Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On November 5th SFU Gallery (Burnaby) will open Jerry Pethick: Works 1968-2003 from Collections on Hornby Island. The exhibition, whose theme is more or less explained in the title, will be accompanied by an image-rich catalogue, with essays by curator Bill Jeffries, Geoffrey Farmer and myself (see below):


Distance is not an evil that should be abolished. It is a normal condition of any communication – Jacques Ranciere, The Emancipated Spectator[1]

Descriptions of Hornby Island often begin with directions on how to get there. That the island is described as a destination, and not a place where people live, has bearing on our perception of it. Although many Hornby Islanders began as tourists, some were born there and never left. Descriptions of Hornby as a tourist destination render its residents invisible.

Jerry, Margaret and Yana Pethick were familiar with Hornby before moving there in 1975, enough to know that the sparsely populated island would allow Jerry room to make his art. Jerry’s practice was the impetus behind this move. What was not evident to those who did not know them was that the studio was disproportionate to the size of their living quarters: Jerry's studio was immense, their Hornby home much smaller.

On the south wall of Jerry’s studio is a map[2]. Those familiar with Jerry’s work will know that this map is comprised of concentric rings, text, and is quartered by an “X”, within which lies the artist’s reckoning of space, time and locus, a grand theory devised by someone who grew up with grand theories concerning everything from political economy (socialism) to science (relativity), aesthetics (modernism) to gender relations (feminism).

But for all its totalizing, for all its Blakean circumscription and personal history, Jerry’s map is a formal pattern that relates to the means by which most of us travel to and from the island, and that is by propeller.

At the beginning of her 1994 Stadtgalerie Saarbrucken catalogue essay on Jerry’s bias arrays[3], Barbara Fischer quotes a passage from an article Jerry wrote 18 years earlier for Vanguard magazine [4]. I am unsure whether it was Fischer’s intention to arrange this passage as poetry, but in doing so she suggests a parallel between the propeller’s function (to lift up like a helicopter or to push forward like a ferry) and the mutability of language through form.

Boats in motion on the still water,
skimming across the sky.[5]

Earlier in the Saarbrucken publication, gallery director Bernd Schulz provides an anecdote that begins with Jerry’s placement of a Spectrafoil propeller shape on his Vancouver Art Gallery catalogue, then relates it to Jerry’s appreciation of Brancusi, Duchamp and Leger’s visit to the 1909 Paris Air Show, where Duchamp was alleged to have said: “Painting is dead. What artist can make anything better than these propellers?” From there, Schulz connects “the image of the rotating propeller…to the concept of transparency that plays such a great role in [Duchamp’s] work,” the propeller a “programmatic sign of a bridgehead between philosophy, science, and art” in Jerry’s. [6]

Like Jerry, I am intrigued by any form that erases itself in the act it is designed to achieve. Returning to Duchamp, it was four years after the Paris Air Show that the French artist gave us one of his first readymades, what many consider to be the first instance of kinetic art: Bicycle Wheel (1913/1951). “I enjoy looking at it,” said Duchamp of the wheel spinning atop its stool. “Just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in the fireplace.”[7] Who among us has not experienced a similar sensation when, as children, we stared at the spinning wheel of an upturned bicycle, resisting the temptation to stick our finger into that which has been rendered invisible?


Although many of his artworks contain movement -- activated, as it were, by the circling viewer -- Jerry would not have considered himself a kinetic artist. Indeed, the question of the viewer and their relationship to three-dimensional art was a popular one when Jerry was majoring in sculpture at Chelsea Polytechnic (1957-1960), and later at the Royal College of Art (1961-1964). Another question concerned materials.

An emergent voice in the sculpture conversation was Anthony Caro. A former assistant to Henry Moore, Caro is known for opening up the sculptural object -- eschewing the plinth, employing “found” materials and placing the resultant object in a one-to-one relationship with the viewer. Ideas such as these seem commonplace today, but in the mid-1950s they were considered radical.

Even more radical was a questioning of the medium itself. After a 1967 viewing of Dennis Gabor’s holography, Jerry turned to the inventor and said, “Maybe you’ve made sculpture obsolete!”[8] a statement that implies the insufficiencies of the medium, but also sheds light on what Jerry aspired to as a maker of art. Not unlike Duchamp, when faced with those propellers.

In 1970, Jerry’s fascination with Gabor’s work in “spatial vision” led him and Margaret to San Francisco, where he and physicist Lloyd Cross co-founded the San Francisco School of Holography. From there he continued his research, notably in the development of sand table holographic technology. Modern sculpture, by then, was a contested affair, with Donald Judd arguing for a non-metaphorical anti-sculpture that gave primacy to materials and their spatial arrangement[9], while art historian and critic Michael Fried accused Judd and other “minimalists” (Judd loathed the term) of having abandoned the modern sculptural project for an art experience reliant not on “presentness” or “absorption” or “grace” but “theatricality”[10]. Although Jerry would have condoned Judd’s abandonment of capital “S” Sculpture, he would have disagreed with Fried’s proscriptive stance, having by then transcended the medium in pursuit of broader questions concerning the interface of perception, bio-physics, eastern mysticism and (like Caro) “found” materials, areas neither Judd nor Fried were particularly interested in. Indeed, as Jerry’s practice progressed, more specific inquiries into phenomenology, panorama, Cezanne’s flattened picture plane, Boccioni’s attempts at temporal and spatial synthesis and Lippmann’s integral photography would become evident in his work.

By 1975, Jerry’s holographic research had come to an end -- partly due to endless hours spent in darkened rooms, partly due to inconsistencies in funding. Ironically, it was the collapse of a related project in three-dimensional photography that resulted in Jerry receiving two thousand plastic lenslets from a Michigan-based group with whom he had been working, material with which he constructed the first of his arrays. Jerry describes what he did with these lenslets in his essay “Animals Dream”:

One night, I used one of these lens sheets and placed a piece of black and white film behind it (a crude, light-tight little camera); I then exposed the film through the lens sheet with an electronic flash, developed the negative and replaced it in the camera, registering it as well as I could to its original position. On looking at it through the lens sheet, instead of there being all the little black dots created by the negative film exposed by each small lenslet, those little black dots formed one enormous black dot. This astonished me; it was a first real comprehension of viewing a composite image and of what it might lead to. The exciting realisation lasted until I was able to make my first small array of "Margaret, Yana and the Century Plant" [1972] in the backyard of our house on Sixth Avenue in San Francisco. The large format arrays, such as "Homeship/Faux Terrain" [1990-92] followed with the finding of the right lenses and with the existence of the new and now ubiquitous automatically-run machine prints.[11]

When Jerry arrived on Hornby, the array, whether he knew it then or not, would become the defining work in his oeuvre, a space (and time) machine comprised of high and low technologies, new and “found” forms, serial photography and expressive and conceptual rhetorics through which “ideas that push and pull one into creative commitment” could travel [12]. However, even in its earliest stages, the array (or “bias array,” owing to the particularities of the pre-conditioned viewer) was unlike anything being produced on the island. Which leads one to ask: How were these works, these ideas, received within the local conversation, let alone three ferries rides away in Vancouver?


Hornby Art, if one can say such a thing with any authority, begins with an understanding that anyone who defines themself as an artist contributes to the cultural ecology of the island, from those who design their homes to those who produce objects and gestures based on a set of aesthetic decisions, whether intuitive or informed by an ongoing conversation. A broad spectrum, but one with which islanders are in polite agreement.

Within this spectrum is a conversation that came to Hornby via Vancouver, beginning in the late-1960s. Artists and writers such as Tom Burrows, Annette Hurtig, Gordon Payne and Doris and Jack Shadbolt were Hornby home-owners familiar with international modernism’s storyline, its local variants, interdisciplinarity practices and Art as Life expressions. Theirs was a conversation Jerry fell in with, one that provided him an early audience and a connection to the Vancouver scene, where most had residences and held jobs, and where Jerry would soon be exhibiting.

Yet of these conversationalists, none were born and raised on the west coast. Like Jerry, they came west as adults, in search of new opportunities, new surfaces. And they brought with them their distance, ideas formed elsewhere, which they applied to the landscape, awed by its natural forms – the way light animates the oak and arbutus, the Pacific’s silver sheen, the way herring milts tint her waters and where ravens and eagles engage in a burlesque of what lies below. Artist Tom Burrows was born in Southern Ontario and studied in England before coming to Hornby from Vancouver; writer and educator Annette Hurtig came from the Prairies and began her curatorial career as an exhibitor of Jerry’s work; artist Gordon Payne came from the British Columbia Interior; Jack Shadbolt, who succeeded Emily Carr as the region’s leading abstracted landscape stylist, was born in England; while Doris Shadbolt, an art historian and authority on Carr, came from Southern Ontario, a town (Preston) later amalgamated into the town in which Burrow’s was born (Galt). Though it was not often mentioned, the group’s migration to the island was as much a unifying bond as the artistic and intellectual pursuits that brought them together.

Jerry’s arrival on Hornby also marked his return to Canada. Indeed, not only was he returning to the country he was born in but to a region as far removed from his London, Ontario birthplace as London, England was to San Francisco. Something that had not changed, no matter where you where in Canada, was a belief in a monolithic Canadian Art, an at-times over-administered mosaic made up of regional elements, not unlike the federal government’s (now-defunct) multicultural policy.

Despite the west coast’s reputation as a site of experimentation, ideas about west coast art were still being determined in Central Canada, as evidenced by a Ministry of Supply and Services textbook entitled Introduction to the Arts in Canada (1977), whose author, Robert Fulford, has little to say about west coast sculpture apart from passing remarks about Iain Baxter’s use of “plastics” and Robert Murray’s “work at the Vancouver Airport,” a high modernist non-representation by a “first-class artistic talent.”[13] Worse (for its lack of hindsight), a 1983 Canadian Pacific Railway-bankrolled publication called Visions: Contemporary Art in Canada, which includes a rather formless discussion of three-dimensional work, ranging from Iain Baxter’s Bagged Place (1966) to Murray Favro’s Synthetic Lake (1973), where an image (of a lake) is projected onto a motorized bolt of fabric (contrast this with Jerry’s more proprioceptive arrays, where the image is both inside and outside the apparatus)[14]. Like Jerry, Favro has a connection to London, Ontario. Yet while Visions celebrates London’s artists, Jerry, who was born there, goes unmentioned.

So it was within this context that Jerry returned to Canada, a context that, if not necessarily important to him, was real by its consequences. With that in mind, and with participation in a Canadian Art no longer an aspiration for certain west coast artists, nor a legitimate category apart from the imperatives of the National Gallery and the Canada Council, it was the burgeoning relationship between west coast practices and their equivalencies in international urban centres big (New York) and small (Dusseldorf) that would give the Hornby-Vancouver conversation its rigor.

And what was that conversation? First off, any discussion of Vancouver art after the mid-1960s is complicated by an increasingly ambivalent relationship between artist and medium, just as it was for Duchamp after the Paris Air Show (re: painting) and for Jerry after his encounter with Gabor (re: sculpture). Among younger artists, no longer was it accepted that painting and sculpture were the means by which one asserted oneself artistically. Although artists such as Roy Kiyooka, Gary Lee-Nova and Michael Morris continued to paint, they also explored writing, performance, music, film, photography and installation, interrogating those mediums, looking for equivalencies, exploring previously unheard of notions of interdisciplinarity, Art as Life. How could one talk of sculpture after Iain Baxter’s Bagged Place (1966) or musician Al Neil’s flotsam assemblages? Yet as much as the disintegration of capital “S” sculpture opened up possibilities for the reception of Jerry’s work, it also created the conditions by which it would be read through that medium.

In an effort to make a case for a new west coast sculpture, the Vancouver Art Gallery mounted Mise en scene in 1982, a group exhibition that featured Kim Adams, Mowry Baden, Roland Brener (Adams’s teacher), Al McWilliams, Liz Magor and Jerry -- all of whom were considered to be among the region’s leading sculptors, none of whom were working in the high modernist “tradition” of Vancouverites such as David Marshall, nor engaged in anything resembling Baxter’s consumer-wrapped environments or Neil’s bricolage.[15] Nor were they adherents of Judd or Fried. Though it could be said that the works in Mise en scene were receptive to the “kinesthetic demands placed upon the body”[16] -- from the body engaged (Adams, Baden, Brener and McWilliams) to the body represented/implied (Pethick/Magor) -- of greater significance was the vast array of materials that these artists were drawing on, from audio recordings of VAG board meetings found in the museum’s basement (Brener) to silicon (Jerry). A vast array of materials, but no array from Jerry.

It would be eighteen years after his first experiment with lenslets that Vancouver audiences would see one of Jerry’s arrays. Wheelbarrow/Cabin (1987-89), included in the Contemporary Art Gallery’s 1990 group exhibition arbora versa, is comprised of two elements: the first is a profile of a wheelbarrow form made of large glass bottles held in place with silicon and loaded, as it were, into a stack of cord wood; while the second is comprised of a lens field (also held together by silicon), behind which is a photo series of a cabin in a field with trees. Despite its inventive composition and arresting physical presence, the sculptural element acts as an inversion that sets up the ocular reorientation provided by the array. It also relates to other works in the exhibition, especially Rodney Graham’s inverted photographs of trees.

Unlike the Mis en scene exhibition, with its emphasis on sculpture, arbora versa was a thematic show that sought an (inter)relationship between “nature, language and perception”[17], one involving the mediums of painting, photography, printmaking, writing and sculpture. Though curator Bill Jeffries is right to refer to Jerry’s contribution as “photo-sculpture,” the democratic inclusion of mediums, conscious or otherwise, allowed for the perception that Jerry was there as a sculptor. This might seem like a quibble, but if one considers that the local conversation concerning photography was developing at an inverse proportion to sculpture, one might understand how a reading of Wheelbarrow/Cabin in purely sculptural terms might preclude it from being seen in relation to photographic projects such as Graham’s Camera Obscura (1979), a site-specific plywood camera obscura shack installed at a Fraser Valley ranch; or the montage photographic tableaux of Jeff Wall; or, given the distance between Jerry’s lenses and his serial photos, the monochromatic “derive” surfaces of Wallace’s photo-paintings and the “theatrical” voids of Ken Lum’s furniture sculptures. To extend this notion of the void, one might include the last line of March 31 (1966) by Dan Graham, who reminds us that “.00000098 miles to cornea from retinal wall” is where the image that enters our eye is, like Graham’s trees, inverted.

A clue to why Jerry’s work was absent from the photography conversation might be found in what then Vancouver-based visual artist Robin Peck says in a lecture delivered the same year as the arbora versa exhibition. Here, Peck refers to the medium as having a “lower-class status;” that it is “a poor cousin to painting, architecture and photography,” and has “largely exhausted its premise as a reaction against the negative impact of twentieth-century industrialism.” In short, “an art of the tomb.”[18] Also that year, Wall published his “Four Essays on Ken Lum”, where he contrasts artists who “concentrate on the conflict between the city and its natural setting” (himself, Rodney Graham and Lum) with a “hippy ethos” that seeks a “closeness to nature and its concern for organic life” (Burrows, Magor and Jerry)[19] -- a conservative (if not misleading) argument that has less to do with Jerry’s work (coming as it did in advance of Wall’s montages, but also Brian Jungen’s repurposed consumer goods) than the need to reassert mediums whose boundaries had been challenged in the 1960s. With apologies to William Carlos Williams, perhaps too much depended on a glass bottle wheelbarrow.


Jerry had been a resident of Hornby Island twenty-eight years when he passed away in 2003. During that time he had designed and realized a number of works, some of which, particularly the larger ones, are in museum collections and installed in public space, while smaller pieces have found their way into private homes, some of them on Hornby. A recent tour of these island works revealed the compositional and material tendencies we have come to associate with Jerry’s practice. Among these works is the magnificent Light, Smoke, Le Chemin de Fer. The Dark, Daguerre (1987), an omnibus wallwork (based on a train station cigarette machine) of enameled steel, “Payne skin”[20], silicon, Sectrafoil, mirror, plastic lenses and aluminum, much of it sourced at the island’s Co-op store, as well as its recycling depot. Other works, such as Easel Shadow (1985), are two-dimensional pieces that take up structure and material composition not as the means by which the art experience is mediated but as the painted subject.

During these visits I heard many stories of Jerry, all of which attest to a man of intelligence, passion, humour and insight, someone who brought – and kept – people together, whether at a community work party, such as the building of Joe King Park (a keep-your-shoes on counterpoint to the more refined Hornby Community Hall), or in installing an exhibition, where, when asked by a French museum director to join him for dinner at the end of the work day, Jerry showed up with the institution’s preparators. Indeed, in hearing stories such as these it occurred to me how the bonds Jerry formed found their material expression in one of the world’s most basic elements, one that Jerry used to unite glass, metal, plastic and wood, a material that worms its way across the south facing window of Jerry, Margaret and Yana’s kitchen, and that is silicone [21].

But as much as Jerry liked to bond, as much as he was interested in the synthesis of ideas and things, he was, like many of us, resistant to that which narrowed the conversation. Although I have read nothing on what Jerry thought of the art and writings of Caro, Judd and Fried, the closest I have come to ascertaining his thoughts on Sixties sculpture is derived from stories concerning his late-night visits to the home of another Hornby-based artist, Jeffrey Rubinoff. Like Jerry, Rubinoff trained in sculpture (with Caro) and is a longtime island resident; unlike Jerry, Rubinoff is a high modernist, the author of a 50 hectare sculpture park featuring 95 of his welded and cast steel works which, in his words, “extend the ancient narrative of art and consequently rekindle the historical spirit of modernism.”[22] That Rubinoff has created a Kane-sized Xanadu is his business[23], but to restrict oneself to a conversation whose time and place has passed makes Rubinoff something of a ghost, as much a spectre of high modernism’s closed system as its “historical spirit,” one that might have haunted Jerry.

Which leads to another metaphor, one that speaks to yet another material Jerry had use for, and that is Vaseline. Unlike silicon, a bonding agent that remains visible in his work, Jerry made a number of drawings with Vaseline on Spectrafoil, which he then treated with lye. While the lye de-silvers (or etches out) the Spectrafoil, the Vaseline resists the lye and can be removed later with the wipe of a cloth. A notable work in this series is Light Dispersal – Vienna Suite (1982), a Bonnard-like bathtub scene, sans figure (a pun on figure-ground?). Had Jerry worked with only one of these materials, either silicon or Vaseline, his compositional skills were such that he would always draw us in, hold our interest, encourage our “creative commitment.” However, that he worked with both, with an awareness of their contrasting qualities, their distance from each other (from silicone’s binding presence to Vaseline’s protective disappearance), allows for the kind of overtone important to any artistic practice, one that remains, like the map in his studio, both total and open.

Michael Turner


1. Jacques Ranciere, “The Emancipated Spectator,” 5th International Summer Academy, Frankfurt, Germany, August 20th, 2004

2. Known as “Marking Time,” this map was created in 1998.

3. Barbara Fischer, “Jerry Pethick: Bias Arrays,” Notion of Nothing, Saarbrucken, Germany: Stadtgalerie, 1994

4. Jerry Pethick, “Bias Arrays: Un process sans cesse,” Vanguard (December 1976/January 1977): 4

5. Fischer, ibid., p. 32

6. Bernd Shulz, “Foreword,” Notion of Nothing, Saarbrucken, Germany: Stadtgalerie, 1994: 5

7. Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography, Henry Holt and Company, Inc., New York, 1996

8. Robert Amos http://www.artistsincanada.com/php/article.php?id=352

9. Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” Arts Yearbook 8, 1965

10. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum 5, 1967: 12-23

11. Jerry Pethick, “Animals Dream,” Collection, Open Space, Victoria, BC, 1999 http://www.alchemists.com/visual_alchemy/wavefront/jerrypethick.html

12. Jerry Pethick, ibid.

13. Robert Fulford, An Introduction to the Arts in Canada, Copp Clark Publishing, Toronto, 1977: 84-85

14. Robert Bringhurst, et al., Visions: Contemporary Art in Canada, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto, 1983

15. Mis en scene was curated by the entire VAG curatorial staff – Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker, Lorna Farrell-Ward and Scott Watson.

16. Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 2”, Continuous Project Altered Daily, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1993 (originally published in Artforum, October,1966)

17. Bill Jeffries, “Introduction”, arbora versa, CAG, Vancouver 1990: 5

18. Robin Peck, “Sculpture and the Sculptural in Halifax and Vancouver”, Vancouver Anthology, Stan Douglas, ed., Or Gallery/Talon, Vancouver, 1991: 207-223

19. Jeff Wall, “Four Essays on Ken Lum”, Ken Lum, Witte de With/Winnipeg Art Gallery, Rotterdam/Toronto, 1990: 39

20. An invention of Gordon Payne, “Payne skin” is made from the application of layered acrylic paint to polyurethane and backed by black painted cheesecloth. Once set, the “skin” is peeled off its polyurethane surface and re-applied.

21. According to Margaret, Jerry used a manufactured product called Silicone Sealant, which Jerry referred to as “Silicone seal.”

22. Jeffrey Rubinoff, http://www.rubinoffsculpturepark.org/

23. Another of Hornby’s sculpture parks can be found in a forest at Downes Point, behind the home of Gordon and Mary Payne.

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