Terroir is a French word for the effect of regional factors such as climate and geography on the taste of wine or food.
At the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the term has grown to include the diversity of visual art cultivated across the province, yielding a bountiful harvest in the major exhibition Terroir.
From videos to sculptures, paintings to installations, the dazzling three-level show offers 58 works from 29 artists with deep Nova Scotia roots. Three years in the making, Terroir represents a striking departure for the gallery: The pieces were selected through an open call for submissions, with nearly 100 responses winnowed down according to the project's focus on artwork shaped by land and sea.
Some are informed by the province's sheer beauty, such as Janice Leonard's warmly lit landscapes from Paradise, Annapolis County, or Frances Dorsey's Golden Moon, Portuguese Cove, radiantly beautiful weavings fashioned of burlap, silk and dye from goldenrod gathered in Purcells Cove or the Cape Breton community of Middle River.
Other artists address the distancing or disturbing effect of personal place, such as Carly Butler, whose video performance Anywhere Else shows the fruitless efforts of a bent-over figure continually dragging a life-raft across an empty expanse of land; or Kent Senecal, whose vivid, darkly passionate figurative work addresses deep issues around being a perennial outsider in the close-knit communities of Cape Breton.
Still others tackle issues of historical impact, both personal and cultural: Melanie Colosimo's drawing of remembered houses perched almost out of reach atop plinths and planks and steep steps (Stay as you were when you had left); Charley Young's Carbon Copy, an image transfer from a full-scale rubbing of Halifax's Charles Morris Building; and Ursula Johnson's video/artifact Elmiet (He/She Goes Home), which uses an intricate basket-styled headpiece to confront the extant 1756 proclamation seeking the scalps of the Mi'kmaq.
The sea represents another major theme in Terroir, with Denise Dumas taking an unusual approach to Nova Scotia's ubiquitous element in Portholes/Portals, a diptych using silver transfer on resin and conte crayon to summon the artist's childhood experience crossing the Atlantic from Halifax to Liverpool; a remembered storm also conjures images of life's turbulence.
By contrast, Jaye Ouellette delves into the pure power of ocean waves in the stunningly lovely acrylic painting Euryal, while Susan Tooke's canvas Fundy Tidal swirls with sea life mingled with debris, suggesting the uneasy relationship between human beings and the environment.
And sea meets land in John Macnab's extraordinary wood sculpture, fashioned of scrap pine and spruce to form a series of fluid yet geometric patterns, like waves stilled by a moment of perception.
The show also includes playful, humorous pieces such as Art Car, a John Mathews digital c-print on acrylic depicting the beloved 1968 Cadillac owned by Sydney retiree Albert Broussard, who covered every inch of the enormous vehicle with coloured drawings and texts. (David Diviney, the gallery's curator of modern and contemporary art, hints that the classic car might go on display at the gallery sometime this summer.)
And still in the automotive vein, if there are awards for titles in art shows, the top prize has to go to David Stephens for Saint El Camino: Our Lady of Internal Combustion. This wonderful work incorporates used spark plugs, car marker lights, shells, a Hot Wheels version of an El Camino, and much more to talk about the place of found objects in artmaking.
The sheer size and scope of this magnificent array of Nova Scotia's artistic vision could be overwhelming, but the exhibition, navigated by Diviney, AGNS chief curator Sarah Fillmore and independent curator Bruce Johnson, has been exactingly laid out to allow for a smooth flow from work to work, and plenty of breathing room between pieces. The gallery's always excellent lighting and labelling provide environmental and informative context for the viewer.
Diviney explains that the project began with "the kernel of an idea" about remounting the gallery's permanent historical collection with a Nova Scotia focus. "We wanted to take a chance on a different process" from the usual procedure of drawing on known quantities, he says of the decision to issue an open call.
The work chosen in the selection process, "an arduous task," he says, is by both established and emerging artists who share powerful connections to the province, whether a specific location, a link to the past or a concern about the environment, natural or constructed.
And this show, at the AGNS until Jan. 15, could be just the beginning.
"We hope to nurture and develop relationships with these new artists and others who submitted," Diviney says. "This exhibition may be our largest in the past decade, but it's not an exhaustive overview, just a point in time. I can certainly see revisiting it in future."