Recently, a gallery owner said to me, “Your collection of Northwest Coast Art has some really unusual pieces in it. After a moment’s thought, I replied, “Why would I want pieces I could find anywhere?” I’m not buying tourist junk, and most artists are at their most interesting when they are doing something outside of their normal range. Certainly, that is one reason why I bought Kwakwaka’wakw artist Steve Smith’s “Raven Mask.”
Smith’s work is regularly on sale at the Lattimer and Coastal Peoples Galleries in Vancouver. Most of his work has two characteristics: first, it is painted with intricate geometric shapes, primarily in black,green, and red, and, second, it has a wide varieties of forms – everything from boxes and vases to canvases, baseball caps, leather cuffs and Munnies. It’s a highly distinctive style, one identifiable from a distance, and I’ve enjoyed it for some years without being quite moved to buy, although I figured it was only a matter of time before I found the right piece.
I found the right piece while attending the opening of the Lattimer Gallery’s Annual Bentbox Charity Auction in November 2010. Having admired the boxes being auctioned, I was leaning on the main display case when I glimpsed “Raven Mask” out of the corner of my eye, and went over for a closer look. I looked several times again that evening, and a few times more on subsequent visits to the gallery, until I bought it a few weeks later.
Perhaps because I remember black and white television and photographs from my early childhood, I often find monochromatic work more dramatic than colored work, especially when in shadows. But even without this personal preference, Smith’s “Raven Mask” is striking among his more colorful other works. Even the black is more faded than on his other works, and the white is closer to a dirty silver color. And instead of Smith’s usual geometric shapes, the piece is simply painted with a few basic shapes. It could almost be a survivor from the 19th century, except that it is not a functional mask.
Not only that, but it seems a survivor that has come through fire, singed so that it looks like charcoal or ash, and the paint has started to blister. So far, I have not been able to ask Smith why he departed so far from his usual color palette, but to me the piece seems a reminder of the art that was burned as unacceptably pagan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the same time, its appearance of being lightly damaged suggests the artistic tradition of the coast today – damaged, yet still powerful. Extending the metaphor even further, you might say that the bundled cedar and the feathers are a literal grafting of new media and techniques on to the old.
However you view it, it remains an arresting piece, especially in darkness. As I type, it is a few meters away on a tea tray, pointed so that it catches my attention when I glance over my left shoulder. I have to be deep in the torments of writing before it fails to capture my attention and make my glance linger for a few moments.