National Gallery: A most Proper Fit

Nancy Johnson's Appropriateness and The Proper Fit includes 18 drawings. It's now on view at the National Gallery of Canada until the end of December. Courtesy NGC.

How Nancy Johnson’s Appropriateness and The Proper Fit came to be hanging at the National Gallery of Canada again is as relaxed a story as the narrative at the core of the work.

Associate curator Adam Welch was aware of Johnson’s work, though he had never seen it “in the flesh.” Then, there was “kind of a happy accident.”

A gallery registrar (“a kind of custodian for the collection”) was as usual looking for pieces that could be unframed and stored otherwise, to free up space in the gallery vaults. When the registrar consulted Welch he stood before Johnson’s art for the first time.

“This was fabulous work and I really responded strongly to it,” he says, in a phone interview, with Johnson on the other line.

A closer look at some of the drawings in Nancy Johnson’s Appropriateness and the Proper Fit. Courtesy National Gallery of Canada

Appropriateness and The Proper Fit includes 18 drawings in gouache on wove paper. Each of the 18 includes a section of the text narrative that makes them a single work.

“Zest is not for everyone sometimes it is appropriate for the body to rest” — it begins, without punctuation. There’s almost no punctuation throughout the work, but for a few question marks. The words, suddenly not herded nor corralled by periods or commas, seem to enjoy their freedom and roll along at their own easy pace. Think of flowing down a meandering river of thought.

The words were written simply, for a direct feel, Johnson says over the phone from her home in Sandy Hill, which is just “a stone’s throw away from the National Gallery.” More than anything else, she wanted the narrative voice to be “seen both as female, and as the universal voice . . . I wanted there to be an assumption that this voice was for everybody.”

She completed Appropriateness and The Proper Fit in 1985, and in 1987 it became the first acquisition of her work by the National Gallery. It was last exhibited in the late 1990s, and is now back up for a year or so.

Johnson hadn’t seen the work since the late ’90s.

“One of the first feelings I had when I did see it again was how familiar it felt, and how much I remembered the woman who was making the work, and the time of my life,” she says.

“It’s a series of stories, and I think you could look at it in different ways. I think you could look at it seeing it about relationships, I think you could look at it seeing it about making things, or the act of creativity. I think you could look at it seeing it about confronting situations, particularly that women confront in their thirties.”

She didn’t want it to be didactic, she wanted there to be “a lightness to it,” in the way it is expressed, in its colours and the relaxed lines of her drawings. “That, I think, is more about sensation, about the sensation of being, the sort of miracle of life, if you will.”

The 18 drawings are arranged in two horizontal rows, one atop the other and the top one set one frame behind, which creates a sense of them moving forward through space, or time.

The themes still resonate with those who see it today, Johnson believes, and she’s right about that.

“Opportunity for the fit the fittest  but what about the wishing and willing of an ordinary intention   whats to keep it from feeling temporary? a small man gets just as exhausted as a big man,” reads one text block, speaking to issues of social and economic inequality that, sadly, seem even more urgent today than they were in 1985.

Another drawing’s text begins with “big things are not like small things”, and returns to the consideration of the words “big” and “small,” and to the ideas of what those words mean, that runs through the narrative.

The drawings, in those rich gouache colours, are full of figures and objects that seem to float, to pulse with a life that, with the translucent text, makes for a dreamlike effect. It is autobiographical?

“In a certain way it’s all fiction and in a certain way it’s all autobiographical, because it comes through my lens, through the author’s lens,” Johnson says.

Or, as it says beneath one drawing, “I hope you don’t believe these tears are real?  said the King  I hope you don’t suppose it matters where the dreams begin? said I”

In town: Appropriateness and The Proper Fit will be on view at the National Gallery of Canada until the end of December.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.