Carving order from chaos

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If we slow down, and look with care at everyday images, we will find truth in fiction, chaos in order — and our perceptions change accordingly.

The air inside the Nova Scotia Art Gallery is cool and dry. I wanderthrough the rooms with little sense of direction andless sense of purpose. The collection is mixed — medieval to abstract, folk to post-modern. I come acrossthe modern Canadian collection, an eclectic mix oftwentieth-century Canadian pieces. I move into a small,ten-by-ten yellow room, just off the mezzanine. There,my wandering attention is focused on five paintings byAlex Colville.

Still living and painting not far from Halifax, AlexColville began his art career during World War II. In 1944 — when he was just 24years old — he travelled with Canadian troops to aliberated Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp.There he sketched stark, haunting images of massgraves, culminating in his painting, Bodies in aGrave.

Did Colville find meaning in the mass graves of BergenBelsen? After World War II, Colville paintedmeticulous, detailed images of ordinary people andordinary animals, in ordinary places, doing ordinarythings. At first, the images seem random slices oflife. And yet, looking with care, the viewer finds anuncomfortable undercurrent: the foul smell of deathcamps and the creeping darkness of chaos andmeaninglessness.

In the small, ten-by-ten yellow room hangs aself-portrait of the artist, standing nude; another ofa nude woman, standing on her head; a third of a racetrack, empty of people and horses; a fourth of a womanand a dog, sitting in a Volkswagen bug.

But the fifth painting draws my full attention.

It is called Ocean Limited. In it, a bearded man — wearing a white ball cap, a long dark gray coat, andblack shoes — walks along a gravel road with his handsbehind his back. He looks at the road, deep inthought. On a parallel path, but in the distance,moves a black and red train. The colours of thepainting — the road, the grass, the tracks'embankment, and the sky — are mostly solid andcalming.

Colville came to prominence as a painter in the 1950sand '60s as part of the Magic Realist School. MagicRealism was largely a literary creation characterizedby the collision of paradoxical opposites. But in theart world, Magic Realism — a reaction to theabstract-expressionist movement — tried to find deepermeaning, or lack of meaning, in bland reality bysearching for the extraordinary within the ordinary.Or put another way, if we just slow down, and lookwith care at everyday images, we will find truth infiction, chaos in order — and our perceptions changeaccordingly.

And so, I sit on the floor of the yellow room, and Ilook again at the painting, a meaningless collectionof everyday images: a man, a road, a yellow field ofgrass, and a train. Yet, as I continue to look, I feela fermenting tension. And then, I notice something.

The man, walking in from the left of the painting,casts no shadow. In fact, without the shadow, hesubtly floats above the gravel on the road. And theyellow grass, on careful inspection, is disturbed,leaning in all directions, as though a violent windhas blown through it. There are also the telephonepoles by the train tracks; one bends forward, almostimperceptibly, at the same angle as the man, bothleaning toward the oncoming train.

Then I realize thetrain, which appears as though it has just raced infrom the right of the picture, has no discernibleengineer, and without an engineer controlling thespeed, the train is reckless, menacing. (Is it thespeed of the train that is menacing? Or is itmechanization, modernity, or technology of the trainracing along an unchangeable path that is menacing?)

And finally, despite the banal logic of the picture,the images are arranged such that the man's headappears above the track creating a visual trick — thetelephone wires are running through the man's head andthe train, seemingly connected — such that anunconscious part of me believes that the man is ingrave danger, that the train will, in fact, collidewith his head.

But nothing can come from nothing, right? I stand andfinish writing notes, taking one more look at thepicture, then leave the ten-by-ten, yellow room. Butthe feeling of unease remains.

Random actions and images collide — and they don't.Colville's Ocean Limited captures the essence of thisnew age of unreason: the picture of a man who, in deepthought, looks intently at the road in front of him,but not at the dangers ahead. And I wonder: is theimpending disaster in Ocean Limited the ignorance ofthe viewer who is unwilling to accept the truth ofsomething that lies beneath the surface? Or is itnothing?

* * *

Back on the first floor of the art gallery, my attentionis caught by one particular map. It is called The Mappe Monde ou Description du Globe , drawn about 1730by Hendrik de Leth, a Dutch cartographer.

Hendrik de Leth's map is skillfully and beautifullydrawn — two circles, side-by-side, each rendering ahemisphere of the known globe. The first hemisphereshows the details of Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia,and the myriad islands in between. The otherhemisphere shows the details of the Americas — Northand South. The southern map is complete, with thedetails well rendered.

But, intriguingly, thenorthern map is not complete. The map includes what istoday Ontario and Quebec across to the Maritimes, downthe east coast through New England to Florida, west toMexico, and further west to California. However, aboveCalifornia, and west of Quebec and Ontario, the yellowoutline of Hendrik de Leth's North America fades towhite — to nothing. It is an incomplete truth. Or a selective truth.

As a child, I remember maps from the early 1960sshowing the distinctive mark of the British Empire, abroad swath of pink that cut through Africa and Asiaas though the globe were an English child's board game- Rule Britannia!

I can also remember, inelementary school, my eyes drifting about the room,and finding a current world map where America residedconfidently in the centre — as Jerusalem had nearly athousand years earlier. To diminish its size, the redSoviet Union was sliced in two, its most easternterritory, Kamchatka, relegated to the west of Alaska.

For me, at that moment, staring at Hendrik de Leth'sunfinished North America, I find a personal truth, orselective truth — part America, part Canada, and partunknown. And I consider that we each create ourpersonal map — drawn from individual experience,family memory, and cultural and political history -and then spend our remaining time asking: what is thetruth of that map?

* * *

The day after visiting the museum, in the earlymorning, I sit at my desk, stillthinking about Hendrik de Leth's map and Colville'sOcean Limited, still thinking about the relativenature of truth and the truth of magic realism. I leanback in my chair and casually look to the right, at apiece of student artwork that has hung on my wall,above my desk, for years.

It's a painting and sculpture, a segment of fence withsix pickets and two cross boards. On the first threepickets, painted from bottom to top, are strips of theCanadian flag. And on the last two pickets, alsopainted from bottom to top, are strips of an Americanflag. In the middle, on a single picket, is printed apoem by Robert Frost — Mending Wall.

In the spaces between the pickets, where you can seethe cross boards, the artist has placed a series ofsimple caricatures. Along the top cross board aredrawn images of people walking from the Canadian flagtoward the American flag, toward a factory belchingout smoke in the image of a dollar sign. Below, on thebottom cross board, are drawn the images of trees, awolf, and a deer.

For a moment, I consider Frost's poem Mending Wall. In the poem, Frost plays with the meaning andthe purpose of the stone wall that separates his farmfrom his neighbour's. Frost recognizes that the fencepredates them both for a purpose no longer known. Sohe begins thinking about it. And in the spring, whenhe and his neighbour are fixing the wall, Frost asks:why do we repair the fence?

The neighbour, a stolid New England farmer,comfortable in his world and in his ways, refuses tothink about it, to look carefully at the fence, toconsider its purpose. He refuses to use fresh,thoughtful language to answer the question. Theneighbour simply replies with the old proverb, "Goodfences make good neighbours." Frost wonders if fences,like maps, create a selective truth.

So do I.

Still, looking at the student artwork on my wall, I amstruck by a confluence of coincidences. While I amconsidering Frost's meditation on fences, and Hendrikde Leth's map of the world, and Colville's magicrealism in Ocean Limited, I am looking at a stylized,metaphorical map of North America on my wall -artwork, coincidentally, created by Alex Colville'sgrandson.

Like Colville's Ocean Limited, this confluence ofcoincidences — words, images and ideas — is random.Yet, at the same time, this random collection somehowhas meaning. But there is more. This confluence ofcoincidences is somehow connected to anotherconfluence of coincidences — of airplanes flying intoNew York skyscrapers and Washington governmentbuildings, and smart bombs dropping on the innocentand the damned, on the descendants of the world'sfirst civilization dying somewhere between the Tigrisand the Euphrates rivers.

Sitting in the quiet of my office that morning, Iconsider coincidences and fences, global and personal.Do coincidences create fences? Or do fences definecoincidences? And like the old farmer in Frost's poem,do I accept these fences without much thought? Orshould I, as Frost did, ask why the fences are there?

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