John Macnab’s The Centre Holds was an exhibition of select works from 2003 to 2023 at Studio 21, a small gallery in Halifax’s downtown. The works have a strong presence in the front section of the gallery and invite viewers to contemplate scale, form and detail from up-close and afar. Upon first encounter, we can consider the dialogue between the shapes of the sculptures and the negative spaces around them. The shadows cast by Macnab’s sculptures also create thought-provoking interplays of form and surface that support the undulating and spiraling movements of the works. From a distance, the eye can follow the unfolding of the twisting of the free-standing works, as well as Swimmer, which is a large spiralling wood sculpture hanging from the ceiling evoking memory of encounters with artifacts found at natural history museums, such as dinosaur fossils and whale skeletons. Swimmer has a naturalistic shape and communicates the intelligence found in the geometry of a shell, but at a much larger scale.
The spiralling pattern also appears in Macnab’s more angular piece titled Iron Column, which is made of segments of pipe. This sculpture extends upwards but does not tapper off like the wood spiral sculptures, which have more of a sense of rest and conclusion. Contemplating Iron Column and its contrast against the wood forms made me think about the mechanistic world and how we do not yet know how the story of industrialization ends.
Moving closer to the wood sculptures in The Centre Holds, it is possible to develop a more intimate understanding of the chosen materials and techniques employed by Macnab. The lines carved by the 20-foot vertical lathe, which Macnab invented to create wood sculptures of this scale, are left visible and unapologetically unpolished giving insight to the mechanics of the lathing technique.
Softwoods, such as pine and spruce, as well as orchard hardwood are the main materials in Macnab’s wood compositions for this exhibition. The force and power of the lathe against the wood is discernible; however, the wood is also permitted to share its own story. Macnab’s wood pieces encourage us to read colours, grains, knots and textures. These are the lived expressions of the trees and are far from secondary to the images created by Macnab. They are integral to the composition of each work and the shapes created by Macnab are deeply connected to the narratives in the wood.
Macnab’s wall-mounted sculptures in The Centre Holds are an excellent example of how material influences Macnab’s compositions. Initially the sculptures Field 49-2 and Field 49-3 seem very similar. Both are made up of carved wood squares mounted to the wall making up a larger image also in the shape of a square. In each sculpture the undulating forms connect each smaller square to the whole. However, each work communicates distinctly, and it is the wood itself that moves the shape and story of each. The carving of Field 49-2 perfectly navigates the knots of the wood evoking a sense of topography and imagery of sinkholes on a karst landscapes, while the undulating carving of Field 49-3 complements the subtler grain of orchard wood creating a sense of waves and movement. This water imagery is especially impressive given the very terrestrial nature of the medium.
The interaction between technology and nature is beautifully represented in Macnab’s The Centre Holds making it quite easy to understand why Macnab was a featured speaker in the Bridges Conference, which took place in Halifax from July 27 to 31 at the Sexton Campus of Dalhousie University. The conference was organized by the Bridges Organization which brings together an international community of mathematicians, artists, musicians and architects to explore and foster connections in their research and practice. Macnab’s sculptures combine human precision and expression, while at the same time honouring nature – the foundation of all mathematics.