Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Maura Doyle and the Glacial Erratic

Maura Doyle Sculpture

Maura Doyle, Collapse (detail)

Funny the things you miss. When I lived for three years on Prince Edward Island (PEI) on Canada’s eastern coast, it was rock. Not the music – the geology.  See, PEI has none of it. No rock. The island province nestled along New Brunswick’s northern shore is basically just a whole heck of a lot of red mud, with a little bit of gravel thrown in for good measure. It’s this red mud, this fertile soil, which has made the province famous for its potatoes and, indeed, the literary figure of Anne of Green Gables. But while I lived there it made me avidly hungry for things like rock outcrops and lumpy, bumpy, stony soil, both of which I immersed myself in during visits back to Ontario and the hard geography and geology of the Canadian Shield.

Actual rock turned out to be a somewhat surprising status symbol on the island. For some, anyway. A neighbour of mine went to great trouble (and no little expense) importing a large boulder to use as a kind of decorative ornament on their front lawn, trucking it from New Brunswick on the mainland via what was then the ferry link to PEI. What money can do.

Maura Doyle Sculpture

Maura Doyle, Erratic Boulder (photo courtesy the artist)

I mention all of this by way of talking about a site-specific work installed for six months in the heart of downtown Toronto several years ago by artist Maura Doyle. An artist who is as comfortable exhibiting in commercial galleries as she is artist-run centers, she studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax on the Canadian east coast, and the Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver on the west. More towards the middle of the continent, in 2004 she was invited by the Toronto Sculpture Garden to create a work for their pocket-sized site in the city’s downtown. There’s a New Boulder in Town was the result, a ten-ton moss-covered boulder transported from a spot in eastern Ontario and plunked down on Garden’s small plot of grass with a nice brass plaque attached to it.

It’s known as a glacial erratic, a massive chunk of rock demonstrative of the enormous power of the glaciers that effortlessly carried them along from their original locations to wherever the ice floe stopped and dumped it as it receded away during another of the planet’s climate shifts. We’re talking processes that happened eons ago. (In the interest of full disclosure, I now live near one these chunks of rocks: the Bleasdell Boulder, considered the largest glacial erratic boulder in Ontario.)

Maura Doyle Sculpture

Maura Doyle, Erratic Boulder (photo courtesy the artist)

In the course of such time scales, Doyle’s movement of this enormous boulder from where she found it long ago abandoned by glacial recession (near a town called Bobcaygeon northeast of Toronto) south to this site in downtown Toronto barely registers. But it does register, it does significantly matter, in other ways an at other levels of consideration. For starters, the work has an interesting aesthetic lineage. Like Robert Smithson’s Broken Circle and Spiral Hill (1971) a permanent, site-specific work he did in the Netherlands that incorporates (much to Smithson’s annoyance, who was unable to remove what he called “a geological gangrene”) a large glacial erratic stone. Or, more recently, Michael Heizer’s  Levitated Mass (2012), a truly enormous rock (340 tons worth) he transported from a California quarry to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in order to to dramatically suspend it over a trench with a pedestrian walkway. Not an erratic, but damn big in any event.

Maura Doyle Sculpture

Maura Doyle, Reclined Jug (photo courtesy the artist)

And Doyle’s piece matters as well because it so eloquently mirrors and addresses the displacements that humans have long wrought upon place, disturbing, evacuating, changing, utterly transforming their surroundings to suit myriad evolving needs and desires. Into this place, this site, Doyle brought in this enormous, aesthetically delightful and meaningful equivalent to a black hole, an object that absolutely distorted the highly artefactual and plastic surroundings of a small part of urbanity. Gravity, in a way, became different around it, for a time relationships between things were aestheticaly stressed by an interloper from another time and place. Doyle’s exhibition also included a map she painstakingly compiled detailing the presence and location of other “erratic” boulders (some no larger than a waste paper basket) she found around downtown Toronto.

The point of it all, of course, was the potential web of connectivity, not only between geological objects (most of which were as artificially transported here as Doyle’s) but that real and meaningful link back to a kind of pre-history, to place before it was “place,” and how that artefactual definition was constructed. The tissue of circumstance is thin, but it is indeed very real.

Maura Doyle Sculpture

Maura Doyle, Bone Dump (photo courtesy the artist)

I’ve not written, here, of Doyle’s other, more recent bodies of work, especially her exploration of ceramics with her Bone Dump pieces, unfired sculptural porcelain 1:1 scale bones that evoke (amongst other things) the realities of what the aesthetic of “bone china” really means and entails; or her more recent low-fire sculptural stoneware pots (some more akin to industrial artefacts) that simultaneously transcend or defy utility while wholeheartedly, even playfully, embracing its range of referents.

It’s exceptional work, all of it, and variations on the concept of displacement are clearly central to so much of it. Years ago, Newfoundland-based artist Marlene Creates did an eloquent work photographically tracing her transfer of a small rock from the bottom to the top of an English hill. Of course that’s a vast oversimplification of a beautifully complex piece (in which the consideration of pre-history is significant), as are these, my words trying to encompass Maura Doyle’s post-glacial transfer of a chunk of planetary geology from the rural to the urban.

By Gil McElroy

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