Touring the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia with Bruce Johnson is an exhilarating, intellectual ride—as he saunters around the gallery, he invokes computing, quantum physics and industrial architecture to discuss the artworks that compose Terroir: a Nova Scotia Survey.
"I think there's a real temptation when you come into the provincial art gallery to try to find a flavour of what is a Nova Scotian artist, what is Nova Scotian art," says Johnson. "Often our big quest in Canada is to try to define identity, but I think the best thing we do here is we don't really define it.
"Interestingly enough, this is a show without a theme. That's good in my opinion, but it's another risk," he continues. "Ironically, there are still themes that pop out. You put 29 artists together and things start to happen, you see links that I think do exist. There's this idea of nostalgia that's at play in the art here, a sort of nostalgia for the past and for a sense of being."
Angela Glanzmann, "On the Matter"
Questioning our perceptions of the past.
Angela Glanzmann's "On the Matter" is composed of a selection of found objects—including a goblet and a microscope—that have been dusted with police grade fingerprinting powder and sit underneath UV lights. Johnson describes it as one of many works in the show that bears a relationship with the past and questions how we perceive it.
"We have this belief in the science of forensics, that from a trace we can almost figure out everything that's happened," he says. "And it's also this idea of surveillance... every trace of us is out there, digitally and physically. What are the implications of that?
"Is it about the fact that we're fleeting? That it's important to us to archive everything?" Johnson asks. "Or is is about a need to know? These objects—a crushed beer can, a couple of bottles, a microscope—they tell stories, and we want to know what happened here. This work displays a kind of voyeurism that we have, about others and about the past."
Melanie Colosimo, "untitled #6 (Lawrence)"
Capturing the feel of Halifax under construction, a city in flux.
Melanie Colosimo's "untitled #6 (Lawrence)," a part of her series Stay as you were when you had left, is a graphite drawing depicting houses atop an exaggerated, seemingly unnavigable stairway. The look of the homes is typical of the Halifax architectural vernacular—wooden siding, bay windows, two front doors that connote a house converted into flats. But their positioning within the work, atop a surreal staircase, suggests a longing that connects to the nostalgia that Johnson sees running through Terroir.
He says Colosimo is "really interested in the kind of utilitarian things that we see around the city that are stereotypically male—like construction materials, scaffolding. If you walk around right now, we have condos everywhere, we have the Nova Centre, we have a city completely in flux. And here's an artist who's been very interested in how a place is very temporary, and the structures around us are symbolic of this flux."
Carly Butler, "Index Error"
Searching for meaning when home is always shifting.
Carly Butler's photography is autobiographical in its search for meaning. "Her father was a master mariner, so her relationship to the sea was really from the beginning," says Johnson. "She moved a lot as a child, and her sense of self, place and where is home always shifted."
There's significance to the work's title. "Index Error" is a collection of three photographs shot at the sites of Nova Scotian shipwrecks caused by an error in judgment. Shot through a sextant—an analogue navigation tool—the photos question the necessity of human judgment. "Sextants, for centuries, have been our way of knowing where we are and where we're going," says Johnson. "But their scope is really limited. An index error is the error inherent in tools like sextants and telescopes: Although they seem perfect, the optics have an error built-in. It's only through human intervention that you know a truth."
"Turf & Twig"
Anxiety behind selling the Nova Scotian dream.
The bulk of Amanda Rhodenizer's "Turf & Twig" appears as a seemingly straightforward landscape, but her introduction of a figure, a white blur and a tropical plant add an unnatural edge to the work. For Johnson, these additions illuminate what he finds so fascinating about her paintings. "She's really interested in the fact that so many of us here are settlers," he says. "She's also very interested in our relationship socially to the landscape and seascape here in the province." For Johnson, Rhodenizer's work speaks to a very real tension at play in Nova Scotia, between our economic reality and an imagined, nostalgic identity centred around the sea.
"There's an anxiety about our relationship to the land, the quickly escalating price of country real estate or land, and an economy that's not the best," he says. "All of these kind of thrive together. We sell this dream of Nova Scotia... but when natural land is a commodity and also a huge part of our identity, there's some anxiety there."