"If it looks like a canvas, then it must be a painting, right? I mean, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then, it must be a duck, right?"
"While the formal appearance of Ferguson's works in two or three dimensions has changed substantially over the years, his theoretical concerns, questioning the construction of authority and meaning in painting, have remained consistent."
Gerald Ferguson completed his Master of Fine Arts at Ohio University in 1966, and has been an active artist ever since. While in school, he was exposed to the current trends of the art world, which included neo-Dadist works influenced by artist Marcel Duchamp. He says he was impressed by Duchamp's notion that an artist could make art out of anything.
In the late 1960s, Ferguson became interested in making art with "the lowest common denominator that was readily available and could be expressed in material form." (Ferguson 1994:15) He decided to use the alphabet and typed words and letters on paper to create artworks. He eventually reduced his work to the simplest unit he could find: the period. When taken out of the context of language, the period becomes a "dot." Ferguson covered canvases, such as the National Gallery's Untitled (1969), with dots using a template he constructed out of a house plasterer's corner beading. Acting like a typewriter, he repeated the dots in a grid pattern. Despite Ferguson's methodical application, the grid is not perfect. In the application of the paint, the intensity of the dots are accidentally varied showing that this is a human creation, not a mechanical one.
Ferguson uses many different strategies to explore the question of authorship and monetary value in art. Halifax City Hall - A Painting (1980) appears to be a simple representational painting, the sort of picturesque view that can be found on a postcard. Indeed, Ferguson used a postcard to outline the work on a canvas and then had a former student fill-in the colour. He displayed the painting as his work. This process is not without historical precedent. For instance, during the Italian Renaissance, artists employed assistants to help them complete a work. However, today the function of authorship has changed. Authenticity is no longer solely determined by the artist's abilities as artisan. Now the blue print or idea behind the art signals quality and market value. In his installation 1,000,000 Pennies, displayed at the National Gallery of Canada in 2000, Ferguson questions how the monetary value of art is determined in the market. Piling a mound of one-million shining Canadian pennies on the gallery floor, he presents the coinage as a conceptual artwork worth only as much as the face value of the coins. The artist debunks this myth by selling the work at cost, $10,000.
The titles of Ferguson's art describe either the content or the process of making the work. Titles such as 1,000,000 Pennies, Six Flowers and Eleven Lobsters (1990), and abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz (1968) identify the subject matter. Other works, such as The Standard Corpus of Present Day English Language Usage arranged by word length and alphabetized within word length (1969-1991) and Close to the Edge but not Going Over the Edge (1972) describe the idea behind the artwork. He tries to demystify painting by describing either the elements of the work, some of which are not recognizable, or the process by which it was made. Ferguson claims that his art is nothing more than it seems to be.
Gerald Ferguson joined fellow graduate Garry Neill Kennedy as a faculty member at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in 1968. In the same year, he started the College's gallery, helped to develop the art history program, and ran the lithography workshop and the school's press. He currently teaches painting at NSCAD.