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George Sawchuk - Yard Work, March 15 1988
All photos by Bob Cain

1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck upright trunk with rectangular hole containing Miniature chopping block axe
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck Upright Halved tree trunk coffee pot and plastic rose
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck Mannequin head wearing hat atop tree trunk
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck wooden bench Bus Stop Post watch affixed
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck upright Halved tree trunk early telephone affixed
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck tree with rectangular hole containing doll on swing
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck Yellow rope wrapped around tree
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck Upright Halved Trunk with red light bulb sword cross afixed
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck leaning trunk Blue Rope Over Bicycle wheel
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck Birdhouse Typewriter Company Store

I cannot speak for all, but it seems to me that there comes a time in every life when one must step out of the traces of commercialism and then, without too much preparation or direction, be set loose. For me that time came early, unexpectedly, and was not entirely of my own making. One of the very first things I realized in my new situation was that there is no invention that more greatly shrinks the physical and mental capabilities of the human being than the rocking chair; seated in one, I saw my world closing in on me. After 40 years of labour, I had compiled a great many resources that I could now draw upon, but they were all being evaporated. This, I thought, is not what life is all about; why live and experience a full life and allow it to be buried with you? How nice it would be if we all could leave a small part of ourselves behind. Well, I don't write so well, but then the written word is not always the best way to relate to an experience, one's conception of how things are or ought to be.

I chose instead a visual way to express my feelings, my thoughts, my life both past and present. Within this, I work with nature, respecting all things big and small.

George Sawchuk, RCA


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 1,1988. 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 life-long practice of carving and assemblage. Bruce Ferguson, in his curatorial essay for the catalogue George Sawchuk, which accompanied a 1980 Mendel Art Gallery exhibition, offered 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 labourer, his early educations 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 Labour 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 formed a dialectic which has been the basis of his thoughts and behaviour 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 camp, 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 for 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 neighbours, Ingrid and Iain 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. The Baxters 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 557,087 and 980,000 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 rigour 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 labour-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 colour, shape, and texture of 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 reflected 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, colour, or perspective, to parody three-dimensional reconstructions 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 cruciforms. 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 non-traditional materials refers as well to the redefinition of the artist's role vis-a-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 commodification. 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 the black hand with red ball (Plate VII) 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 cruciforms, 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, 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 in effect. The minimalist rectilinear structure and the frontality 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, and (with the portables), titles; ironic juxtaposition and quotation, thus discursivity and intertextuality; in the yard work, site-specificity and impermanence; all of which operate as a means of refusal or subversion of the autonomous work of art as conceived by modernist aesthetics, while at the same time strengthening and reaffirming the potential of the political subject.

In the portables, we find specific references to the value 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 hegemony that would have us believe that a product has value only when it is sold. Free of the constraints imposed by gallery exhibition, Sawchuk's yard work, like much of Joseph Beuys' endeavour, 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.

Annette Hurtig, Curator January 1988