Northwest Coast art is semi-abstract to begin with, and continues to have a strong tradition. For these reasons, abstract or post-modern work in the field is rare. Perhaps the best-known movements in those directions come from Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ Haida Manga or Andrew Dexel (Enpaauk)’s graffiti-inspired canvases. However, long before either of these efforts, Doug Cranmer was making his own movements towards abstraction or post-modernism. In the mid-1970s, he did a series of abstract paintings, several of which were turned into limited edition prints in 2005, and some of which have been released to a handful of galleries in the last month. Recently, we were privileged to take home a print of “Ravens in Nest,” which is compositionally the most interesting of the recently released prints.
At first, the idea of abstracts coming from someone like Doug Cranmer seems unlikely. After all , Cranmer comes from the first generation of artists in the Northwest Coast Renaissance, have learned carving from Mungo Martin. Later, he worked with Bill Reid on poles and houses that were commissioned by the University of British Columbia.
And in the mid-Seventies, who else was doing abstracts? Back then, even Bill Reid had just completed his mastery of traditional form and had yet to edge towards the free-form works of his last period. It would be almost two decades, too, before Robert Davidson would become one of the best known artists to move towards abstraction and post-modernism.
However, in an interview excerpted on the Museum of Anthropology web page, Cranmer explains that he was reacting against the orthodoxy created by Bill Holm’s book Analysis of Form, the first to codify the basic elements in Northwest Coast art.
“After the book came out, all of a sudden there was a right and a wrong way of doing things. We never had that before,” Cranmer said. “The book has served its purpose in explaining Indian designs and elements, but a lot of people followed the book to the letter: as a result, their work has come out all looking the same.”
Apparently in reaction to this tendency, in 1974-5, Cranmer began a series of 48 paintings. “I was doing them differently for the sake of being different.” he said. “I was doing things in Northwest Coast-type design elements that didn’t look like a bird, a fish, an animal, a man or a woman. It worked for a while, but then I noticed that they [the paintings] were starting to look like something again.”
If you look at “Ravens in Nest,” you can see this anarchistic outburst very clearly. The classic formline of Northwest Coat art barely puts in an appearance in the print. Instead, that flexible container of design elements which is generally black, is replaced by a thick red border. Perfect circles replace ovoids. U-shapes, unusually colored blue, float freely across the top, changing direction on each line, and change shapes along the bottom. Blue and red are the main colors, not black. The expected curve of the young ravens’ beaks – an identifying element of a raven in the traditional art — is reduced to the slightest tip possible Instead of the classic symmetry, everything is decidedly unbalanced.
You might almost say that “Ravens in Nest” is a Northwest Coast print because of all the things that it does not do. Like early post-modern works, the print works to the degree that you know the tradition that it is reacting against.
Furthermore, the more you do know, the more what Cranmer has done makes you think about traditional Northwest Coast forms. In fact, while Cranmer may have been reacting against orthodoxy, what he has produced is just as dependent on tradition as any piece that carefully follows the norms outlined by Holm. The only difference is that “Ravens in Nest” is dependent on tradition as its polar opposite, rather than as a key to its technique.
At the same time, while you can easily intellectualize about the piece, its subject remains clear: four hungry and clamoring young ravens. I don’t know if Cranmer intended the effect, but the floating U-shapes seem a graphical representation of the sound they are making, chaotic and clashing.
Such paintings were only a momentary experiment with Cranmer, but they had few if any imitators. The result is that the prints still offer a unique and challenging perspective thirty years after the original paintings. I am not fond of the average abstract, but in Cranmer’s I see a bold and innovative exception that I am proud to hang on our wall.