Jason de Haan’s first solo exhibition, in his hometown of Calgary in 2007, was titled “Where the Ocean Meets This Guy”—a phrase that conjured the enormity of the natural world and humans’ insignificance in front of it. It also demonstrated a wry humor that was shown more explicitly on the exhibition’s invitation, which featured a photograph of the artist calmly seated in a bathtub, reading a book called Survive the Savage Sea. But while such humor might suggest an apathetic slacker, de Haan’s work is in fact characterized by a deep earnestness, paired with a sensitivity to the transcendental potential of material objects.
For “Free and Easy Wanderer,” his third show at Clint Roenisch, de Haan returned to his nautical roots, presenting sculptures, photographs and works on paper that meditate on our conceptions of time and on the powers of the sea. The show opened with “The Whale” (2008-14)—a series of 23 images documenting the artist working his way through Herman Melville’s epic tale of vengeance between man and nature, but with the book upside down and the reading carried out backward, from the final word to the first. Seated on shorelines in locations including California, Romania, Nova Scotia, Iceland and Lebanon, de Haan squints into the open book in his hands, struggling to make sense of this doubly reversed text, his back turned toward the bodies of water he has chosen as his settings. Hung upside down, the photographs offer the viewer a right-side-up presentation of the novel’s covers, which protect one of the most well-known opening lines in modern fiction: a sentence de Haan would come to only at the end of his marathon reading session.
This undoing of linear time and circling back to potent origin stories continued in “Free and Easy Wanderer” (2014), a group of seven small humidifiers—placed on concrete plinths—that release steam through and around fossils. Tiny nautilus seashells from the distant past are perched atop two white, vase-shaped humidifiers, while a long-preserved turtle shell dominates a square black one. By using the fossils as filters through which the machines emit gas into the air, de Haan taps into the human desire to access the metaphysical powers of primordial matter. At the core of the installation is a question about where these natural and man-made objects belong in time; the work complicates the fossils’ status as artifacts of remote eras, while also making the modern appliances seem strangely old, like tools of archaic rituals.
Through simple juxtapositions of human and geologic timescales, de Haan explores the ways in which objects shift in meaning as they travel through, or become embedded in, time. For the project Future Age (2014-ongoing), the artist places golden rings around the branches of trees, some outside in nature and some (including those shown here) in pots. The branches will eventually overtake the man-made symbols of romantic commitment and subsume them into their natural growth rings. Though visitors to this exhibition were unable to see the works in their completed state, it is satisfying to imagine a moment in the future when other viewers will come across de Haan’s tiny, poetic interventions into the natural unfolding of time.