(Note: Because the staff was unsure which exhibits the artists had given permission to photograph, I was unable to take pictures)
When I go to an art gallery, I come prepared to be pleased. Just as when I go to a movie or go to a book, I generally arrive with few expectations. I try to practice the concept that I should understand a work in its own terms, and not through the filter of expectations that I bring with me. Over the years, I have found that this approach has allowed me to appreciate things that I might otherwise have dismissed.
I mention my perspective because I have to report, very much against my wishes, that the new exhibit at the Bill Reid Gallery, “Continuum: Vision and Creativity on the Northwest Coast” is a disappointment. The fact that it comes after the gallery’s first successful show that highlighted Bill Reid’s career, and shares space with the dazzling permanent collection of Reid’s jewelry only makes the show’s failure all the greater.
For the most part, the problem is not with the artists. True, a few of the artists chose to submit the physical equivalent of one-liners. For instance, Shawn Hunt’s “Trickster,” which shows Raven perched atop a can of clam chowder is amusing at first glance, with its reference to Andy Warhol’s famous silkscreen (and also an indication of how Bill Reid’s “Raven and First Men” has altered the traditional story in modern minds, since the recorded historical versions mention a different type of shell). But, on second glance, what the incongruity means remains elusive. It seems only a poke at the commercialization of Northwest Coast art in a way that has already been done before. Personally, given the design ability displayed in Hunt’s Raven, with the grinning faces as part of the body and wing, I would far rather see what he does with less derivative work, especially since he is a relatively new artist.
A similarly limited work is Moy Sutherland’s “The Negotiator.” Sutherland, whose work I have often admired elsewhere, is not the first artist to add First Nations politics into his work. But where Charles Heit (Ya’Ya) rarely lost sight of his art and his comments had an angry wit to them. Sutherland’s use of Canadian flags, five dollar bills, and a dangling carrot is simply angry. It can be reduced to a single short sentence: He is angry with the people negotiating land claims on behalf of his nation. Any work that can be reduced to fourteen words, I submit, is not art at all, regardless of whether I sympathize with the sentiment, as I do with Sutherland’s.
However, the majority of the work exhibit present an interesting variety. In contrast to Sutherland’s work, Mike Dangeli’s “’Redemption’ Ridicule Mask” presents a much more complex reaction to the situation of the First Nations, using an old tradition to comment on contemporary politics.
Similarly, Ian Reid creates a new effect by placing Chilkat patterns and colors on a raven mask. He did so, he explained as an acknowledgement of Tlingit and Tsimshian women who introduced the Chilkat patterns into Heiltsuk society. At a time when many First Nations people are descended from multiple nations or are half European in ethnicity, he said, this acknowledgement seems particularly appropriate. The juxtapostion of two different traditional media more than justified Reid’s motivation, resulting in an arresting and original effect.
Dan Wallace also placed Chilkat patterns in a new medium by engraving them on his silver bracelet, “Remembering our Royalty.” Like Reid, Wallace emphasizes the importance of looking back at history while reflecting on the current situation, and, like Reid, produces a new artistic effect as he does so.
Other pieces worth seeing included a traditional Tsimshian mask and a stop-action video of its carving by Phil Gray, Sonny Assu’s graffiti-like canvas with its reds and pinks and grays, Dean Hunt’s traditional-looking mask “Pk’vs: Wild Man of the Woods,” and Aaron Nelson-Moody’s red cedar and copper panel “Copper Man.” Nor should I forget to mention the wealth textile works, such as Marianne Nicolson’s “Tunic for a Noblewoman,” done in memory of her grandmother; Krista Point’s untitled Salish blanket; Teri Rofkar’s “Tlingit Robe,” and Carrie Anne Vanderhoop’s “Dream of Dragonflies.” Individually, all these works were well-worth lingering over and returning for second and third and fourth looks.
The problem is, while most of the works in the exhibit stand on their own merits, they seem to add up to nothing as an exhibit. Part of the problem may be that the show seems to have changed directions, starting as an exhibit of young artists but transforming into an exhibit with the theme of the tensions between the contemporary and the traditional and adding older, more established artists. But, for whatever reason, the result is a seeming random collection of artists.
For all the obvious skill of individual artists, there seems no particular reason why these particular artists were chosen. Any of four or five dozen other artists could have been swapped in instead, and the impression left by the exhibit as a whole would not be significantly changed (As if in confirmation of this statement, after I left the exhibit, I saw Andrew Dexel, the graffiti artist, at one of the Aboriginal Days booths outside the Vancouver art gallery).
Another problem is that, with only one work allowed per artist at the most (one bracelet was the work of three), you have trouble appreciating anyone’s work. A quarter of the artists, and four or five works apiece would help visitors to gauge each artists’ range. Given the number of newer artists in the exhibit, that sort of context would have been welcome.
As things are, the result is that seeing “Continuum” is not much different from seeing the latest work at a commercial gallery. In fact, I have seen larger shows at commercial galleries, as well as chances to meet the artists that did not include a request for donations at the door.
Nothing is really wrong with such a show – I guess. But the Bill Reid Gallery is not a commercial gallery, and is obviously struggling to be something more. Its difficulty is that it is still struggling to define what that something else might be. In “Continuum,” I suspect it temporarily lost its way in academic critical jargon and posturing (if the catalog is any judge).
I can only hope that, with its next show, the Bill Reid Gallery returns to the success of its first show. If it does, then I will be happy to report the fact. Meanwhile, so far as “Continuum” is concerned, “disappointment” is the mildest word that I can honestly choose.