nova Scotia professional collectors, researchers and curators such as Alma Houston, Tom Lackey, Bruce Ferguson, Graham Metson, Chris Huntington, Gerald Ferguson, Murray Stewart, Richard Field, and Bernie Riordon began to organize exhibitions of vernacular art and to scour the province looking for work, professional artists, curators, critics, art educators and dealers have largely controlled and directed discussion about it. Retired carnival worker Joe Sleep was launched into the art world with encouragement, advice and paints by Harold Pearse and Ken Pitman; John Houston coaxed along forestry labourer Eddie Mandaggio. Chris Huntington has encouraged innumerable folk artists, (Footnote 12) and was instrumental in beginning the annual Folk Art Festival. Even Maud Lewis had semi-professional advice given her by Kay and Lloyd MacNeil, who kept ledgers and organized a mail order business for her. (Footnote 13)
There is a story in psychology textbooks about a horse called "Clever Hans." Clever Hans could communicate, so his master claimed, by tapping out answers to questions with his hooves. Isolating the horse from its owner showed that it was responding to non-verbal cues of which the owner himself was unaware. Is contemporary folk art spirited out of naive artists by art world professionals in a similar way? Many professionals we interviewed spoke about the difficulties of preserving the integrity of folk artists. Does this integrity amount to taking the proper cues without knowing it?
Accusations that dealers and other art professionals manipulate the folk artists they represent like so many descendants of Clever Hans's trainer are common, but such accusations not only deny vernacular artists any creative autonomy, they also highlight an unacknowledged double standard in art criticism. Other contemporary artists are rarely asked to account for their work in terms any more analytical than the personal anecdote, and yet we commonly assume that these artists "control" the creation of their work, however much they are influenced by others.
The folk artist is subject to the same influences of patronage as any other artist. At the most recent Folk Art Festival several works - a polar bear carving by Stanley Rector, an Inuit woman carving by Bradford Naugler, an Inuit in a kayak by James Zwicker, and (Antarctic) penguins by Garnet McPhail and Robert Chivers - made one wonder whether the unusual combination in Lunenburg's Houston North Gallery of Inuit and Nova Scotian Folk art had - simply by its existence - a hand m generating the polar references.
Is the "Jackson Pollock" table by Leo Naugler in this exhibition an instance of an uneducated artist making a witty comment on high art? Joseph Sleep's stencil works were once compared by curator Bruce Ferguson (Footnote 14) to Andy Warhol screen prints. Many Nova Scotians cherish folk art as the characteristic art of Nova Scotia, but art collecting is largely an upper middle class practice, and art professionals enjoy contemporary folk art that fits upper middle-class tastes. Among other things, this taste delights in the irony of the folk artist's often unconscious references to high art and the Modernist primitive tradition. (Footnote 15)
Not everybody likes folk art. Harold Pearse suggests that the appearance of clumsy workmanship in folk art is distasteful to many middle and working class people.(Footnote 16) The perceived lack of technical facility in folk art is often equated with the perceived lack of technical facility in abstract painting, and some people reject all contemporary art as being childish.
(Footnote 12) See Charlie Tanner Retrospective (Huntington).
(Footnote 13) "Kay MacNeil's ledger shows that Maud's paintings were shipped to Edmonton, Montreal, New York, London, Belfast, Rotterdam." Chatelaine, December 1975, p.91.
(Footnote 14) See Ferguson, Bruce, Joe Sleep Retrospective.
(Footnote 15) Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning of 1912 is often cited as the first "collage," but there are innumerable precedents for it in the naive and provincial art of Europe. This is not to debunk his achievement, which was made in the context of Cubist painting.
(Footnote 16) We interviewed Pearse in his South Shore home in 1993.
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The Nova Scotian folk art industry has been dismissed by others as the conspiracy of a few dealers, gallery directors and canny (however unschooled) artists to profit from the general public's naive notions about naive painting. Folk art cannot exist now, so the argument goes, because the conditions for its production no longer exist. Richard Field thinks of World War II as the watershed, after which the occurrence of folk art is rare:
...hooked rugs, quilts, folk portraits, and weather vanes, were still made after World War II, but the traditional ethnic, occupational, communal and family basis from which much of the nineteenth century traditional folk art drew its inspiration began to wane and die as the complexion of rural life changed. (Field 5)Field particularly values "authenticity," but outside of outright fraud, "authenticity" is no more at issue in folk art than any other kind of contemporary art - it is a red herring. For Field, "The marketplace has deluded our understanding of folk art, particularly that produced after World War II."
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...the question must be asked, once a living folk artist is discovered by the marketplace, is he or she still a folk artist? Most folk artists who are found by collectors or dealers and whose work eventually reaches the marketplace, perhaps to become highly collectible and desirable, usually go through two, and sometimes three, generations of development. The first generation is "before discovery," when the individual is working within his own frame of reference, within his personal environment. Sometimes a transition phase exists, the second generation, during which the folk artist adjusts to his discovery and entry into the marketplace. Work during this period may combine his first generation themes with those now being either suggested to him or influencing him from outside his first generation working environment.Field's terminology encourages one to attempt to read the states of mind of the artists - their influences and commercial motivations - in the work. The late Stephen Godfrey expressed this attitude succinctly in a piece on the late Nova Scotian artist Lorne Reid:
Folk art can be a self-defeating proposition. Once an artist receives recognition in commercial terms - with dealers, new markets, perhaps multiple editions - he ceases to be considered a folk artist. His success robs him of his claim of being simple and authentic. (Godfrey C1)Some commercial motivation can be assumed in any living artist: very often an artist's commercial motivations assist the art's discovery. The notion that this is corruption applies a common prejudice about all artists to folk artists. I think this commercial argument is unsound. The American curator Robert Bishop puts the issues in perspective:
Controversy about modern folk art - "primitive" works made by contemporary, self-taught artists - has raged since the distinguished curator, art historian, and dealer Sidney Janis published They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the Twentieth Century, in 1942. Conservative collectors felt that many of the artists described painted only for monetary advancement and that their works were not valid folk art. These critics chose to forget that the greatest outpouring of folk expression - portraiture - was nearly always created for a fee and that the 18th and 19th century itinerant folk portraitist earned his living from his art. (Bishop 8)[Catalogue Page 18:]
Harold Pearse has recently proposed a taxonomy of folk art which has more terms than Field's first-to-third-generation scheme. Pearse attaches the prefixes "Historical," "Classic," "Neo," "Post," and "Pseudo" to the word folk to describe a wide range of work, and then advises that the terms be put back into "the analytical tool kit" so that the work be "savoured in the joyful, untheoretical way in which it was produced." Fine, but as an analytical tool kit such a terminology quickly becomes useless, because the attributes it attaches to art are confused with attributes it attaches to the artists: it depends too much on imagined congruences between the artist and the art.(Footnote 17) Also, both Pearse and Field's terminologies are needlessly hierarchical, positioning historical over contemporary art; innocence over worldliness; authenticity over conceptual play; and, in Pearse's overview, joy over other emotions.
Both Field and Pearse have had a long academic involvement with folk art, but I doubt whether either of them in the early days of its public emergence could have anticipated the current status of folk art as the (unofficially declared) "official " art of Nova Scotia. (Footnote 18)
Corporations seem to sponsor exhibitions of folk art willingly and more challenging forms of contemporary work not at all.Footnote 19) Avant-garde artists are miffed as self-proclaimed folk artists, replete with business cards (Footnote 20) and dealers, claim to have sold everything they have ever made. Folk art gets wide public attention, and contemporary folk artists such as Joe Norris, one of the artists in this exhibition, are used in publicity produced by the province's Department of Tourism and Culture. Loving public attention seems to be given the special Nova Scotia Folk Art collection at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and the annual Folk Art Festival, while other contemporary art seems only to get press coverage when purchases by public art galleries are called into question. A "Maud Lewis House" (not the house owned and decorated by the folk painter, but a hastily constructed post-modern shed) has been constructed at the provincially funded Upper Clements theme park. Folk art galleries and self-declared "folk" artists have sprung up everywhere just as other contemporary galleries close or are cut back.
Amidst the clamour of many kinds of art made by many kinds of people in a small province, one type seems to have arisen to claim Nova Scotia for itself.
(Footnote17) The discovery of new folk artists can still make the news in Nova Scotia. The case of Joyce Colbert, 62, of Dartmouth is a 1993 example. The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia snapped up two of her works at her first exhibition last year (see Elissa Barnard, Chronicle-Herald/Mail-Star Thurs. April 8, 1993 p.B4).
(Footnote 18) We have limited ourselves to one kind of vernacular art, that is, work which may be connected with Nova Scotian folk art as it has been established by galleries, museums and dealers. There are several Nova Scotian artists such as Rose Adams and Ellison Robertson who have not been included in this exhibition, but whose work fits the exhibition's theme. There are many Nova Scotian vernacular arts and many traditions with which we haven't dealt, for example, Nova Scotian artist Vita Plume refers to Latvian vernacular art; native artists such as Alan Syliboy continue a Mi'kmaq vernacular; the vernacular traditions of Nova Scotia's Black community and the vernacular traditions of contemporary popular culture itself are not addressed. Contemporary architects such as Brian Mackay Lyons make vernacular architectural references, but that's another kettle of fish.
(Footnote19) Only "seem": I don't think one could prove it.
(Footnote 20) I have one from an artist named Dan Allen, with the text "primitive folk art" printed on it.
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I began this essay with the question of how art reflects an artist's education, background, and social position, and whether it should be evaluated accordingly. This question raises issues of regionalism, ethnocentricity, voice appropriation, and voluntary affiliation: jargon terms used in a wider debate but which are relevant to this exhibition.
Nova Scotian boundaries are permeable. Political boundaries have expanded and contracted over the centuries, and nationalist feelings have waxed and waned, but currently, no nationalist political or cultural movement exists within the exact boundaries of the province. (Footnote 21) Art motifs and styles are inevitably associated with places, but it is questionable whether any art could express the essence of a vague provincial entity like "Nova Scotia." The art in this exhibition cannot be delimited by the term "Nova Scotian" nevertheless, much of it cannot be fully understood without understanding how its local, formal and historical references are seen within current debates about regionalism.
The crucial flaw in the thinking of traditional regionalists has been to assume that a region is and should be ethnically uniform. The crucial flaw in today's advocates of ethnocentric culture is to assume uniformity in their own ethnic group, a uniformity which includes an idea of a mythical ethnic centre and margins. (Footnote 22)
(Footnote 21) The nationalist agenda of First Nations is not tied to provincial boundaries, and neither are the cultural aspirations of many Acadians.
(Footnote 22) A recent exhibition of German-Canadian folk art at the Museum of Civilization called Just For Nice includes toll: artists who were once identified by region (some of these artists appeared in the famous 1976 Art Gallery of Nova Scotia folk art show) but are now identified by ethnic origins.
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Traditional regionalism is ethnocentric. In the art world, the dream of a truly isolated regionalism died in the 1940s. Contemporary movements of regional cultural autonomy in art are often compared to the regionalist upsurges of the 1930s, which once opposed the dominance of Parisian Modernism in the art world. Unfortunately, many of today's ethnocentric extremisms are not simply polite promotions of local art in opposition to some dominant centre, but attempts to make monochromatic cultures.
The regionalist revolt against Paris in the 1930s was led in America by, among others, the American muralist Thomas Hart Benton and the critic Thomas Craven; in Mexico by Rivera and Orozco; and in Canada by artists such as Miller Brittain and Frederic Taylor. (Footnote 23) Many promoted a neoclassical art of murals, prints and easel paintings based on the lives of ordinary people. A similar iconography, neoclassical style and subject matter - put to other ends - flourished in fascist and communist countries at the time. In North America the movement was associated with social democratic forces, but had a pronounced anti-European tinge.
Stylistic echoes of Benton's American Regionalism of the 1930s can be discerned in the contemporary Maritime Realist movement - Alex Colville owes at least something to this neoclassicism - but many of today's regionalists prefer to eclectically quote both high art and various ethnic arts of their region instead of looking to the ethos of the 1930s for inspiration.
Janice Leonard, Eric Walker, John Neville, Kyle Jackson and Charlie Murphy refer to local or family history in their work. (In vernacular art circles, the genre is called "memory painting.") All except Neville use assemblage, collage and text in ways which are firmly rooted in this century's high art tradition, but which are also connected to earlier sources in vernacular culture. Walker's debt to the nineteenth-century ex-voto style paintings such as those of the Nova Scotian artist Francis Silver is fully acknowledged by the artist, but one could just as easily speak about Walker's work in terms of recent photo-text art (both Walker and Charlie Murphy began as photographers). Leonard's use of wallpaper can be seen as having its roots in cubist collage, but these works are also a straightforward presentation of vernacular taste in Nova Scotian interior decoration, since the wallpaper in some of her works was literally ripped out of the walls of the working-class houses where Leonard lived. A work like Leonard's Belgian Relief (1980) might also be interpreted as using Dada collage `a la Kurt Schwitters to portray an event which happened in Halifaxthe Halifax Explosionin Kurt Schwitter's time (1917). Gerald Ferguson's assemblages of black fish silhouettes and antiques are melancholic, almost funereal evocations of extinct Nova Scotian culture which recall not only the high-art "combine" paintings of Rauchenberg, the box assemblages of Jasper Johns, and the screen prints of Andy Warhol, but also the nineteenth-century motifs and stencil techniques of "theorem painting." Leslie Sampson's use of samplers to convey feminist messages can be easily related to a very wide history of needlework by women, a history discussed and analysed in Rozsika Parker's The Subversive Stitch.(Footnote 24) The art of Sampson and Nancy Edell also has affinities with a huge corpus of work by contemporary feminist artists. Edell's references range across the history of art, but her inspiration in hooked rugs such as those of Ellen Gould Sullivan is a specific link she acknowledges with the Nova Scotian vernacular. (Of course, rug-hooking itself was ubiquitous to colonial North America, not just Nova Scotia.) The work of Kyle Jackson, Leo Naugler, Joe Norris, Maud Lewis, Joe Sleep, and Collins Eisenhauer can be easily related to historical folk art and naive painting from many other places: the proportional gaucheries, the humour, and loud colour of these works connect it to Nova Scotian art, traditional vernacular art, and twentieth-century high art.<
(Footnote 23) We won't get into Canada's Group of Seven for the moment.
(Footnote 24) Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch. London: Women's Press, 1984.
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None of the attempts by artists in this exhibition to recover history, or to use Nova Scotian vernacular references are attached to any program of exclusivity or separatism, but rather rest on strategies of voluntary affiliation.
Most professional artists tend to cite well known artists rather than unknown artists in their genealogies of affiliation. (Footnote 25) Often these well known artists are their teachers, but because contemporary art schools make available most of their staff to students in one way or another, the "studied with" genealogy is often meaningless. Why favour genealogies of affiliation based on unknown vernacular artists rather than on one's teachers? Eric Walker told us that his education has given him "permissions" to explore any kind of art, to affiliate with whomever he likedeven his "own" Nova Scotia vernacular tradition.(Footnote 26) Such "permissions" raise the spectre of voice appropriation. What right do professional art-educated artists have to rummage through the vernacular arts? Who has the right to tell certain stories?
(Footnote 25) Edward Said addresses genealogies of affiliation and affiliation differently in The World, The Text and The Critic, but I owe something to his thinking. By "genealogies of affiliation" I mean picking and choosing among disciplines and historical movements in order to make an historical succession for oneself, to make genealogies of reference, taxonomical tracings.
(Footnote 26) A positive aspect of the Folk Art Festival's academy system is that folk artists look to other folk artists for inspiration, perhaps even appropriation. Examples are the previously mentioned influence of Outhouse on Sabean, and the oft-cited influence of Eddie Mandaggio on the Naugler brothers.
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Recent accusations of voice appropriation - denials of the right to voluntary affiliations - have been made by First Nations artists, artists of colour and others. A debate about fundamental creative rights - the right of anybody to imagine anything - has ensued, and a backlash against what began as a strategy to empower marginalized groups has been growing. Alberto Manguel characterizes "what its detractors call 'cultural or voice appropriation"':
The belief of these detractors is, first of all, that there is such a thing as the "voice" of a group; second, that if there is, it can be appropriated. They believe that the heterogeneous complexity of any human group acquires, by virtue of a label, a common denominator which they perceive as the group's essence, what Goebbels called the Rassengeist, or "spirit of the race," a sort of metaphysical quality promised to only a chosen few. They further believe that this quality can somehow be snatched up by a usurping outsider. This fantastical nonsense, reminiscent of tales of sword and sorcery, would be merely foolish and elitist were it not also profoundly racist - as well as intrinsically ignorant about artistic creation. (Manguel A7)Manguel does not explain why some minority voices are more attractive to the majority than others, nor does he allow for sensitively made voluntary affiliations by majority artists which might be appreciated by minority artists. In statements which have accompanied past exhibitions, many of the art educated artists in this show have carefully justified their uses of the vernacular by reference to personal background, gender, and location rather than their academic background. None have been arrogant about their creative rights, despite the permissions they may feel that their training has given them to do whatever they like.
I assume that most of the living artists in this exhibition desire (as a minority) to reach at least the level at which their artistic voices encourage the flattery of imitation, if not appropriation.
The work in this show which has feminist content, particularly that of Leslie Sampson, seeks to revise the traditional assessment of European vernacular work by women. Sampson's references to "voice" are not proprietorial in the sense that only women can do feminist work: rather, she is driven to do this work for reasons having to do with her own social situation as a woman. Like Sampson, other artists in this exhibition also seek to revalue vernacular art. Sampson:
I use the form of cross-stitch embroidery samplers to revalue women's artistic production - artifacts overlooked or dismissed as "low" art precisely because they were made by women in the home. My work is a reappraisal of embroidery's service to ruling class ideology, especially the use of sampler verses. Traditionally the embroidered text promoted abstract ideals of femininity for women (which were often at odds with their actual life experience) or put all emphasis on the afterlife. The quotations I choose are imbued with an active voice of resistance. (Sampson)
Similarly, Walker and Neville would have no objections to their stories being told by anybody: however, few but working-class Nova Scotians like themselves would have an interest in doing so. It is also unlikely that an artist of a different background would be interested in making a life's work, as Janice Leonard has, of mythologizing her Nova Scotian roots.
[Catalogue Page 23:]
Other artists in this exhibition have followed more complicated routes to the vernacular. For example, Gerald Ferguson, originally from the United States, came to Canada as an art professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. He was one of the key professionals involved in the collection of Nova Scotian folk art in the early 1970s, and his collection is currently on loan to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Until 1987, he was also involved in almost all of the college's many reincarnations as an institution, and his art has incorporated many media and strategies over the years. As a curator he put together an exhibition catalogue about Marsden Hartley's Nova Scotia experience which is the most authoritative text on the subject.(Footnote 27) Ferguson's involvement in Nova Scotian art as an artist, collector, curator and teacher has made him like a small planet with an outsize gravitational field. But his quotation of Nova Scotian vernacular art in his own work is a fairly recent aspect of his artistic life, and one which does not coincide with his education and background, but with a long process of voluntary affiliation which has proceeded by stages: first an academic interest in Nova Scotian vernacular, then a collector's interest, and then an artist's interest.
The pattern of Ferguson's involvement with the vernacular can be seen in many other artists in this exhibition: the art school education, the curiosity about local traditions, and then personal identification as a voice tunes itself to the vernacular.
(Footnote 27) See Ferguson, Gerald.
[Catalogue Page 24:]
Ames, Kenneth L. Beyond Necessity, Art in the Folk Tradition. Delaware: The Winterthur Museum, 1977.
Bell, Michael. Painters in a New Land. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1973.
Berger, John. "The Primitive and the Professional," from About Looking. New York:Vintage International, 1980.
Barnard, Elissa. "A New Folk Artist Emerges." Halifax: The Mail-Star, Thursday, 8 April 1993, p.B3.
Bishop, Robert. American Folk Art Expressions of a New Spirit. New York: Museum of American Folk Art, 1982.
Forum,Jennifer. "Will the real outsiders please stand up?" Chicago: The New Art Examiner, Summer 1993, pp.18-21.
Ferguson, Bruce. Joe Sleep Retrospective. Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1981.
Ferguson, Gerald. Gerald Ferguson Still Lifes. Halifax: Art Gallery Mount Saint Vincent University, 1990.
Ferguson, Gerald (editor). Marsden Hartley and Nova Scotia. Halifax: The Art Gallery, Mount Saint Vincent University, 1987.
Field, Richard Henning. "Folk Art - What is It?". AGNS Journal Halifax: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, July-December 1987, pp.5-8.
Field, Richard Henning. Spirit of Nova Scotia. Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1985.
Foshay, Susan M. Nova Scotia Folk Art. Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1992.
Foster, Hal. Discussions in Culture Number One. Seattle: Bay Press, 1987.
Gauguin, Paul. The Writings of a Savage. New York: Paragon House, 1990.
Godfrey, Stephen. "Artist Searches for His True Colors." Toronto: The Globe & Mail, Sec.C, p.l, 6 October 1990.
Goldwater, Robert. Primitivism in Modern Art. Cambridge: 1986.
Greenaway, Cora. Interior Decorative Painting in Nova Scotia. Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1986.
Harper, J. Russell. A People's Art, Primitive, Naive, Provincial, and Folk Painting in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.
Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger, editors. The Invention of' Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Huntington, Chris. Charlie Tanner 1904-1982 Retrospective. Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1984.
Jans, Sheila. The Golden Thread of Memory...Recent Paintings by Janice Leonard. Halifax: Dalhousie Art Gallery, 1991.
Kennedy, Garry Neill and Gary Wilson. Some Time Ago; Hidden Treasures. Halifax: The Art Gallery Mount Saint Vincent University, 1987.
Kobayashi, Terry and Michael Bird. A Compendium of Canadian Folk Artists. Erin, Ontario: The Boston Mills Press, 1985.
Little, Nina Fletcher. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection. Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1957.
Lord, Barry. The History of Painting in Canada. Toronto: NC Press, 1974.
Manguel, Alberto. "Alberto Manguel looks at..." Toronto: The Globe & Mail, 12 March 1992, p.A7.
McKav, Ian. "Twilight at Peggy's Cove: Towards a Genealogy of Maritimicity' in Nova Scotia." North York: Borderlines, Summer 1988.
Pearse, Harold. "Folk Art: Classic, Neo and Post". The AGNS Journal. Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. vol.9/2, pp.7-9.
Redgrave, Felicity. John Neville. Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1988.
Riordon, Bernard et al. Folk Art of Nova Scotia. Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1976.
Riordon, Bernard. Francis Silver 1841-1920. Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1982.
Riordon, Bernard. Nova Scotia Folk Art Canada's Cultural Heritage. Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1989.
Said, Edward. The World, The Text, and The Critic. London: Vintage, 1983.
Shattuck, Roger. The Banquet Years. New York: Vintage Books, 1968.
Young, Deborah A. A Record for Time. Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1985.
[Catalogue Page 25:]
GETTING THE DUCKS IN A ROW
Decoys Dupes & Rogue Penguins.
[The following dialogue is extrapolated from a recorded discussion between Cliff Eyland and Susan Gibson Garvey in September 1993.]
SGG: Do you recall why we wanted to work on this exhibition?
CE: I think we both had personal reasons, including a long-term interest in the topic. For me, one reason is that I rarely get the opportunity to deal with Nova Scotian art in general, as opposed to individual artists.
SGG: I think we both started with certain kinds of assumptions about contemporary folk art and its relationship to contemporary art in general, and as our research for this exhibition progressed we've been concerned to modify those assumptions. For example, we began by thinking that we might be able to construct some kind of grey scalea taxonomyto account for the degrees of appropriation between artists. But we rapidly came to the conclusion that this wasn't going to work, because, while we could imagine the two ends of a scale, the gradations between these extremes were complicated by too many factors. The scale became a useless analytical tool. You cite two specific taxonomies in your essayRichard Field's and Harold Pearse'sbut you are evidently dissatisfied with them too.
CE: Well, I think taxonomies in general don't work, even though it's a common impulse to try to construct them. The general problem with taxonomies in art is that they end up looking like biological taxonomiesthey start to construct a morphology of art as if art develops the way biological forms do... People try to link various kinds of art by linking morphological characteristicsas if somehow art thinks alike because it looks alike. So that's a mistake, I think collating all the formal similarities. A lot of people think that's what art is aboutthat is, what it looks likebut if you're involved in art that's never the whole story. So taxonomies encourage people to focus on superficial similarities, and they also encourage one to confuse qualities in the art with qualities of the artists. Of course, it must be said in their defense that both Field's and Pearse's taxonomies of folk art are basically pedagogicalthey just want to sort things out for people...
SGG: The thing about Pearse's taxonomy that does work for me is that it includes art school educated artists who use the folk idiom in some way, so it does seem closer to the idea of a continuum of artistic preoccupations rather than suggesting some kind of irreconcilable difference between folk and other kinds of art.
CE: Pearse's pedagogical model permits him more easily to explain the work, but such models can
make the work appear simpler than it is. Unfortunately, these models also encourage classification schemes which quickly expand into an infinite number of categories.
SGG: Doesn't art history do that too?
CE: I think connoisseurship did that. In a way, art historians like Bernard Berenson detected minute distinctions among paintings in order to make incredibly complicated taxonomies of real and imagined artists. I can think of many other attempts to do that, but I shouldn't load all that baggage on Field and Pearse.
[Catalogue Page 26:]
SGG: One of the other things I thought was reasonable about Pearse's taxonomy was that it included the notion of change and growth in a folk artist's work. I always thought it rather odd that people think a folk artist shouldn't change and grow like other artists, but should remain naive and innocent for ever. This links up with some of your comments regarding the annual Lunenburg Folk Art Festival. You imply that this Festival has actually created a folk art market
CE: I think that's good.
SGG:and that without the Festival every year there wouldn't be all these new folk artists walking out of the woods carrying their sculpturesexcuse mecarvings.
CE: As the work gets discovered it adapts itself to certain standards, I think. We've heard story after story about that.
SGG: Are you saying there is a standard?
CE: The standard is defined by the taste of the peoplethe professionals, because they usually are professionals: artists, dealers, media peoplewho buy the work. In a sense they collaborate with the artists who make it.
SGG: But it becomes a bit of a set-up doesn't it? We saw how Don Sabean wasn't considered a real folk artist until he moved from using coloured crayon on cereal boxes and started to use the recommended enamel on board. But if in the past we have valued, say, Kurt Schwitters' collages of detritus picked up off the streets, or even a folk artist like Joe Sleep's felt tip pen works on cardboard shirt boxes, why shouldn't we value Don Sabean's crayons on cereal boxes? It appears that there's a certain use of materials that's now recognized as "folk art" and it's not oil on canvas or crayon on card, it's enamel on board; and it's not sculpting in plaster or stone or whatever, it's taking a chain saw or a hunting knife and hacking away at a lump of wood. And that's folk art. But that's not a standard, really, it's a stereotype.
CE: Yes, you could call it that. This stereotype has rapidly become identified with Nova Scotia, at least in the minds of many peoplecharacteristic of Nova Scotia, while other forms of contemporary art are not considered so characteristic. But the real context of any local art is a wider scene and includes other artists from other areas who make similar work or are driven by similar concerns. So the identification of Nova Scotia with folk art can be questioned. For example, the special Nova Scotia Folk Art Collection at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia often comes up in a controversial way in discussions I've had with other artists. Perhaps artists make too much of it, but then one must ask: what are the criteria for inclusion in a collection? Or for inclusion in the Lunenburg Folk Art Festival? And how do you judge something like naivete?
SGG: We never really discovered what the criterion for judging folk art was. Some of the professionals we interviewed seemed to suggest that one could instantly recognise whether it's a genuine piece of folk art or not.
CE: We know there can't be instant recognition, mostly because of the games we know our artist friends play as they make work. We know that there's nothing self-evident in contemporary art, even folk art.
SGG: Of course people don't want to be deliberately deceived. They don't want to be told that a piece of so-called folk art is by a naive artist when it's been made by a sophisticated artist, any more than they want to buy a piece of so-called Inuit sculpture that has actually been made by a white art school graduate.
[Catalogue Page 27:]
CE: But if they are fooled, then they are fooled. They can't tell the difference.
SGG: I'm uncomfortable theorizing about art without the visual evidence in front of us. It's easy to theorize without the visual evidence but often the evidence refutes the theory.
CE: I don't think so in this case: the theory that it is possible to be fooled cannot be refuted by "visual evidence."
SGG: Yes, but that's deliberate fraud. I would suggest that in the case of every artist we've included in this exhibition, with the exception of the folk artists themselves, of course, it's very clear from the visual evidence itself what they're aboutwhether they're quoting, borrowing, and so on. I mean you would never seriously confuse Gerald Ferguson or Janice Leonard with folk artists. Perhaps the only artist in this exhibition who is really borderline is Kyle Jackson, whose work sometimes could be confused with that of a folk artist.
CE: I agree. The point about fraud has to do with the wider issue of authenticity and folk artan issue which was brought up in one way or another by almost everyone we talked with. We know the works we have chosen are genuine, and that there's no reason to mistake any of the art school educated artists we include in this exhibition for folk artists. With Jackson the issue turns on people's perceptions and misperceptions of him and the work.
SGG: I think the clues are usually there in the visual evidence. In most cases you can read these clues in the works themselves as to when they're quoting and so on. In general, it's a question of faithor bad faithin that we expect the contract between an artist and their public to be one of trust
CE: Well, for this work you do.
SGG: No, you expect it from any artist. For instance in a performance piece you have to have the trust of your audience or they're going to walk out halfway through... they have to have the trust to go with you perhaps for several hours, to have the patience to know that something's going to happen that's going to be worth the effort... I think performance art requires a great deal of trust, self-exposure, faith. But at the same time all art work depends on trust to a certain extent. I don't mean that artifice is not involved. It's not that illusions and deceptions aren't often part of the artwork, in fact some art is precisely about illusion, but you trust you are not going to be deliberately defrauded. There was a suggestion among some people we talked to that some recent folk art was actually fraudulent
CE: Hmmm, I don't know if I can go along with the trust idea. But it does go back to our discussion about fraud and various levels of deception and misreading. It is possible that you can be fooled, you can make an error. I think I try to include that possibility as part of my assessment of any work. I mean it's always part of my speculation about a work that I could completely miss it, for whatever reason, whether the issue of fraud is involved or not. There's always the chance that you've completely misapprehended something. The possibility of deception keeps you humble.
SGG: That's the perennial terror of all who write about art. I too worry that I may have missed it entirely. But that's not the same as thinking I may have been defrauded.
CE: True, but it's the same result.
SGG: You mean if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it's a duck?
CE If it never was a duck, you calling it a duck doesn't make it so.
[Catalogue Page 28:]
SGG: I must say this adds a whole new meaning to the idea of a decoy (that paradigm of folk carving)! But I wonder if the fraud issue isn't qualitatively different from what we're talking about here, in relation to folk art.
CE: Well, it becomes a very interesting issue in folk art, given that issues of authenticity are so frequently raised in discussions of it. Perhaps the issue is more to do with the people who make the work than the work itself. A fraudulent Matisse drawing is not as interesting to me as an encounter with someone who tries to convince themselves and me that they are a folk artist by outlining their reverse CVtheir lack of artistic training. Often it's not so much a matter of outright fraud, it's more a case that you can never be really sure what's going on. You can never be sure that a work like Leo Naugler's "Jackson Pollock" table isn't quoting a Jackson Pollock.
SGG: We would have been just as surprised if he had told us yes he quoted or no he didn't.
CE: Recently, I went to a non-artist friend's place and sat on the deck while he was firing up the barbecue and I said "Where'd you get that Howard Hodgkin deck table?" because it looked like Howard Hodgkin had painted it, and he said "I don't know anything about Hodgkin, I just slapped the paint on." And then my friend Peter [Kirby] came along half an hour later and without prompting said "Hey! a Howard Hodgkin table!" My business person friend had obviously never seen or heard of Howard Hodgkin and was taken aback. Two artists made exactly the same comment about a table. Of course, someone could be mean to us and say that we've only got only a limited set of references we trot outwe're so predictable...
SGG: There's truth to that all right... I mean in constantly relating things to the obvious. For instance, the moment you start gouging plywood, well, you've got to be emulating Paterson Ewen. But in relation to this show, I think we're being more responsive than that. I mean, it's not an invention of yours, or an invention of mine, that the folk references are there. There were repeated confirmations among those with whom we talkeda general consensus... No-one said "I don't know what you mean."
CE: Yes. As you say, there's some kind of canon formation going on, at least among the people we talked to. So I think what we're doing, if I've got this straight, is we're examining a canon of work that has been formed and pointing out some of the ambiguities, some of the problems.
SGG: And by examining that microcosm, I thinkwell, maybe you can never say it means anything more than the microcosmbut perhaps Nova Scotia art is a special case of the general.
CE: Structurally it has the same mix and problems as many other regions, a question we don't address in this show. It would be interesting to have regional scholars from elsewhere discuss the common strategies of regions, including the identification of folk art in many regions. When I visited Scotland recently I was struck by how the New and Old Scotland have similar problems. Perhaps it's time to set up a computer network. But to discuss Nova Scotia the network would have to extend around the world. The work and the people are spread out everywhere.
SGG: Yeah, if you're interested in Celtic literature, for example, you don't all congregate in one place and say this where Celtic literature is. I'm intrigued by the fact that the best collection of the work and memorabilia of Samuel Beckett happens to be in Texas, not in Ireland, France or England, which are the obvious places and the ones with which he has the most connections.
[Catalogue Page 29:]
And here at the Dalhousie University library, for instance, we have a Kipling collection that attracts scholars from all over, but there's no connection between Nova Scotia and Kipling except that someone who collected Kipling papers, publications and memorabilia happened to be here for a time and left his collection to the University, and the collection attracted other Kipling gifts and got built up that way.
CE: And that's local culture!
SGG: That's part of the wrinkles of history. But it's not what you expect to find.
CE: But you know you expect to find the same wrinklingif not wrinkleseverywhere.
SGG: We tend to think that art collections are built up through careful selection from a focused mandate. But often a collection is the product of the strangest of circumstances and choices. I don't think it's any more bizarre, actually, for the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia to collect folk art than any other thing to be collected, speaking on a purely objective level.
CE: I think it's worth noting that the province's folk art collection and Lunenburg's Annual Folk Art Festival unconsciously seem to follow the model of the French Salonthe nineteenth century Academic model, with criteria for inclusion and exclusion (even if it's hard to pin down exactly what those criteria are). Inevitably this encourages envy and rebellion among those who are excluded.
SGG: Well, whenever anything is established someone has to come along and debunk it. If
you establish an Academy of Nova Scotia folk artists, then of course you have to have a Salon des Réfusés.
[Catalogue Page 30:]
CE: Yes, like that artistFrank Carsonwho set up his work outside the Folk Art Festival in Lunenburg. You could see him as the Courbet of the Nova Scotia folk art world (in his actions, if not in his abilities), setting up his own show in the parking lot. He makes work in every folk art style imaginable, and his work quotes all the canonical Nova Scotia folk art figures, from Maud Lewis to Joe Norris. He was obviously refused admittance to the "Academy."
SGG: On the basis of not being naive, I would imagine!
CE: I don't mean that we should be jumping to Mr. Carson's defense, as if he should be admitted into this "Folk Art Academy."
SGG: I would be most unwilling to... I think we are just raising questions.
CE: It's amazing that they haven't been asked before.
SGG: Oh, I think they have, I just don't think they've been gathered up in quite this way.
CE: I guess we ought to recognize that in Nova Scotia the art world operates by word of mouth much of the time, through gossip and other means. Very often the gossip never makes it into print.
SGG: Also there's a reluctance to disturb the status quo. I mean, if folk art becomes the goose that lays the golden eggs for a lot of people, who's going to debunkwell, not folk art itself, but its manipulation?
CE: Well, it's strange, because we have seen that the people who buy folk art are mainly professionals. We can't talk about professionals taken in by the work as if someone were being conned.
SGG: No, in fact quite the reverse. They might recognize something in the work that non-professionals don't recognize. I mean you could say that in fact they're the ones best suited to being able to recognize... You could also say it's a kind of patronizationin both senses of the word. In your essay you imply, whether you mean to or not, that there might be a kind of conspiracy to create a Nova Scotian folk art tradition where there might not have been one.
CE: This happens by default, I think. You have a department of culture, an art gallery and a tourist agenda that plays itself out. By a kind of default it will define what Nova Scotian art is. It's quite innocent in a way, that one kind of art has been seized on for promotion, and it is inevitable that once you have a provincial art gallery with provincial jurisdiction and provincial money it will create a provincial art through patronage, according to more-or-less demographic (if not democratic) thinking. It's not a conspiracy, it's just that the admixture of federal and provincial agencies produces a bizarre amalgam that is official "Nova Scotian Culture." The fact is that most contemporary art in Nova Scotiaand there are hundreds of different kinds can't be identified as Nova Scotian culture as easily as folk art can be.
SGG: Yes, there's no reason why, for example, Nancy Edell should be considered Nova Scotian rather than, say, Mexican or Babylonian, if we go by her references alone.
CE: Exactly. The regionalist surge in the 1930s had many artists around the world painting in the same neoclassical way. The regionalist surge today is different. It has to do the world over with ideas of ethnocentrism at one extreme and the fight against global corporate culture at the other. So I guess the fear I have of promoting "regional art" has to do with my fears about ethnocentric culture.
SGG: And you see Nova Scotian folk art as promoting this?
[Catalogue Page 31:]
CE: Well, ethnicity wasn't much of an issue in the first Nova Scotia folk art show in 1976 (at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia). By contrast, the recent exhibition about German Canadian folk art called Just for Nice (at the Canadian Museum of Civilization) assorts some of the same work according to the ethnic origins of the artists. So artists from various places in Canada are regarded according to their ethnic background and German-Canadians across the country are brought together.
SGG: The proposal has been the spirit, hasn't it, the proposal has been not the motifs, although they
can be lumped together in a certain kind of way, the proposal has been that they all share the same spirit.
CE: But what kind of "spirit" are we going to find in "German-Canadian" folk art, for example?
The words "spirit" and "German" in one sentence make me uncomfortable...
SGG: I was thinking more about the general case, rather than the particular. The proposal that it
isn't the motifsthe hearts and flowers, the birds, pussycats, animals, rural scenes and fishermen that recur and recurbut the more subtle and difficult suggestion to deal with is the idea that there is a certain kind of spirit which identifies something as folk.
CE: But what constitutes this spirit?
[Catalogue Page 32:]
SGG: The official descriptions usually suggest it is the uncomplicated joyful attitude towards experience, the delight in the humble daily round, as in Maud Lewis' work. The spirit is not the fact that she lives in a shack, that she's poor and crippled with arthritis, it's the joy of the little paintings of deer and butterflies dancing in the windows and the celebratory aspect of the good things in life. We moved towards that idea when we discussed why some folk art seemed to be more celebratory, while the non-folk art tended to be more melancholycommemorative rather than celebratory. Bernie Riordon suggested that what people are really buying when they buy folk art is a little bit of paradise. That's rather romantic. I don't know if Eisenhauer's little dancing dogs with erections are bits of paradisealthough they do have a certain... appeal.
CE: Yeah, there's an undercurrent of strange sexual imagery in this show which indicates we haven't touched all the bases.
SGG: Well there have been several well-known folk artists who make carvings of womennudes and they strike me as making parodies of the art historical nude. Are they actually doing that? Do they know that the female nude was valorized in European art for centuries as the ultimate thing to paint or sculpt? Or are they just interested in the figureyou know, you could trace it through the primitive, the fertility figures, Venuses and so on. Or you could just say they're dirty old men... I don't know if there are many women folk artists who carve female nudes.
CE: I don't know if there are that many folk art women carvers, period. There was one in the folk art festival, but she received little attention.
SGG: In this regard, there are a number of issues that we've barely touched on, and that we'll have to leave for other researchers to take up. But the nude women thing leads me to wonder if all folk art isn't simply a parody of fine arta message from the underprivileged to the privileged. Of course, that presumes some knowledge of fine art, or a sense of a fine art stereotype on the part of the folk artist, in order to parody itsomething that the customary definition of primitive artist might preclude. That's one thing you've focused on quite prominently in your essayI mean the class issue.
CE: It's what (art critic and historian) John Berger speaks about. He says that the solutions offered by museum art have never been relevant to the primitive artist's life. Primitive artists discover power in making art, and they aren't often influenced by sophisticated artists even when they get the chance to visit museums. Berger suggests that the alienation experienced by folk artist can't be educated out of them.
SGG: Do you think folk artists generally feel alienation?
CE: I think Berger means it in the Marxist sense. It's not an emotional quality. And you could argue with him in several waysfor instance you could question the way he sets up professional versus primitive as a class difference. But the case of the amateur middle-class artist whose art may resemble that of a primitive is another issue. One can call the middle-class or upper-class person a professional artist or amateur, depending on many factors, including their commitment to the work, but calling them a "folk artist" based on the look of their work would be silly.
[Catalogue Page 33:]
SGG: It's interesting to look at Charlie Murphy's work in this context, because Murphy is the only "non-folk" artist we've included in this show who hasn't had art school training per se (although he has had professional influences from artists and museums, and encouragement from grants and awards). The thing I wanted to point out, though, is the fact that he says he began with a deliberately rough look, using images of ordinary people, in order to emphasize a kind of commonality. He says he was hoping to touch the common people with his work... There's I kind of Marxist thing here, I thinkmaking art about the people for the people. He's definitely talking about the working class and the kind of aesthetic he thought they would respond to. Ironically, he found that they reacted to it just like they would to any artto "fine" artas being simply out there, beyond them. So whether it's folky or sophisticated they have the same reaction.
CE: Murphy's a good example because obviously he is a professional artist. I've always thought he has an urban sensibility, even if he does live in the Cape Breton woods. He uses photos he's taken in urban settings, and I've always been intrigued by the connection Murphy's art makes with urban punk movements. When you talk to him about his work, he says: "I can't paint, I just slop the paint on." When you look at his prints it's obvious that he doesn't make pristine prints either. His subject matter can be pretty punk too. Sometimes I think of Murphy as being in the mold of what is called Outsider art... I suppose you could go through all the artists in this show and find something that marks each of them off as radically different.
SGG: Well, whether we're talking about sophisticated artists or folk artists, the situation is always more complex than expected. Folk art itself isn't always as simpleminded or simplistic as some expect it to be. I mean, the Naugler table
CE: Absolutely. When we asked Leo Naugler about it [i.e. that it looks like a Pollock] he was completely non-committal. He tends to describe his work the way Carl Andre or Richard Serra would have described their minimalist and post-minimalist work in the early seventies: Andre might say "this work consists of twenty five boiler plates on the floor." Folk artists, too, can be astonishingly literal in their comments about their work. When Naugler was given a microphone on stage and asked to describe his paintings at the Folk Art Festival, he simply stated the work's dimensions and what paint was used, and that was that. As he spoke I thought about art smart artists who say dumb Andy Warhol things about their art. Of course, this is an example of the professional's fascination with the unconscious references a folk artist makes. We delight in talking with people who we assume don't know as much about art as we do. I mean, it's funny we are so fascinated with the idea that people can't know things. Folk artists are often accused of being knowingly sophisticated in a way they really aren't. One could assume that because of the media and satellite TV nobody can be naive any more, but we know that's not true.
SGG: Now I'm a little confused by that statement. After all, you've gone to some trouble elsewhere to say the oppositethat some folk artists present themselves as more naive than they really are. Another time you seem to suggest that there's little real distinction between folk art and other kinds of art, and to say that the folk art label is somewhat specious, because an artist is an artist and who they choose to quote or not quote
CE: But the orientation of the primitive or folk artist is different. And of course their means are so often different from the means of professional artists.
[Catalogue Page 34:]
SGG: I think it's not in the means, but in the ambition or pretension. I know this gets into the tricky area of trying to attribute motivation, or read an artist's intention into the work (when has that ever stopped a zealous curator?), but I think it can be tackled in the following way. One of the things that both the art collector and the general public most valorize about folk art is its apparent lack of pretension. Equally, an accusation frequently levelled against more sophisticated art by the same public is that it appears to be pretentious. But what is pretension and how is it detected? In an early issue of the photography journal Aperture, Lisette Model describes the humble snapshot as "having no pretense or ambition" and therefore being somehow innocent and uncomplicated aesthetically, while sophisticated photography is evidently more problematic.
SGG: If we think of the snapshot as technological folk art, then we may see a parallel in the relationship between snapshots and photographs and between folk art and more sophisticated art. Basically they use the same means (a camera and photographic processes) but they differ in their ambitions and in how those ambitions get fulfilled. It seems to me, then, that pretension is a quality resulting from the ambition evident in the work itself. Judgment comes into play here, of course, since pretension is a quality arising from a perceived lack of success in the work itself, and that perception may depend on the viewer's own sophistication or willingness to see, and on the context in which the work is encountered. Still, there may well be circumstances where an unsuccessful piece of folk art would be considered pretentious, while a very sophisticated work can still be unpretentious, precisely because it successfully fulfills its own evident ambition. Considerations of critical expertise aside, people only use the term "pretentious" when a work fails to convince.
CE: That's right. And an artist like Naugler is very skillfulhe knows how to make what he wants to make.
SGG: And nobody "just makes art." Even if they say they do. Art always comes from somewhere. This is where you can't always take an artist's word for it. I don't mean to deny their stated intentions, but rather to emphasize that art doesn't happen in a vacuumeven the presumed vacuum of the untrained artist's head. I think this is a different approach to regionalismthat there's always a context, but it's not necessarily a coherent, consistent context where all the same work is done by the same people for the same motives. But there always is a context.
CE: And part of that context is the cherished notion that there is an authentic art which represents Nova Scotia and that the folk artist is the medium for this "art of the people." And that these artists can become polluted by outside influences, become somehow less pure...
SGG: We'd be here all night if we were to discuss the broader context of "pollution from outside influences," but we could cite the example of pre-Columbian art, and whether we can ever know what it really was, because there's a good chance that some of what we think is pre-Columbian art was actually made in response to the first few years of the early explorers'/invaders' interest in pre-Columbian art
CE: Inuit art is another example. Something that is thoroughly complicated by being adopted into the Nova Scotian situation. In fact it's a mess, a delightful mess. To be encouraged, of course.
SGG: You mean the way current folk artists in Lunenburg have begun quoting Inuit art?
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CE: Well we both noticed it, and thought it quite strange, at the Folk Art Festivalhow there were sculptures that quoted various Northern idioms. And the penguins, toothe artists who quoted those didn't get it quite right, because of course penguins come from Antarctica. The Bradford Naugler carving of an Inuit woman was quite spectacular.
SGG: And is that the "local" influence? What is the socio-cultural context of a Lunenburg artist making a piece of folk sculpture of an Inuit woman?
CE: It's gotta be the Houston North Gallery (in Lunenburg), a gallery that many of these folk artists may never have entered, but all know through friends at least. They know what the criteria of the gallery areits very unusual combination of Inuit art and Nova Scotia folk art.
SGG: Well they both make sense in terms of what someone's notions of vernacular art might be. They also make sense in terms of the idea (outlined in your essay) of "voluntary affiliation." It seems to me that this is a crucial concept in the discussion, for it is something that every artist may employ without prejudice, whether folk, ethnic, primitive, sophisticated, fine, high, low, outsider or whatever... that is, choosing one's affiliations, not being assigned them from what others perceive ought to be one's affiliations. I also like your adaptation of Said's notion of genealogies of reference. We could say that many of the artists in this exhibition provide genealogies of reference for each otherthey collect each other and often acknowledge each other's influenceLeonard and Walker are a case in point, because they not only collect each other, but also own examples of work by other artists in this exhibitionJackson, for example (who also collects work by other folk artists). We note that both Ferguson and Sampson collect folk art, and Sampson has collected Neville, who in turn (like Edell) owns folk art mats by Sullivan
CE: And that's why we're showing them together... But if this group show breathes in this work as a canon, how is it going to breathe it out again, I wonder?
SGG: I hope it doesn't set it in concrete.
CE: Well, yeah. There are few shows of this kind, and perhaps our presentation is going to harden some people's ideas about the art, which is unfortunate. Although if people are able to look at Joe Norris next to Charlie Murphy in a more complicated way after this then maybe we've done something.