Many artists in their mid-Sixties are past their best work. Their art no longer engages them, and what made them original has grown stale, expressed only in minor works. Then there is Tahltan/Tlingit artist Dempsey Bob, whose face grows boyish with enthusiasm when he discusses his work, and who can be heard fretting about how to find time to realize all his plans. At sixty-six, Bob is as passionate as ever, and, as the work in “North,” his current show at the Equinox Gallery demonstrates in every piece, still at the height of his powers.
Part of the reason that Bob not only survives as an artist but flourishes after nearly five decades is his belief in constant development. Bob’s roots may be in First Nations traditions, but, firm in the conviction that these roots are one of the great artistic traditions of the world, he has not hesitated to explore in other directions as well. In particular, in the last decade, he has been involved in cultural exchanges with Maori artists, visiting New Zealand over half a dozen times to study a culture with striking similarities to his own. Somehow, his latest show seems to incorporate all such influences, at times suggesting everything from a Mayan glyph to European traditions while remaining an extension of his roots.
Another sign of Bob’s diversity is that perhaps a quarter of the show is cast bronze. These bronzes are the product of a period that Bob went through 5-10 years ago in which he concentrated almost entirely on works in metal, doing little in wood except for large scale commissions in which he was apparently more supervisor than artist. Varying from a modern coffee table to traditional masks, Bob’s works in metal would seem major accomplishments in any other context. However, hung next to his works in wood, they seem lesser works. The lines that seem so effortless in cedar appear rigid and slightly forced in metal. Just as importantly, the relative uniformity of the metal seems strangely bare compared to the grain of the wood.
Bob’s wood pieces are impressive for several reasons. To start with, Bob leaves himself no place to hide, rarely using paint beyond a pair of black pupils here or red lips there. One or two pieces are even left unpainted altogether. The rare time that he uses larger regions of colors, as in the “Raven and the Box of Daylight” bentwood box, the result is all the more striking for its rarity. Mostly, Bob has only the wood to work with, and he rises to the challenge consistently with finishing details that rarely reveal the touch of a chisel or a vice.
Another noticeable feature of Bob’s work is that his carving is deep and intricate – deeper and more intricate than just about any First Nations carver of the last seventy years. These characteristics are a sign of mastery, because, as often as not, they mean working against the grain, risking cracking or breakages in order to achieve the desired shape. Yet the taking of such pains is worth it, because the depths add another dimension to the carving, casting shadows that become as much a part of the sculpture as the wood itself, even though they are always changing with positioning or the time of the day. They share these features with his metal sculptures, of course, but their softer edges complement the wood in a way that the sharper edges of bronze never manage.
Bob’s subject matter is often traditional. But although he sometimes produces a relatively ordinary work as “Eagle Leader,” more often he takes a traditional shape to produce his own twist. His spirit catcher is several times larger than any that a shaman could ever have used on a sick bed. So, too, is his helmet, which is perhaps the standout of the show.
Similarly, his transformation mask might be called post-modern. Like a traditional transformation mask, it is a mask within a mask. However, unlike a traditional mask, it is not fully rounded, but has one side that is flat so that it can be easily hung on the wall. Its shape amounts to a comment on the difference between a mask that is considered a work of art and one that a dancer would wear in the traditional winter ceremonies. After all, when the function has changed, why not change the shape? Bob’s answer is, perhaps, quietly humorous in its practicality, but also strikingly original.
A photographer enthused to me at the opening of “North” that the way that Bob has made international influences his own while retaining ties to his origins would be instantly recognized by his ancestors of two centuries ago. He would have to explain that poles were rarer today than then, but once they understood that the stories were now depicted instead on sculptures hung on the walls, they would approve his work without reservation.
I understood immediately what he meant. Although the renaissance of First Nations art in the Pacific Northwest has come long distances in the last seventy years, only a handful of artists reach the complexity and absorption of other influences found in the nineteenth century. However, “North” proves, once and for all, that Bob is unquestionably one of those handful. In fact, in his mastery and extension of tradition, Bob just might be the greatest carver that the renaissance has produced.
Seeing two dozen of Bob’s works together is exhausting and inspiring at the same time. I am unlikely to ever afford his work, but knowing it exists is a comfort all the same – an overwhelming a reminder of what great art can be that leaves me wondering why we ever settle for anything less.