Beauty Through the Backdoor

Paintings by Gerald Ferguson and sculptures by Jonathan Waters

October 23 – November 21, 2015

Talk with Luke Murphy & Jonathan Waters on Saturday, November 7th, 2pm

Reception on Saturday, November 7th, 6-8pm


In 1968, American artist Gerald Ferguson left the U.S. to help transform a small parochial art college in Nova Scotia into an important hub of conceptual art. Ferguson was upset at what he perceived as the commercial art world subsuming the new practice, which was meant to resist all the things he also personally rejected – fame, exclusivity, commercialism, privilege and even the proxy support for a foreign war. So moving to a place that prides itself on self-denial and grit was an invigorating opportunity to test the promises of conceptual art and pursue his own path to artistic rigor.

From his ‘task oriented’ paintings to his later rigorous frottage methodology, painting was, in his words, one of the only things he really understood. His work, he said “let beauty in through the back door,” a phrase that captures the balance he negotiated between exile, the rugged physicality of the work and his own fragile psyche.


Ferguson’s early works were language-based, using a typewriter, though when he came to make the paintings, he winnowed out the letters without the architectural quality he sought—no curves and a capacity to produce a self-defining structure through repetition—leaving him with H, X, I, and L. Using a single 4” letter stencil as a fundamental block, he produced such works with black enamel spray paint. The subsequent “dot” paintings are thus repeated “periods” … the most basic element of punctuation. To produce repeated periods, he used common plaster corner beading as a spray paint stencil or template and thereby conflated the period with a basic utilitarian object. That kind of transformation and binding seems to inform much of his subsequent work.

In his later years, Ferguson chose frottage exclusively as a means of producing painting. Frottage is a term that riffs on the surrealist rubbing technique used to produce abstract forms from which dreamscapes could be drawn. Ferguson was decidedly not interested in dreamscapes and saw this work as perfectly contiguous with his early conceptual-driven language and grid-based pieces. He placed raw canvas over everyday objects common in hardware stores – garbage cans, drain covers, rope, chain, loose board or rod – and then passed a paint roller laden with black enamel paint over the canvas, producing a kind of rubbing and transforming nondescript substrates into formal units of achingly restrained compositions that held solemn beauty and occasional dark humor. For Ferguson, that such beauty could come from such abject means was a source of grim ecstasy – a semi-private joke between himself, his art, art history and work.


Those who could take Ferguson’s tough and sometimes abrasive honesty valued his opinion. One of those people was Fred Giampetro. En route to NY, Ferguson regularly drove through CT to visit Giampetro, where they would talk about both folk and fine art. Ferguson, alternately immoderate and enthusiastic, would sometimes purvey folk objects that were distinct for their unusual and complex subject or history. Ferguson had a good eye for art in all manifestations.

Gerald Ferguson (1937-2009) was born in Cincinnati. He held close to his working class roots and left college for the army, after which he earned an MFA at Ohio University through the GI bill. He became involved with the early conceptual scene in New York, but in 1968 he accepted a teaching position at NSCAD in Halifax, Nova Scotia where he taught until 2004. He also taught at Wilmington College, Kansas City Art Institute and Cal Arts. Over a 40+ year long career, he had 35 solo shows and was included in countless group shows. His paintings, sculpture, and performances have been exhibited in New York, German, UK, Poland, France, and Japan.

– Luke Murphy