Mitch Adams is an artist I’ve been watching for some time. From the pictures he’s posted on Facebook in the last year, I suspected that it was only a matter of time before I saw one of his works that I wanted to buy. And, sure enough, when I walked into the 2010 Freda Diesing School Student Art Exhibition, his “Blue Moon Mask” immediately caught my eye. I consider it one of the finer examples of contemporary Northwest Coast art that I’ve seen in the last year – an opinion with which some traditionalists strongly disagree.
I am not the only one to think so highly of the mask. I know of at least half a dozen people who would have been happy to buy it, and who wished that it had not been marked as not for sale. Two of those people were frankly envious when I told them that, after I expressed my admiration, Adams decided not to send it to the upcoming Spirit Wrestler show after all, but to sell it to me. One even asked me if I would resell it.
Similarly, when I posted a picture of it in my review of the exhibition, one viewer called it “the most stunning mask I have ever seen.”
To me, such reactions seem perfectly logical for anyone who has troubled to look at the mask. Although “Blue Moon Mask” is covered entirely with paint, the paint is not so thick that you cannot see the smoothness of the carving.If anything, the palest blue on the mask tends to emphasis the plans of the carving, making them into shadows rather than lines.
The careful selection of the shades of blues is equally obvious, from the pale, almost white skin color to the darker blue on the outer rim, and makes the mask seem ever-changing, especially with the tear tracks falling from the eyes. Depending on the light and the angle, the mask can look serene, corpse-like, or even like the heavy makeup of a Goth on Friday night. It is a work that is both accessible and ambiguous at the same time.
Some aspects of the work are traditional. Looking through galleries or museums, you should have no trouble finding other moon masks of the same general shape. Many details are traditional, too, including the eyebrows and nostrils, and the array of U-shapes and ovoids surrounding the face.
Yet the work departs from the northern tradition in at least two key ways. For one thing, in the northern tradition, blue is a third color, used in small amounts if it is present at all. Black and red are the typical colors, with a third being added by the natural color of the wood. A departure from this norm is, by itself, enough to define a work as contemporary.
For another thing, the use of paint on the entire mask is unusual in Adam’s Haida and Tsimshian tradition (although not entirely unheard of, either). The northern tradition tends to be sparing in its use of paint, with designs painted across the mask that ignore the features beneath them. Adams’ decision to paint the entire mask would be more common in the Kwakwaka’wakw tradition, although, even there, his use of different shades of the same color instead of contrasting ones would be more characteristic of modern artists such as Beau Dick or perhaps Simon Dick.
To make these departures is a risk – but I believe it is a necessary one, of the kind needed to keep Northwest Coast art developing and relevant. Nor is it a unique one. Historically, the art form has long been a combination of local conventions meeting industrial societies’ technologies and sensibilities. So-called tradition has long changed and benefited from artists’ discoveries of metal tools, industrially produced paints, and, much later, of power tools. Similarly, the first European influence on subject matter is over a century and a half old, in top-hatted figures on poles and sailing ships on argillite plates. From this perspective, what Adams does in “Blue Moon Mask” is not radical, and should be easy to appreciate.
Yet, sadly, a minority noticed “Blue Moon Mask”’s departure from strict tradition and could not get past it. I am told that one teacher reacted strongly to it, and that another one joked about it. Even worse, some students, seeing the teachers’ reactions, immediately imitated them rather than using their own eyes.
These reactions strike me as both unfortunate and short-sighted. The basis of Northwest Coast art will always be the traditional work. If nothing else, the contemporary needs the traditional to react against.
Yet I do not see why admiration for the traditional must include a rejection of everything contemporary. True, you may prefer one over the other, or prefer one in your own work. But what you like and what is done well are by no means synonymous. Nor does preferring one require that you condemn the other.
Personally, I refuse to take sides. “Blue Moon Mask” is a technically skilled piece, and amidst our collection of traditional works by artists like Norman Tait or Richard Hunt and of contemporary pieces by artists like Alano Edzerza or Ron Telek, it claims a place on our wall on its own merits. It’s a piece that I consider myself lucky to live with, and I’m proud to have our keeping.