John Greer's retroActive: Using Humour in a Serious Way

By Antonio Aragon on April 28, 2015


John Greer, Time Keeper (2012), steel, bronze, wood; 1.67 x 2.43 x 0.91 m. © John Greer. Photo: Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, © Raoul Manuel Schnell

Imagine the scene. As you go through the doorway of the gallery there is yellow caution tape that has been cut. Some objects are placed high on the wall, some low on the floor. Visitors tread carefully. Cautiously. They can’t help but wonder what this is all about . . . “You think there’s something going on,” says Nova Scotia sculptor John Greer in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Something has happened here.”

This deliberate happenstance is retroActive, a show currently on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Curated by David Diviney, the exhibition displays 40 years of Greer’s work, including photographs, archival material, carved stone, and sheet lead.


John Greer, Lead to Believe (1978), 2 elements folded from sheet lead, 7.5 x 28.5 x 13.7 cm. AGNS. © John Greer. Photo: Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, © Raoul Manuel Schnell

Considered one of Canada’s most intriguing sculptors, Greer has received numerous awards, including a 2009 Governor General’s Award in Visual Arts for a lifetime of achievement. He taught at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) for nearly three decades, and currently divides his time between the Maritimes and Italy. His work has been exhibited extensively across Canada, as well as in the United States, Korea and Europe. The National Gallery of Canada has five of his works in its permanent collection.

retroActive includes some of Greer’s most iconic pieces, such as skeptical spectacles, a pair of eyeglasses that the artist has covered on both sides with sheepskin. He did it because many people are intimidated by art. “I use humour in a very serious way . . . If you pull the wool over your own eyes it isn’t so bad.” He remarks that people don’t always understand the difference between cynicism and skepticism. “Cynicism is negative. Skepticism is interested in openness.” He prescribes the spectacles for visitors because, “In a skeptical frame of mind, you are open.”


John Greer, Skeptical Spectacles (1974), sunglasses with sheep's wool, 6 x 14.5 x 14 cm. AGNS. © John Greer. Photo: Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, © Raoul Manuel Schnell

That idea of openness allows Greer to disrupt the viewer’s comfort zone. He plays, for example, with the concept of chronology. “We live in the present, in the now,” he says, “but without history we cannot move forward.” Pointing to the fact that the exhibition features everything from large works put together in Italy, to recent carvings that have never been shown before, Greer points out that “In each room, there is a mix of old and new; so it becomes a conversation between the whole body of work.”

He has also, of late, been comparing money with art, as two value systems. “I’ve been doing a lot of money work,” he says with a laugh. “There are interesting similarities between what art does and money does . . . Art is also a form of currency.” For Greer, money allows people to acquire things, and art allows people to acquire knowledge. Extending this thought, he notes that visitors to the exhibition will gain an understanding of his work the more they view it because, “when people ruminate over ideas, it changes their eyes.”


John Greer, Money Wagon (2013), Iranian Travertine, 143 x 169 x 35 cm. © John Greer. Photo: Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, © Raoul Manuel Schnell

According to Greer, “a person’s body of work is always in flux.” In his view, older work should be considered retroactive, as opposed to retrospective. A retrospective comes at the end of an artist’s career, when there is nothing new to add. It is in this spirit of constant movement that retroActive was conceived. It is not an exhibition representing an artist’s entire oeuvre; it is something happening now, encompassing a flowing range of creation.

Greer believes that, when we look at his sculptures we are viewing his thoughts in the form of objects. As an artist, he sees himself as a thinking object: “We are ideas within ourselves, within culture, within humanity . . . we’re all walking ideas.”

As a collection of ideas, retroActive presents an ideal environment in which visitors can discover (or re-discover) the work of this unconventional Canadian sculptor. Some may even venture to don Greer’s skeptical spectacles and, for a few minutes, pull the wool over their own eyes. In a humourous but serious way, of course.

retroActive is on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia until September 13, 2015.

By Antonio Aragon| April 28, 2015
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Antonio Aragon

Antonio Aragon

Colombia-born Antonio Aragon is a writer and educator who works frequently in the developing world. He has published two novels.

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