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Archive for February 12th, 2009

John Wilson, who describes his work as “contemporary Haisla,” has only been selling his work for a few years. And, so far, he has confined himself largely to portrait masks, although he has also done drums and some graphics worth releasing as limited edition prints. I consider his “Blue Hand Mask” (which should actually be read as “Blue, Hand Mask”) an accomplished example of the portrait genre, and am pleased to add it to our collection.

If you have read Bill Holm’s An Analysis of Form, you will immediately identify the “Blue Face Mask” as being in the northern style: although the nostrils and lips are painted solidly, the hand and the spirit-helper on the left temple cut across the facial features. In fact, you cannot tell where the spirit-helper ends and the eyebrow begins – that is, what is natural and what is painted, or what is mundane and what is supernatural. Also typical of the northern style is the predominance of black, followed by red.

What is less typical is the band of blue. Cutting across the eye socket and eyelid, the band is an unusual shade. It has the effect of drawing your glance to the blackness of the pupils, giving a sense of fierceness or determination.

The painted hand is a visual pun. It has an umbilical-like connection to the spirit-helper that runs below the chin and up the left cheek. In other words, the spirit-helper is literally lending a hand. And, just to reinforce the pun, the obvious thumb shows that it is a left hand, originating on the same side as the spirit-helper.

One of the things that makes this mask stand out is the sheer skill of carving. Unlike many carvers early in their career, Wilson thinks in planes. That means he is working with the wood, rather than against it. At the same time, the mask is closer to realism than a strictly traditional piece in such features as the chin, the eye sockets, and eyes – which is what makes the mask contemporary.

Another outstanding feature of the mask is the way that Wilson has carved and sanded down to the grain that is suitable in different parts of the face. On the forehead, the ridges of grain meet almost in the center, while on the left cheek, the concentric circles of the grain emphasize the plane of the cheek bone. Even more interestingly, beneath the eyes are what might almost be reflections of them in the grain. Some bits of this attention to the grain are lost beneath the paint, but, because the paint is minimized, much of it remains visible.

Portrait masks are an easy genre to under-estimate. They lack the exoticness of a mythological theme or a stylized animal that many people seem to want in Northwest Coast art. But, if you look closely at the best examples of them, like the “Blue Hand Mask,” then you can start to appreciate them as a genre in which artists are thrown back entirely on their own skill. You can also understand why I think that John Wilson is an artist who is likely to make a name for himself.
low-res-blue-hand-mask

(Note: Somebody should explain to galleries that, when shipping masks with hair, they need to make some effort to keep the hair from getting tangled. As you can see, I am still trying to straighten out the hair)

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