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For the past twenty-five years, the first work encountered by visitors to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has been John Greer’s 1995 bronze sculpture Origins. It is an iconic work that has become synonymous with the Gallery. It is perhaps the most photographed artwork in the gallery’s collection with only Maud Lewis’s house as competition. It is an enigmatic sculpture that resists easy summary but as its title suggests, it is a great place to start.

Origins is cast bronze with an opaque black patina. Its dimensions are 2.72 x 3.84 x 1.04 meters. Most people can pass through the three arched openings in the work. These openings are architectural in appearance. The North Building of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is an example of ornate Italianate architecture. The carved limestone façade is dominated by three arched entrance doors that are echoed by three arched windows on the floors above them. Origins is aligned with these features and echoes their shape. This creates a dialogue between the sculpture and its setting that forces the viewer to pay attention to architecture as part of the act of considering the sculpture. This is not just about noticing the rhyming of shapes but engaging with histories of art and architecture manifest in the Ondaatje Courtyard.

The sculpture has several referents but the most obvious is a comb. Origins is not a giant comb like a Claes Oldenberg sculpture. It is comb-like but first and foremost it is uniquely itself. It has a black smooth back (the top) and outer ends and four “teeth” that have a tapering diamond shape that disappears into the courtyard surface. This work began as a hand-modelled clay object that molds were made from in order to cast in bronze using the lost wax process. The top is smooth but not flawlessly so. It is clearly the work of the human hand. The surfaces of the “teeth” are less refined and display the tool marks of their making. The tool marks and geometry of the teeth differentiate them from the smooth back of the sculpture. This creates a sense of interior and exterior in the work.

When seen in profile from the ends, Origins has the shape (in Greer’s words) of a plumb bob, the weighted carpenter’s tool that uses string and gravity to establish vertical trueness. It is a tool that has appeared in his work several times. On the upper ends of the sculpture are two subtle reliefs. Looked at one way they resemble the stylized tail of an animal. Origins occupies the courtyard of an ornate 19th century government building where a bronze equestrian statue would not seem out of place. Seen another way the reliefs evoke the abstracted face of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse (c.1910). Brancusi was the most influential of modern sculptors. He began as a more traditionally representational sculptor like Auguste Rodin but reduced the detail in his work until he was left with essential forms. In the 1930s Brancusi created a series of public artworks throughout a park in Tirgu Jiu, Romania that composed a World War I victims memorial. These works were radically modern but also conversant with historic works such as Stonehenge, triumphal arches and regional folk carvings. Like Brancusi, Greer is a sculptor in dialogue with art not just of the now but the birth of art onwards.

Origins looks both ancient and futuristic. An apt reference point is the black monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 that humans encountered at key moments in the species development. Origins has a provocative sense of presence and it engages with the past, present and the future.

Origins isn’t Greer’s first artwork dealing with combs. In the late seventies he produced a sculpture titled Combstone that was a commercially cut (like a tombstone) granite plinth with a gold-leafed image of a comb carved into the stone at ground level. In the mid-eighties he produced Temple of the Order of Chaos which was a marble carving he made in Pietrasanta, Italy. Pietrasanta is a mecca for sculptors. The Carrera marble for Michelangelo’s David was quarried there and it is where Greer now lives and works much of the time. This work has the same comb form that we see in Origins but at a different, smaller scale. It was made at a time when Greer began to engage with more traditional sculpture materials and processes.

The shift that occurred from his earlier conceptual work in the 1970s was weighty. Not only was he working with bronze and stone more that paper and photography, he was engaging with the attendant histories of these materials. While maintaining a contemporary art practice, Greer found himself located on a continuum with all the casters and carvers that came before him. Pouring molten bronze or taking chisel to stone implicitly connects one to those histories but in some works like Origins, Greer is more explicit in engaging the past.

Prior to making Combstone in 1979, Greer had become interested in the pre-Christian standing stones erected by the Picts in what is now Scotland. These stones often have images of combs and mirrors (another perennial Greer motif) incised into them. The exact reason these tools were so significant to Pict culture is lost to time and they were not the only culture to place great importance to combs. In the 20th century cheap nylon plastic combs became ubiquitous. Prior to this, combs where made of materials that were more valuable and fragile. In the past, a fine-toothed comb was a rare and precious thing. The title of Greer’s marble carving, Temple of the Order of Chaos is key in understanding Greer’s comb works. The comb is a tool that refines the act of running fingers through hair. It orders the hair either to say, attract others or see more clearly. Combs were early tools with aesthetic functions. The hair before the act of combing is messy and chaotic. The combing brings order to that chaos. For Greer art is the comb that allows us to create order from the universe’s chaos. Science, religion and family also perform this ordering of chaos but in different realms of experience.

Halifax once had arches and gates that those entering the city passed through. These were along the waterfront at a time when most people arrived here by ship from all over the world. Like triumphal arches these gates were ceremonial thresholds. Origins is the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s gateway to the world of art. It issues a challenge to visitors before they physically enter the building. Crossing this threshold can be difficult and demanding but the reward is great if you choose to enter and engage.

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