In the wooded area surrounding his home at Fanny Bay on Vancouver Island, George Sawchuk engages in an ongoing site-specific project that he refers to as his yard work. This publication aims to provide some access to and documentation of Sawchuk’s yard work. It is occasioned by and an adjunct to the exhibition George Sawchuk: New Work, mounted concurrently at grunt gallery and Western Front, March 15 to April l, 1988. Both exhibition and publication are propagated in recognition of Sawchuk’s significant influence and contribution. In his yard work, Sawchuk continues what has been a lifelong practice of carving and assemblage.
Bruce Ferguson, in his essay for the catalogue George Sawchuk, which accompanied a 1980 Mendel Art Gallery exhibition, observed the following delineation of events whereby that practice evolved into the philosophic paradigms, critical strategies, and formal concerns evident in Sawchuk’s sculpture: George Sawchuk was born in (1927 or 1929) in Kenora, Ontario, one of three sons of a Polish mother and Russian father.
Although he rejected formal education at the age of thirteen to begin a thirty-eight-year career’ as an itinerant laborer, his early education left an indelible mark Throughout his training at the traditional Roman Catholic school, he also attended, for two hours daily and on Saturday mornings, lessons in the Russian language and "World Politics" sponsored by the local Bolshevik or Labor Hall. These polarized ideologies remained the dominant touchstones in his intellectual development as Sawchuk pursued a self-educated course to determine a philosophy of personal and social integrity.
More than imbuing Sawchuk with a complex ethical and political consciousness, the unlikely amalgam of opposing systems gave him a propensity toward a consistent belief structure. The two extremist positions framed a dialectic which has been the basis of his thoughts, and have been ever since. His conscious quest for a congruous approach was fortified by his self-disciplinarian habits, born from the necessity to survive and a stubborn nature. Sawchuk conscientiously studied Marx in a remote logging camps, and his curiosity once kept him on board a ship for months to continue a dialogue with a retired University of Toronto history professor. This existential existence was constantly tempered by the hard realities of a working-class life and by his daily encounters with nature. He also developed a series of manual skills and honed his social ideas within a tradition of trade unionism.
Inadvertently, and without self-consciousness Sawchuk was preparing himself or the career of an artist. During his years on the move, the casual production of carved and assembled three-dimensional graffiti left Sawchuk’s mark in forests or in driftwood on beaches. At that time, the practice was an amusement, a source of enjoyment without further intention.
In 1956, an injury that led to the eventual amputation of a leg forced a change of pace. Sawchuk settled in North Vancouver where his neighbors, Ian Baxter, took an interest in his activity: the water tap, the glass-fronted box filled with walnuts, the metal pipes that appeared in tree trunks around Sawchuk’s home. Baxter encouraged the proceedings and provided discourse: thereby the creative impulse was redefined and refined, informed by theories and issues of historical and current art practice. Sawchuk’s sculpture was included when, in 1969, Lucy Lippard organized the exhibitions of 1987 and 1980 in Seattle and Vancouver, respectively.
In 1970, Sawchuk’s first solo exhibition of his portable sculpture was held at the Fine Arts Gallery at the University of British Columbia. Since then his portable work has been presented in eight one-person exhibitions as well as numerous group shows in Canada and the United States.‘ Although Sawchuk left the Vancouver area in 1980, his activity continues to provoke interest; his portable sculpture has sustained familiarity at least in part due to Sawchuk’s consistent participation in support of artists’ initiatives such as the October Show (1983) and Artropolis (1987). The site-specific project, on the other hand, is not well known because of its location some distance and a ferry ride from the city, at Fanny Bay, where Sawchuk resides with Pat Helps.
Every detail of their homestead at Fanny Bay, including house, studio, and sheds for tractor, wood, and garden implements, is impressive in its utilitarian readiness and simplicity. The woodshed is full, a prime mix of hard- and softwood stacked to allow ventilation. The rigor and resourcefulness evident in Sawchuk’s art is echoed here. On my first visit several years ago, I found George in their very extensive, solidly fenced garden. It was the beginning of the year, deciduous trees not yet in bud. Sawchuk was taking advantage of the fine late-winter weather to prepare an early planting of garlic. In the course of my stay I recognized that the labor-intensive effort required to construct and maintain the Sawchuk enterprise is sustained by and in turn sustains the seemingly whimsical, and therefore contradictory, yard work project. Despite the apparent fancy of the site-specific project, it is nonetheless purposeful, implicitly didactic in its reference to the relationship between humans and nature. It extends through an otherwise uncultivated wooded area where a roughly circular path meanders around fallen tree limbs, standing water, and lush vegetation.
In swampy spots sawdust by the wheelbarrow-load has been added to elevate the walkway. Wooden slab benches at intervals invite leisurely contemplation. Throughout, attention is attracted by the unexpected and incongruous color, shape, and texture if manufactured objects placed singly, in vaguely familiar constructs, or in arcane configurations. Subjected to the growth and decay of vegetation and the effects of the elements, the site is in constant flux. Change occurs as the sun’s angle fluctuates with the time of day and with the seasons. Mirror insets reflect the viewer, the forest, or objects, depending on the point of view.
Due to foliage, light, and shadow, the constructs and their rejected images appear and disappear with progress on the path. In this respect, the experience is somewhat analogous to a reading of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, wherein with each volume we apprehend new vision, new meaning. Likewise, one’s perceptions shift and change with each progression through Sawchuk’s wooded maze. Yet the yard work is without a narrative, regardless of the line drawn by the path. Nor is there discernible sequence, thematic grouping, or plan of any kind beyond the path itself. Rather, the project is a random compendium, a mosaic of ideas made object. The scope of ideas ranges from a few essentially formal exercises, using rope and paint and pipe to explore line, color, or perspective, to parody three-dimensional reconstruction of paintings such as Fragonard’s The Swing, allusions to works by Magritte and Dali, comments on sociopolitical events and institutions, as well as variants of extant portables, and actual portables placed in the yard work. There are repeated motifs and images such as fish, clocks, red flowers, books, and cruciform. Each construct offers a kind of object lesson, a way of tangibly apprehending our everyday environment.
Thus, these manipulations of the object invite interpretation of reality, through a variety of discourses that go from consideration of traditional aesthetics to theories of art and politics, but always through the juxtaposition of objects in the landscape. Indeed, it is the consistent use of appropriated cultural materials in combination with wood and other natural elements that characterizes Sawchuk’s oeuvre and whereby the work generates accessible meaning.’ Invariably the dialectic inherent in the juxtaposing of these nontraditional materials refers as well to the redefinition of the artist’s role vis-à-vis society and the museum and market systems in particular; and thus to difficulties of individuation which constitutes a challenge to the interests of technology, plurality, fetishism, and cultural accommodation The appropriated object or reconstructed image, placed in its new context, becomes a free-floating signifier carrying several possible meanings, denying closure, assuming and encouraging an active viewer. In the yard work, the multiplicity of meaning is enhanced by the absence of titles, which in the portable sculpture act to direct interpretation.
For example, without Sawchuk’s verbal explanation that a black hand with red ball represents the consequence of apartheid in South Africa – the hand is symbolic of the native people of South Africa; the red ball signifies their espousal of communism – the configuration is open to any number of alternate explications. The forest is obviously both the background for and an element of the site-specific project. There are other iconographic aspects therein; however, most often some quirk, an added detail, subverts the iconography and calls for a more complex exegesis so that the book or cruciform in question represents itself while simultaneously signifying alternate meanings. The yard work includes, for instance, several cruciform, diversely combined with electric light bulb, switch, and a black candle, or manacles suspended on chains. Yet another is formed in an elevated live tree limb, well above eye-level. Viewers have variously expressed respect for Sawchuk’s religiosity, been offended by his lack of respect, aid and accused him of occult practice. This diversity of response is a source of satisfaction for the artist, for whom the lack of closure is intentional. Sawchuk employs essentially the same materials and working procedures in both his yard work and portable sculptures. The latter, produced for public exhibition, are more formal in appearance, more refined, consistently complex and explicitly didactic. The minimalist rectilinear structure and of the portables call for a particular point of view, and their titles direct interpretation. The yard work, on the other hand, involves changing perspectives and is intentionally ambiguous in its signification.
Predating and providing the genesis of the portable works, the site-specific activity arises directly from Sawchuk’s urge to express and the pleasure of creating. In both modes, his authenticity, comprised of his own formal and philosophical paradigms, nonetheless encompasses recognizable postmodern critical strategies: appropriation of found objects, images, titles; ironic juxtaposition and quotation, thus discursively and inter-textually. In the yard work, site-specficity and impermanence; all of which "operate as a means of refusal or subversion of the autonomous work of art as conceived by modernist aesthetic, while at the same time strengthening and reaffirming the potential of political subject". In the portables we find specific references to the values of self-reliance and individual autonomy; the site-specific project in the landscape reiterates, in the site itself, the dialectics manifested in the portable works. It likewise challenges and critiques the cultural hegemonies that would have us believe that a product has value only when it is is sold Free of the constraints imposed by gallery exhibition Sawchuk's yard work, like much of Joseph Beuys' endeavor, is a manifesto, a declaration, and a realization of other epistemologies that are cognizant of the effect of signs, symbols, and the covert and overt influences whereby humanity alternates between power and impotence, delusion and rational pragmatism, creativity and entropy, in a miasma of our own making - and cognizant as well of natural processes, growth, decline, equilibrium, constant change.
In the present climate of artistic professionalism, which prescribes cognizance and fluency with the history and theory of art, it is healthy and refreshing to find a situation that reflects the antithesis. George Sawchuk is an artist for whom the appellation "professional" carries faint praise, although since 1970 he has garnered the requisites of that status - a record of museum and gallery exhibitions; the receipt of grants, awards and commissions, and a bibliography of critical reviews and catalogue publications. Professionalism connotes a kind of specialization in one's field of endevour or expertise, sometimes to the pint of exclusivity, that simply does not comply with Sawchuk's personal attitudes, background and value system. But if George Sawchuk is not a "professional" artist, then what is he? And what has made it possible for him to attain that status, achieve acclaim and admiration from critics and colleagues and rank among the finest contemporary sculptures in Canada.
Fortunately, attitudes exist within the art work that place positive value on personal ethics. This situation does not preclude the strategies of artistic professionalism; it enhances and humanizes them. Personal ethics are of great importance to George Sawchuk. His system of ethics embodies a commitment to the honesty and dignity of labour, the welfare of the working class, a sensitivity to ecological as well as social matters, a pragmatic approach to materialism and a questioning of authority, both sacred and secular.
The prevalence of these attitudes has opened the way to gradual acceptance of alternative and even multiple ethics. This phenomenon might be regarded as the "artist-slash-something or other" syndrome: artist / shaman, artist / technician, artist / social conscience, and so on. Thus, the solipsism of the "professional artist" gives way to conditions and experiences external to art in order to redirect the experience of art.
George Sawchuk's "something other" is his life's experiences as a labourer and handyman, combined with his youthful indoctrination in both Catholicism and Bolshevism. These alone would account for Sawchuk's individual perspective. As an artist, thought, Sawchuk is also about a minority of individuals - those for whom the biographic element is preeminent if not preemptive to the conditions of being an artist and for whom pragmatism is more important than specialization. Such artists are often left unaccounted for in mainstream modernist art history because they are not readily assimilated into the usual classifications of accepted channeling (as, for example, progenitors of formal innovation, or rebels against the aesthetic or social status quo, against card-carrying professionalism or other conventions that define correct behaviour for the artist). But there is a tradition, almost an anti-tradition, as it were, of artists who go against the flow. Sawchuk, by circumstance and personality, is one of them. Comparing him to other notable artists is a tricky task. When Iain Baxter called attention to Sawchuk’s forest assemblages in the late 1960s, Sawchuk was unaware of the art world as such, though he was quick to catch on to certain current and historical aesthetic directions.’ At this early point, it would have been possible to consign Sawchuk to the professional art world’s version of purgatory was to always be a follower, never a leader. But once again, fortunately, the broader view has prevailed. If Sawchuk follows a familiar path, it is the path of individuality, carved by such kindred pragmatists as H.C: Westermann and Edward Kienholz, or by sociological rebels such as Joseph Beuys and Jannis Kounellis, all of whom place his importance on the basic necessities of craft and skill, the social and cultural meaning of the commonplace and the ordinary in both a situational and material context, and the social-activist role of the artist as critic or protagonist. The situational and material contexts that Sawchuk engages in his present artwork are brought together most pertinently at his homestead near Fanny Bay on Vancouver Island.
Over the last decade or so, he has created within and from the natural forest environment another "forest" of sculptural assemblage forms utilizing the same base matter: the trunks of trees both living and felled. Thoughtfully selected found and handmade objects are inserted into or juxtaposed with natural wooden trunk/pillars and stump/pedestals, along paths hewn from the dense underbrush to cross low marshy bogs adjoining the tidal flats of Fanny Bay. It is a forest filled with delightful surprises and deliberate sermonettes, astonishment and admonitions. The sculptural forest engages the neighborhood children, who come to marvel at the bright colours and incongruous elements of Sawchuk’s creations; however, it is the numerous subtle and simple ironies that abound in the work that attract the gaze and attention of older, more knowledgeable viewers who may read the work for its variety and levels of meaning. The materials Sawchuk incorporates into his forest sculptures are notable mainly for their ubiquity and ordinary status often tools or simple mechanical forms, but also such things as shoes, lengths of rope or pipe, rocks, chain, faucets, doorknobs, switch-plates, plastic flowers and vines, up to and including such "complex" objects as an old adding machine.
The forest environment is also a material source, but more often it remains fairly intact to be used as a foil in the context of formal and material opposites, as well as a nexus for meaning. These objects are generally in a preserved state or condition; that is, not significantly modified or transformed as material or object, though usually in a context of resurrection and salvage. Sawchuk’s pragmatism is twofold: ecological, in that nothing is wasted or discarded; and dexterous, indicating a proficiency and adroitness in many manual skills. His sculpture is based on methodologies of Bricolage.
Bricolage sculpture converts the inertia and exhaustion of found materials into new conduits of meaning. For Sawchuk, the exhausted existence of the original object is reinvested with significant meaning, in a context that relates to the forest environment by means of interventions both human and cultural (references to religion, politics, knowledge, or art). Some of the work operates by way of the visually unexpected, illogical and absurd – the strategies of surrealism.
A fairly recent British tendency in Bricolage sculpture turns found objects and materials into sculptural images, which are in turn appropriated and recycled from the mass culture.’ Sawchuk has utilized this mode on occasion, most often in his free standing portable sculpture in which the tree trunk has been hewn or configured with other objects into an image-form. But the idea of a Bricolage image (for example, that of Tony Cragg or Bill Woodrow) depends on the use of the found object wrenched from its original context, used as visual or tactile element but stripped of all but residual meaning. Throughout Sawchuk also relies on the wrenching of context, his works retain or signify specific meaning within that of the configuration and the object itself. The relationship to site is the most salient and obvious feature of the forest sculptures. Many are actually part of a living and/or still-rooted tree. Sawchuk is careful lest he fatally damage a living tree, and he uses storm-fallen logs and stumps for his portable and site-hewn works (as well, these are usually dry and will not check or split as severely as green wood). ‘1’he sited works, made of natural materials and subjected to the cycles of nature, decay and deteriorate. In this regard, Sawchuk’s sensitivity to site and to nature is consistent with the programme of the Grizedale Forest Project in Wales, an 8,700-acre multiple-use forest preserve in which sculptures produced on-site by artists-in-residence are integrated into the natural environment. The English wood sculptor David Nash has been in residence at Crizedaie since 1978. The spirit and ethic of his work are close to those of Sawchuk’s. Nash’s work, objects made entirely from hewn logs and branches, reintegrated into the forest, has been described as having an "organic naturalism" because it is produced in and from the forest environment, as an extension of it. Nash subscribes to certain moral imperatives that are again similar to Sawchuk’s: an ethic of hard labour and a respect for the primacy of nature. Grizedale is on public land, whereas Sawchuk’s land is private (though open to visitors).
The conversion of one's land (that is, the artist’s own) into a private reserve for sculpture has been accomplished by others in modern times, from Brancusi’s compound at Tirgu Jiu in Romania to David Smith’s Terminal Iron Works in upstate New York. The British artist Ian Hamilton Finlay has transformed Stonypath, or "little Sparta", in Lanarkshire, Scotland, into a poetic retreat or "garden temple" as his symbolic counterattack against modern culture." But Finlay’s intervention of culture is weighted towards the dictums of classical aesthetics and virtues, and heavily polemic. Nonetheless, his allusions to the classics – for example, the inscription on a tablet of Saint-Just’s maxim "He Spoke Like An Axe", would have immediate appeal for Sawchuk, who speaks aesthetically and literally with his own axe. As a sculptor, Sawchuk has similarities to the late H.C. Westermann, the Chicago artist whose carpentry skills were placed in the service of constructing exquisitely crafted, enigmatic, and often socially or personally provocative assemblages, many containing a sardonic wit or a "pull-your-leg" sense of material humour. The inspiration for much of Westermann’s work came from his personal experience, and he was adept at using common domestic, industrial, and natural materials. His status was that of the "outsider", less schooled but certainly intelligent, who spoke more from the heart than from the mind. Sawchuk’s system of values, in which uncompromising, utterly honest craftsmanship combines with strength and durability, correlates to Westermann’s personal value structure.’ Edward Kienholz is another American "original" whose ad hoc technique and approach arose from a farmhand's skills. His format for presentation (the sculptural tableau ) was inspired by youthful memories of church plays. Kienholz generally returns the found object to some approximation of its former status in the context of human interactions. Though Sawchuk does not share Kienholz’s sense of outrage and use of indictment as a strategy for engaging social consciousness, they do share a similar belief in the meaningfulness of the ordinary, the commonplace in people’s lives, and the objects that represent or signify those lives. Sawchuk also shares with these artists a concern for the human condition.
Special historical references can be utilized to express a nationalist, social, or ethnic position Sawchuk has made direct references to a Canadian socio-historic context, but it seems to me that Sawchuk’s humanity comes from lived experiences rather than vicarious ones, and that he views his situation as one shared by many. For now, his lived experience is his art-making, conducted in the forest and studio. He maintains custodial supervision of his sited work in order that others may come to see and to enjoy it – a small yet significant statement of social purpose. Joseph Cornell once said, "Everything can be used (in art) of course one doesn’t know it at the time.
How does one know what a certain object will tell another?" This sentiment is the inspiration of the Bricoleur, from Schwitters and (Cornell to Kienholz and Westermann, to Cragg and Kounellis and Sawchuk In Sawchuk’s forest at Fanny Bay, it is not only the objects that speak to each other: the trees talk, the wind and rain listen. There is, to quote English art critic Suzi Gablik, a "re-enchantment" taking place here. Much has been expressed already and elsewhere concerning Sawchuk’s views on organized religion, politics, labour, and capital, and those views reside at one level or another in many of the forest sculptures. Hut the aspects that directly express those views, as fundamental or complex as they might be, are Sawchuk’s simplicity, honesty, and directness of approach. The message is neither diluted nor blunted by his twists of humour, sly visual conundrums, or modest proposal. Ron Glowen January 1988
1. Ferguson, Bruce, George Sawchuk, catalogue (Saskatoon: Mendel Art Gallery, 1980)
2. For a full discussion of Sawchuk’s portable work, see Ferguson, George Sawchuk.
3. Fry, Philip, Sylvain P. Cousineau: Photographs and Paintings, catalogue (Regina: Dunlop Art Gallery, 1980), pp. 8 – 20.
4. Harldson, Arni Runar, Tracing Collage, Montage and Appropriation", Transference, catalogue (Bantf: Walter Phillips Gallery, 1987), p. 7
5. Thomas Garver (as quoted in Ferguson, George Sawchuk)..
6. Brown, Stephanie, "Grizedale – A Wider Perspective: Observations on Sculpture in Landscape", A Sense of Place: Sculpture in Landscape (Tyne and Wear, England: Sunderland Arts Centre, 1984), pp. 55-7.
7. Dimitrijevic, Nena, "Sculpture and Its Double", The Sculpture Show (London: Hayward and Serpentine Galleries, 1983), pp. 138-9.
8. Gintz, Claude, "Neoclassical Rearmament", Art in America, February 1987, p. l 12.
9. Haskell, Barbara, H. C Westermann (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1978), p. 17.
10. Quoted in Diane Waldman, Transformations in Modern Sculpture (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1985), p. 20.
SELECTED EXHIBITIONS AND BIBLIOGRAPHY SOLO EXHIBITIONS
1983 Portland Centre for the Visual Arts, Portland, Oregon
1983 Rubin/Mardin Gallery, Seattle, Washington
1982 Gallery K, Washington, District of Columbia
1981 Bau-Xi Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia
1980 Glenbow Gallery, Calgary, Alberta
1980 Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
1971 Fine Arts Gallery, Pacific Lutheran College, Tacoma, Washington
1970 Fine Arts (Gallery, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia
1987 Artropolis, Vancouver, British Columbia
1985 World of the West, Optica Gallery, Montreal, Quebec
1984 14 Island Artists, Pitt international Galleries, Vancouver, British Columbia
1984 Beyond the Malahat, Open Space Gallery, Victoria, British Columbia
1984 Reconstituted Elements, Open Space Gallery, Victoria, British Columbia, and Mercer Union Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
1983 October Show, Vancouver, British Columbia
1981 The Farm Project, Arlington, Washington
Burnett, David, and Marilyn Schiff, Contemporary Canadian Art (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers Ltd., 1983)
Ferguson, Bruce, "A Natural Politic", Vanguard, April 1981
Glowen, Ron, "An Honest Playfulness", Artweek, February 12, 1983 , Landscape Art in the Pacific Northwest", Idaho Arts Journal, Fall 1984
MacDonald, Murray, wood of the west, catalogue for exhibition (Montreal: Optica Gallery, 1985 )
Mays, John Bentley, "Enigmatic Sculpture in Twilight of Dreams", Globe and Mail, May 31, 1984
Tousley, Nancy, George Sawchuk", Parachute, Summer 1981