John Greer: Reconciling Image and Object

John Greer, 2009 installation view of  Reconciliation, 1989. Marble, bronze, wood, dimensions variable. Purchased 1993. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © John Greer Photo: NGC

When sculptor John Greer (b.1944) went to Pietrasanta, Italy, in 1985 to work at the famous marble quarries for five months, it was the culmination of a shift in his working practice that had started seven years earlier, in 1978, with the beginning of a series of granite sculptures that he has referred to as his first real sculptures. Before embarking on these “conceptual sculptures”, he was known for making what he called “conceptual objects” – objects and object-installations that resisted any clear definition in terms of genre. For more than a decade he would make these hybrid objects, often as much a series of gestures as any kind of object. Text, photographs, found objects, the play of language, natural processes, even the art gallery itself, would all be fodder for what critic Gilles Toupin described as Greer’s “field of tactile, visual and intellectual experiments.” The works in marble and bronze he brought back from Italy, shown in Halifax in 1986 at the Dalhousie Art Gallery as Connected Works, both continued this process and started Greer, and Canadian sculpture, in a new direction.

John Greer, Sleeping Wills, 1986. 5 pieces, Italian and Portuguese marble, 21.6 cm. high each. © John Greer Photo: Raoul Manuel Schnell

The new direction was marked by the reintroduction of representational imagery, filtered through the lens of conceptual art. The "image", as used by Greer and other sculptors at the time, served less as representation and acted more as content, as the expression of an idea. The American critic Douglas Crimp articulated this use of the image in his 1977 exhibition Pictures, which launched the group of artists (including Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Jack Goldstein and Cindy Sherman) that would come to be known as the “Pictures Generation.” Pictures, in the sense identified by Crimp and as used by these artists, were more than images and more than mere representations of real things. Instead, they were staged instances of image-making – pictures not of things but of other pictures. This staging, Crimp argued, was part of how a picture was conceived, stating that “underneath each picture there is always another picture.”

Particularly in sculpture the reintroduction of the image, as picture, came from seeking ways to articulate ideas in a concrete manner, to think in material. Greer’s innovation was to return to traditional sculptural techniques and materials, particularly direct carving in stone and bronze casting, while remaining true to the ideals of conceptual art. With Connected Works he set a new path for his approach to sculpture, which put him in the company of artists actively rethinking the possibilities of sculpture around the world.

John Greer, installation in 2009 of Reconciliation, 1989, seen from another side. © John Greer Photo: NGC

Greer made a second trip to Pietrasanta in 1989 (he now splits his time between Italy and Nova Scotia, maintaining a permanent studio in each place). While there, he made the monumental work Reconciliation, comprised of five marble carvings and one enormous bronze leaf form. The carvings are all of seeds – an almond and the pits of a cherry, apricot, peach and plum. The leaf is propped up on a weathered wooden post, suggesting a precarious sort of shelter. Dispersed across the floor when is it exhibited (see here in the 2009 installation at the National Gallery of Canada), the viewer of Reconciliation walks amidst the work, with no bases or pedestals intervening in their experience. This work, acquired by the Gallery in 1993, uses scale to ask the viewer to step outside of their regular experience. The large relative scale of work creates an environment within which the sculpture and viewers coexist. The “reconciliation” Greer is suggesting in this work is that of the mind and the body, the human and nature. He viewed this process as critical, writing “if we do not control our centring, we will be centred and our position will be defined.”

John Greer, detail of one of the seed carving of Reconciliation, 1989. © John Greer Photo: MBAC

Greer’s art has always been concerned with how we perceive the world around us, and, perhaps, more importantly, how we fail to perceive what is right in front of us. The conventions and habits of thought that limit us, that keep us in Plato’s cave fascinated by shadows, have been his targets for as long as he has made work. “This is a critique of the enclosing line,” the artist wrote in 1990 for his Reconciliation exhibition at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, identifying the problem as one of scale: “The ambiguous nature of confined, pictorial space sets its own scale; we relinquish the authority of our bodies to the ambiguity of the space by allowing it to deny our physical scale, thus seemingly separating our minds from our bodies.”

Being present and being aware, this is the sort of reconciliation Greer is suggesting, a way of seeing the world as whole, what he has called “Intelligence manifested in form and matter.” In her essay in the journal October, American art historian Rosalind Krauss famously wrote that sculpture now existed in an “expanded field”. Of course, endless expansion leads to formlessness. The word “sculpture,” art historian Thomas McEvilley contends in his book Sculpture in the Age of Doubt, has been semantically stretched to include anything and everything. In Greer’s hands, sculpture has been reconciled with meaning. By thinking so clearly in form and matter Greer embodies ideas in sculpture, basing his thought, and our experience of it, in the material world.


For works by John Greer in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, see the national collection online. Ray Cronin's book John Greer: Hard Thought, will be published by Gaspereau Press. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, events and news, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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