The Song of the Recalcitrant Labourer

The sculpture of Guelph-based artist Andrew Buszchak can be viewed through an altered line of poetry by noted Alberta-born poet Robert Kroetsch. “The bed is ark to all the world’s destruction,” Kroetsch wrote, and were he a wordsmith, Buszchak could describe his own aesthetic as “the welder’s arc is bed to all his art’s construction.”

Buszchak was a welder in Edmonton for five years. He describes that work environment as “a culture of paranoid white heterosexual male chauvinism,” which he found physically and emotionally exhausting. When he left the workforce he was “stewing with bad memories.” As a result he has developed a set of working procedures that are a response to the debilitating aspects of that work experience. He now describes himself as “a recalcitrant labourer.”

Andrew Buszchak, Installation view, “Counterproductive Work Behaviour,” 2018, Art Gallery of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario.

Evidence of that contrary labour is on exhibition at the Art Gallery of Guelph. Called “Counterproductive Work Behaviour,” the exhibition (which runs from May 10 to September 5) includes objects made from carbon steel and dimensional lumber. The installation is impeccable in its economy and tone. Work Stack, 2017, is an accumulation of hundreds of spot welds made with a MIG welder. The piece is 73 inches tall and a quarter-inch thick. It took weeks to make and it rises into space like an arthritic tree branch. All the wood sculptures sit on custom-designed plinths that function as both support and content. The sculptures are deliberately raw and precarious; the plinths, smoothly substantial.

Work Stack, 2017, steel welds, 73 x 1/4 inches.

Buszchak compares his work methods to modernist sculptors like David Smith and Anthony Caro, and he is fond of quoting Smith’s description of the relationship between work experience and art production: “My aim in material function is the same as in locomotive building: to arrive at a functional form in the most efficient manner.” Buszchak’s aim is closer “to arriving at an aesthetic form in the most inefficient manner.” He calls his approach “a wayward program of small-scale construction,” and he admits to a cultivated predilection for doing things the hard way. He will combine materials and joining methods that are counterintuitive, like using finishing nails as a structural support. “I’m working against the prudent or conventional use of these materials,” he says. “My goal is to spend a long time working inefficiently and figuring out what I can get away with materially while still maintaining a minimum of structural stability.” His shift from steel to wood was another strategy to avoid the negative memories of his work in construction, but even though he moved to another material, he retained his commitment to temporal and material inefficiency. “I can take an hour or more trying to find a way to join two pieces of wood with one nail. That process is the most important thing to me even though the result is often a flimsy connection.”

Buszchak situates himself and his practice in a place of productive contradiction; he uses what he knows but he resents how he learned it. In a no-nonsense way he describes the working of his self-assigned role as a recalcitrant labourer: “my art is tempered by a mixture of hope, dejection, humour and gloom.” These are normally incompatible and self-cancelling attitudes, but when they rub up against one another in his sculpture, they produce an art that turns awkwardness into poise and elegance. His sculptures are resolute in the way they occupy space at the same time that they improbably and delicately find ways to make space. The effect is that his hard-earned recalcitrance settles into easeful grace. The work of Andrew Buszchak fabricates a special kind of arc. ❚