Mostly, I know the work of Salish artists John and Luke Marston from pictures. These days, they seem to be working largely on commissions, and such smaller work as they do is displayed mostly in galleries in Victoria. The few I’ve seen have been mostly at the Inuit Gallery, which has now taken the next step of hosting a show with some two dozen pieces entitled “Honouring the Ancient Ones.” I attended the opening of the show last Saturday, and I was appreciative of the skill I saw there, but a little taken aback by the prices.
The two Marstons are often spoken of in the same breath. Even if they weren’t brothers, that would be inevitable, because both begin in with the Salish tradition, often base works on historical artifacts, and show considerable promise as carvers. However, if you see “Honouring the Ancient Ones,” you are unlikely ever to mistake them again.
Assuming the show is any indication, John Marston favors boxes and rattles.
When he does a mask, it is generally on a stand.
Throughout his work, he shows a strong sense of line – something that loosely resembles the formlines of the northern first nations on the coast, but which follows few of its rules with any consistency.
The result is a body of work that is hauntingly familiar, yet fresh at the same time.
By contrast, Luke Marston seems interested in carving household goods, such as bowls and ladles.
He is also the maker of the only two bracelets in the show, although his metalwork skills seem less advanced that his woodcarving ones.
He also seems more interested in masks than his brother, including a transformation mask and a contemporary piece called “First Woman,” whose depiction of a woman’s face in the flames was for me the highlight of the show.
None of his work shows the same focus on line that his brother’s does, but – at least in this exhibit – he seems more interested in the historical roots of his art, citing several times in the catalog that various works are his rendering of a museum piece.
Both artists are worthy of admiration, but I know that the prices they are charging are causing some concern among Northwest Coast artists and galleries. There is an unspoken understanding that artists’ prices reflect their experience, and many people feel that neither Marston has paid enough dues to justify their prices. When I say that Luke Marston’s “First Woman” mask is in the same price range as master and elder carver Norman Tait, you will understand what I am talking about. I even know one gallery that decided against trying to host a show of the Marston’s work because its curators decided it could not afford the initial outlay of buying such expensive pieces.
On the one hand, this criticism has some justification. John and Luke Marston are outstanding carvers, but they are still relatively young and, for all their promise, they are still perfecting their skills. Not that anything is wrong with their finishing skills, you understand, but when you compare them to those of someone like Ron Telek or Stan Bevan, you can see that Marstons still have things to learn. For example, neither shows a strong sense of the grain, and their matching of abalone inlays while adequate, is not always as close as it should be.
On the other hand, the Marstons can obviously receive the prices they are asking. Despite the recession, sales were brisk at the opening. As I write, three days into the show, two-thirds of the works on display have sold, including some of the most expensive.
Judging from the crowd, I suspect that one reason they can charge as they do is that they are breakout artists – ones whose appeal extends beyond the usual Northwest Coast collectors and enthusiasts and appeal to the local mainstream art crowd. You might wonder if their work will increase in value as quickly as other artists’ given its initially high prices, but what are they supposed to do – deliberately undercharge what the market will bear? That seems too much to ask of anyone.
In the end, I decided the question of their pricing was secondary (especially since most of their work was beyond my bank balance). The way the Marstons are developing, the issue is likely to become moot in another five to ten years as their skill is generally recognized.