In Paintings Made with Ashcans and Drain Covers, Gerald Ferguson Finds Beauty in the Everyday

Beauty Through the Backdoor,” a new exhibition at New Haven’s FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery, joins the severe, minimalist sculptures of Connecticut-based artist Jonathan Waters with Gerald Ferguson’s two-dimensional conceptual paintings.

The title of this exhibition comes from a saying of Ferguson’s and references the late artist’s take on the humble, everyday objects that served as both the raw materials and the subject of his work. Ferguson produced potent impressions of the quotidian, treating highly utilitarian or found objects to a bare minimum of intervention. The “back door” of the title references the working-class and anti-elitist nature of Ferguson’s work. The brusque, sobering beauty of these works echoes that of Waters’s austere sculptures. The material composition of the sculptures, constructed with coal and lead, along with slabs of steel and wood, lends them a severely charred and worn quality.

Like Minimalist and Postminimalist artists including Carl Andre and Richard Serra, both Ferguson and Waters take a strong interest in the process of fabrication, as well as the margin of error involved in even the most exacting of procedures. Their approaches to conceptualism incorporate a certain form of realism, one that defers to the chance and randomness which exists even in highly systematic processes. Both artists explore this through the interplay between two- and three-dimensionality.

Conceiving of sculpture as a kind of drawing in three-dimensional space, Waters’s freestanding sculptures engage both positive and negative space. His works seem to oscillate between existing in two and three dimensions, an interaction that shifts depending on the position from which the sculpture is viewed.

Ferguson, on the other hand, conceived of painting as a means by which the two-dimensional might dematerialize the three-dimensional. To create his paintings, Ferguson used frottage, a technique that involves rubbing the coarse or uneven surface of an object upon a different surface—in this case, canvas or dropcloth—to create an impression. To his mind, this technique enabled Ferguson to “transfer” the materiality of a given object into the two-dimensional, effectively dematerializing it.

And yet there is a profound dissonance between materiality and immateriality to be found in Ferguson’s works. Indeed, frottage, which rejects the very materiality that it requires to produce an image at all, might be taken as a metaphor for Ferguson’s practice more broadly. Even the titles of his paintings make blunt reference to the materials used in their creation: rope, ashcans, draincovers. It is the works’ dependency on the very materials they efface that is placed in relief when set against Waters’ sculptures. We could perhaps imagine Ferguson making rubbings of Water’s sculptures that would ardently resist resting in just one dimension.

—Grace-Yvette Gemmell

Beauty Through the Backdoor” is on view at FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery, New Haven, Oct. 23-Nov. 21, 2015.

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