Archive for October 27th, 2008

A carver who has just started selling his work asked me yesterday what I look for in a mask or sculpture. I hadn’t thought beyond the fact that, like any piece of art, a mask must give me a thrill of recognition on first or second glance, so I replied by pointing out what the masks of his that I like best had in common. But sometime in the night, my mind started turning over the question as I slept, and, by morning, I could send him a far more detailed list of what I look for.

A few weeks ago, a gallery owner said to me that a good mask must tell a story. I agree with him, but the way I would phrase things is to say that a good mask must let me see through the artists’ eye. That is, the subject matter must inspire the artist, whether on a personal or a cultural level. I might not know exactly what meaning a mask carries – particularly since some artists still conceal some of the meaning, on the grounds that the meaning is tied up with titles or rights that belong to a particular family. However, I know when that sort of meaning is there, because, if it’s not, a mask is just a piece of wood with a couple of holes in it, and probably designed to sell to tourists.

In addition, the subject matter must be either a new treatment of an old subject or a new subject altogether. For instance, in two-dimensional design, I could live quite happily without ever seeing yet another version of Dogfish Woman based on Charles Edenshaw’s design of over a century ago. But, while I thought I felt the same way about Raven stealing the sun or moon, Alano Edzerza’s “The Thief” (search on the page that the link leads to) proved to me there was still outstanding work to be done on the theme.

Completely new work is more difficult, but there are enough myths that are not depicted these days for dozens, even hundreds of work. For example, ever since Bill Reid did “Raven and the First Men,” that particular creation myth has become the dominant Haida one, despite the fact that at least one alternative exists.

In the execution of a design, my tastes are wide-ranging. I can enjoy equally a modern work that hints at the tradition rather being in it, like much of Ron Telek’s work, or a work done along traditional lines, like some of the work of Henry Green (who, in other moods, can have his own share of innovations).

However, I am still learning my way around the various traditions – so far as an outsider can – so I am on firmer ground when it comes to technique. The artists I most admire, I find, do not carve lines so much as surfaces, giving their work a subtly different orientation from two-dimensional artists. They do not use garish colors or coat the wood as if it was the bottom of a fence post intended to be buried in the ground, opting instead for either blended, subdued colors, like the best of Beau Dick’s masks, or else being content entirely or partially with the bare wood, taking advantage of the bare grain to enhance their carving..

Finally, for me, the best-carved masks are revealed in their finishing details. It is not just a matter of careful sandpapering, or making sure that no stray blobs of paint have fallen unnoticed, although that is part of it. I have seen surprisingly poor finishing on expensive masks in some galleries, with prices that were the same or higher as much more careful work.

However, for a mask to be really first-rate, its artist has to regard the finishing details as another opportunity for creativity. If there is abalone, the pieces should be matched. If a strip of copper is used, it needs to be exactly the right size.

At times, the finishing details alone can make a mask succeed. For instance, there’s an eagle head dress by Norman Tait and Lucinda Turner whose quality is raised even higher than most of their work because of two details: The horse-hair eye lashes that conceal the eyes, creating an impression of blindness, and the random bits of abalone in the carving representing the head feather that occasionally catch the light the way that the highlights of a bird’s feathers sometimes do.

I’m not sure this detailed list is much use to the carver who received it. I assume that he was looking for hints of what might appeal to potential buyers, and I doubt my tastes are typical. For a lot of people, including some collectors, art is a high-priced form of wallpaper, and what they want is something pretty and safe, or possibly simply exotic.

By contrast, what I want is something that catches my imagination and eye in equal measure – something that I can see every day for years and appreciate a line or an imaginative touch. Realizing that I hold this ideal, I suspect that, while my answer may not have useful to the questioner, it has been useful to me in intermittent efforts at self-knowledge.

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